Cultivating public-citizen dialogue

Change the hopes associated with participatory democracy

For thirty years, participatory democracy experiments have proliferated in Quebec and elsewhere in the world. We find these innovations at all political levels and in several areas of public interventions: neighborhood councils, participatory budgeting, citizen jury, public hearings, parent committee at schools, committee of users of public services, etc. These devices are not all equal in terms of intensity of citizen participation, but they all aim to varying degrees, a transformation of the traditional public decision-making process. They thus carry a social change project that can take three forms: 1) the emergence of a public dialogue; 2) improving the exercise of citizenship and organization of civil society; 3) the democratization of Public Administration and expertise.

public discussion of the virtues

According to this first known approach of deliberation, participatory democracy would improve the soundness of public decisions. In the context of traditional representative institutions, political decisions come from a political game that gives more room for negotiation interests (most of the time difficult to read by citizens) rather than a broad debate on the common good. This more or less opaque functioning of political life would effectively disqualify public decisions to citizens.

The organization of a public space for dialogue requires everyone to clearly express its interests and to justify its position.

Proponents of this approach see in participatory democracy the possibility of improving the transparency of public decisions as the organization of a public space for dialogue requires everyone to clearly express its interests and to justify its position. In other words, instead of letting act the “corridor of lobbying”, the transparency process associated with participatory approaches would make known the players involved in a decision, and the interests and values ​​that lead them to adopt such political position over another. In the end, public authorities and citizens would be better informed and thus able to make decisions knowingly. Participatory democracy does not necessarily promote the consensus, but it would help to broaden the perspectives of everyone, to promote tolerance for differing opinions and to develop a positive attitude towards the common good.

The reasons that lead to associate with such virtues of dialogue spaces created by participatory devices based on a strong assumption of the approach of deliberation: public discussion and the exchange would evolve or transform the opinions of significantly. This means that: 1) the individual preferences are not fixed; 2) the opinion would be formed in contact with others, through the exchange and discussion.

Several experiments in participatory democracy have demonstrated the truth of this proposition. This is for example the main object of James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, in experimenting with deliberative polling that has developed in 1988. Taking a survey of participants before and after participatory exercises, Fishkin has repeatedly demonstrated that the opinion of the legislative changed through discussion. From the perspective of the general interest, such a result is very encouraging. This means that even in a situation where participants’ opinions are diametrically opposed, there are advantages to organize participatory spaces, because the fact of listening to the opinions of others will bring at least a better understanding of divergent views and, more ambitiously, to perhaps develop its own position.

Strengthening citizenship and collective action

Another set of possible transformations affecting the exercise of citizenship and the dynamism of civil society. Participatory democracy should contribute to the democratization of society, that is to say, to strengthen collective action and autonomous individual. By engaging in participatory forums, citizens learn the workings of political life and are better able to forge a free and independent opinion. Unlike the voting, which would be a passive form of participation, contribution within participatory mechanisms would be an active political engagement, which is essential in the experience of citizenship. In other words, participatory democracy would promote policy learning that would allow citizens to reinforce their understanding of the policy and their own political and social situation. This is generally called capacity building ( empowerment ).

This proposal is based on a very positive view of participation, which would be an end in itself; Indeed, political commitment would lead almost automatically a citizen of self transformation itself and, hence, increase its ability to position individual experience with the rest of society. This ability of participatory mechanisms to create political spaces of socialization would make them particularly effective tools for greater political inclusion and engagement of citizens less active or politically marginalized.

Participatory spaces also contribute to strengthening civil society by expanding the repertoires of action and providing more direct access to public authorities. This is especially true of the experience of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which promoted a significant mobilization of citizens of the popular classes, by organizing committees in disadvantaged areas of the city. Civil society demanded the democratization of municipal politics and became stronger and was able to push for more equitable distribution of budgetary resources of the municipality.

Review the report on the expertise

A third social transformation associated with participatory democracy key changes in the functioning of the state. This perspective is rooted in two approaches: 1) the one that criticizes the democratic weaknesses of bureaucratic organizations; and 2) that calls into question the monopoly of expertise held by the public administration.

The first is concerned about the tendency of bureaucracies to not be sensitive to the needs of citizens because of the “isolation” of officials in relation to other members of society. This isolation would result from the traditional model of public administration, marked by hierarchy, control and rigidity. The second approach repudiates the strictly technical and instrumental view of contemporary public decisions, which would invalidate the citizens of the proposals because of the “incompetence” of those above. This expert vision of public decision would be based on projected a false image of neutrality by rational scientific approach. According to this approach, scientists, professionals and civil servants, even if they represent the world of knowledge, also have interests that lead them to prefer certain solutions over others in various public issues.

Critics of the bureaucracy and public expertise in participatory democracy see a way to transform the relationship between citizens and public administration. Skirting the citizens and being open to other forms of knowledge as technical knowledge, public administration would become more sensitive to the needs of citizens and therefore more effective. Empirical studies show that this new role is not easy for administrators and some body officials are better prepared than others to become “civil servants”. Several experiments to show that local participatory forums have helped to establish a partnership between local administrators and citizens in the clarification of controversial issues and finding solutions. This is particularly the case in various experiences of community policing, schools focused on the needs of the community or town planning.

Participatory democracy is a delicate approach to implement, because it requires collaboration of all stakeholders, openness on the part of elected and a willingness to think the approach for dialogue and exchange of information can be satisfactory for all. Despite these risks, the game is worth the candle, because the hopes for social change associated with participatory democracy based on strong assumptions, and having already experienced proven.