Democracy how?

Nick Mahony examines a burst of new initiatives on public participation and their relevance to the left

June 1, 2014
4 min read

Trust in established forms of politics is under strain, nationally, throughout Europe and globally. There is a palpable demand for more public-centred forms of participatory democracy. In response, a growing constellation of groups and organisations – activists, officials, educators, coders, community groups, artists and others – are devising new ways of involving people in participatory public action. How might the left play a more active role in these developments?And what role is the public being offered in these initiatives, by whom, how and why?

Some initiatives attempt to streamline public participation to produce clearer results, while others try to open it up, focusing on providing an enriching experience. The former, often technological, may support ‘deliberation’ or ‘consensus-building’. Examples include the online and offline engagement toolkit ‘Puzzled by Policy’; the community involvement process Planning for Real; and Loomio, a new mobile collective decision-making app being developed by activists who were involved in Occupy. At the other end of the spectrum – making the experience of participation a more intensely affective, imaginative or creative one – we have camps, festivals and participatory art events such as Parking Day, which encourages people worldwide to turn parking spaces into temporary public spaces.

Some initiatives provide tools to help individual members of the public represent themselves in relation to others (for example, the political forecasting ‘game’ Connected Citizens), while others support the development of representative public networks or collectivities on a local, national or transnational level (for example, the Citizens Pact for European Democracy).

Diverse assumptions are made by organisers about people’s needs, identities and associational ties. Some groups, such as Occupy London or UK Uncut, assume that most people are almost entirely disenfranchised from mainstream political institutions. Other initiatives assume that people now identify with less overtly political forms of public action. ‘Complaints choirs’, for example, which have been organised in various countries, bring together local citizens to compose and publicly perform songs about their complaints, both personal and collective.

Differences may arise from whether an initiative is sponsored by pre-existing groups, which may range from co-ops (for example, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing) to trade unions (such as Unite Community Membership) to government (such as data.gov.uk, which opens access to some UK government data to improve public decision making). Unaffiliated initiatives may aim to open up ‘new’ space or new forms of assembly. Wee Play, a recently launched card game, allows citizens to assemble, ad hoc, to learn about and debate issues related to the Scottish independence referendum. Barnet Participates (barnet.participates.org.uk) recently brought citizens together to explore openings for more publicly responsive forms of local politics.

Drawing distinctions between ‘empowering’ and potentially ‘manipulative’ approaches to public participation is not entirely straightforward. Close attention is needed not only to how different initiatives are set up, but how they work in practice. Although relations of power and authority can vary considerably, the unanticipated and often wildly unpredictable ways that people participate in these processes also need to be taken into account.

Through this shifting landscape, a plurality of meanings of ‘the public’, ‘politics’ and ‘participation’ is being forged. Many ways of interacting and mobilising are being tried out. At a time when the legitimacy of mainstream political institutions, parties and democratic processes is under severe strain, at stake is no less than the renovation of public spheres, both through and beyond the state.

One challenge for the left will be to broker forms of creative interaction and strategic cohesion between some of the diverse organisers, organisations, groups and individuals active in this field. Innovation must continue to be shaped from the bottom up, as well as by the organisers of these initiatives. But the left must nevertheless endeavour to ensure that rights and equalities are extended within and through experiments with participation, rather than undermined by them.

To address these and other challenges, the left must direct more resources and effort to mustering the imaginative energy and political insights of larger – even transnational – publics. Only by doing so might it be possible for the democratisation of the EU and the public promise of participatory politics to be realised.

Nick Mahony is a researcher at the Open University and founder of Participation Now, an online collection of more than 130 participation initiatives (see opendemocracy.net for details)