31 August 2015

Governing with the people

Claudia Photo for blog.jpg
Our guest blogger, Claudia Chwalisz, Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network and Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield discusses political participation for citizens.

Currently, democracy tends to mean that every five years, we wait in a queue to put a little tick on a piece of paper beside the name of the person or party we like the most. This is based on what we have seen on TV or read in the papers during the few weeks before this bizarre ceremony. Then for five years we have no say in any of the decisions taken by our elected politicians; they do as they wish, or as they believe is best (hopefully). About a third of us don’t even bother to take part in this five-yearly ritual, either from ignorance or from apathy.

It is no wonder that in my polling for The Populist Signal, 65 per cent of respondents believe that the present system of governing Britain could be improved quite a lot or a great deal. In Scotland, people are even more disdainful, with 75 per cent favouring change.

It also likely explains why only 31 per cent of people in the UK believe that their voice counts in the decisions taken by local politicians. (In Scotland, it is similar with 34 per cent). On the national level, people feel even more ignored – only 21 per cent believe their voice counts (22 per cent in Scotland).

Is this really the best way to govern ourselves, with a system designed in the 18th century? We live in a 21st century society which is more interconnected and less hierarchical than ever before. Our governing institutions should be reflective of this change.

Furthermore, it is what people want. The polling shows a clear desire for active, deliberative forms of political participation. 54 per cent of all respondents said they would participate in randomly selected citizens’ assemblies on local issues, regardless of whether the decisions were binding or not. Fifty per cent were willing to do so for a national-level assembly or for a citizen-driven constitutional convention.

Figure 1. Willingness to participate in a local citizens’ assembly (with non-binding results) by political party (* indicates smaller sample size)

Figure 2. Willingness to participate in a local citizens’ assembly (with binding results) by political party (* indicates smaller sample size)

Figure 3. Willingness to participate in a non-binding Constitutional Convention by political party (* indicates smaller sample size)
Fortunately, democracy seems to be evolving. More and more people recognise that the right to vote should be enriched with the right to expression. People demand and deserve a genuine voice in decision-making.

As the case studies in The Populist Signal highlight, there have been small steps in this direction around the world. From Canada to Australia, to Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, Iceland, and Norway amongst others, governments and independent organisations have been supporting deliberative and participatory initiatives that involve ordinary people in making decisions at the local, regional and national levels.
For example, in more than ten Dutch cities, G1000 citizens’ assemblies have been transforming local government into a collaborative effort between the elected and their communities. There is now consideration for expanding this initiative to the regional level.

In Belgium, the Flemish Minister of Culture Sven Gatz has established a Citizens’ Cabinet to advise on his upcoming legislation in October.

On the other side of the world, Australians have been organising randomly selected citizens’ juries, community panels and even a citizens’ parliament. The initiatives have given ordinary people a voice on issues ranging from town planning, energy generation, electoral reform, cyclist safety, infrastructure renewal and even planning a 10 year, $4 billion budget for the city of Melbourne.

Figure 4. Map of international case studies detailed in The Populist Signal

These examples all highlight that we can indeed govern ourselves better, giving deliberation by ordinary people a key role in the public decision-making process. The next challenge is to expand the breadth of these democratic innovations to other countries and regions still clinging to the old 18th century model of governance. Institutionalising these new forms of political participation and civic engagement as regular occurrences could be the key to restoring trust and legitimacy in government.

Download The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change here.

Claudia Chwalisz will be speaking about the report findings at an upcoming Public Session at the Academy of Government, University of Edinburgh on 18th September, 3-5pm. More details and sign up information here.

Views expressed by guest bloggers may not reflect the views of What Works Scotland

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