Report | Participatory democracy: What alternatives to referenda?
On Wednesday 29th, while the UK was triggering article 50, EU-Logos Athena and its partners, 1989 Generation Initiative and Students for Europe ULB, were delighted to host a new conference on participatory democracy. This event, part of a cycle, followed up on our first conference that took place on the 28th of February which aimed at firstly exposing the benefits and limits of the referendum and thus triggering a debate between the speakers and the audience.
With this second event, we aimed once again at focusing on the participatory democracy but rather than speaking about the referendum we proposed new alternatives that could be implemented.
The format we proposed was interactive: a short panel discussion of 30 minutes was moderated by Michael Cottakis from the 1989 Generation Initiative. In this first part of the evening, our speakers had the chance to introduce the main ideas they would develop more deeply on the workshops section. Two simultaneous workshops followed afterwards. One was led by ECAS, and the other by G1000.
EU-Logos ATHENA aims at creating a European public space. Participatory democracy, fundamental rights and European identity are its key priorities. The EU- Logos team, mainly composed of young people, works on the LIBE committee and it targets European citizens, like-minded NGOs, and those who, within national and European institutions, are working to bring about a genuine inclusive European democracy.
1989 Generation Initiative is an open policy network committed to mobilising young Europeans or ‘89ers’, to lead the long-term regeneration of the European Project through the development of innovative policy proposals.
Students for Europe is a students association of the Institute of European Studies of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. It aims at involving citizens in debates on european policy matters by organizing workshops and conferences.
Delegate General of the Mouvement Réformateur. Former lawyer, advisor to the Cabinet of Reynders (2009-2013), legal assistant, Director of IDEA. Currently President of the FTA and deputy of the Parliament of Wallonia and the Wallonia- Brussels Federation.
Coordinator and PR of G1000, an initiative of the Foundation for Future Generations, which is a foundation of public utility in Belgium with more than 10 years of experience. He is a graduate in European Studies (ULB). Former Belgian youth representative at the UN.
Digital Democracy Manager at European Citizen Action Service (ECAS). ECAS’ mission is to empower citizens to exercise their rights and promote open and inclusive decision-making through the provision of high-quality advice, research and advocacy, as well as capacity building for civil society organisations.
PhD student in Public Law. His research focuses on the functioning of Belgian political parties in regard to democracy. In this context, he is interested in the hyper- specialisation and the partitioning of knowledge. Gaudin is interested in both constitutional law and the philosophy of law through political theory or history of political thought.
First section: Conference
Michael Cottakis, the moderator of the panel discussion, highlighted before giving the floor to the speakers the relevance of participatory democracy nowadays in Europe, particularly today when UK triggered article 50 for leaving the EU. Referring to our first conference, Cottakis stressed why referenda can be a poor tool of direct democracy. If there is an existential crisis in the EU, we need to stand up and go forward. It is of civilisation necessity that the European Union survives, and in order to make it possible, younger generations should be more involved in the democratic process. Indeed, if we want the EU to survive, some changes need to be done. So, the question he addressed to the panellists was what other alternatives do we have if not referenda.
The first speaker who took the floor was George-Louis Bouchez. He pointed out, in his intervention, two main points linked to what we call a crisis of representative democracy.
Firstly, according to Bouchez what needs to be addressed is the fact that politicians do not really represent the people. Our modern society is completely different from what it used to be two-three decades ago. The huge diffusion of social media gives people the possibility to connect with each other, to gather and share information, to interact directly and so on so forth. These kind of activities were unthinkable thirty years ago. These changes in the society should be translated by political actors in new ways of representing people. Nevertheless, not being able to provide some magic solutions for the economic and ecologic crisis we are living in, political parties are not interested in increasing the number of participating people. The more people participate in political system, the harder it gets for political actors to reach a decision.
Secondly, in his opinion, not many people are interested in participating in politics otherwise they could do it easily by engaging in different movements or organisations. This lack of interest in politics is due to a perceived deficit of representativeness from politicians and political parties. However, this does not mean people cannot be interested in some common issues. A reasonable way out of this could be to organise people on some common interests. Instead of obliging people to go to vote, it is more useful to ask them how they want to manage their community life, their children’s school, their municipal streets. Citizens’ engagement in decision- making process might increase by organising more open meetings at a local level.
After Bouchez, the floor went to Elisa Lironi from ECAS. She decided to share with the audience her personal experience as a digital democracy manager. Digital democracy is a quite new focus area created to address how the current technology is influencing the society, and especially how the young people are expressing their concerns through digital platforms. It is about the relationship between the government and the citizens. The young people, she said, do not believe in traditional politics. Nowadays, with the new technology, it is easier for them to reach out the decision makers.
Dealing mainly with e-participation, ECAS has noticed there are just a few tools at the EU level:
The European citizen initiative: this tool has not been working, more than 60 organisations asked for registration, 40 of them got registered, around 20 decided to resign, 20 continued and 3 of them were successful in having one million signature, 0 proposals of legislation came from the commission.
Online public consultations for the European Commission: extremely complicated, only three languages available, super technical and long.
Petition for European Parliament: can be done only on pre-existing legislation, thus it seems pointless.
Besides the three main official tools, there are a few additional ways: some MEP have platforms, and some DGs have tried to put in place other projects. What happens is that they work for one or two years and then get abandoned because of lack of financial support. To sum up, European participation tools are limited, frustrating and have given no results so far.
Mid-way through her intervention, Lironi focused on the ECAS project of crowdsourcing. It is the process in which the citizens collect ideas together to enhance participation in the policy making, ensure more representativeness in these processes, engage more youth in the political process who don’t like the traditional politics etc.
Jonathan Moskovic tried to answer, in his intervention, if there is a crisis of representative democracy by looking at three indicators’ figures:
The first indicator he mentioned is the voter turnout. From 1979 until 2009 in every single EU country it has been constantly decreasing.
The second indicator is the partisanship which has been decreased around 50% in the last 20- 30 years.
The third indicator is the trust in political parties. Based on an international world survey 2013 around 67% of citizens in the world see political parties as the most corrupt institutions in the society. In the light of these three indicators, we can say there is today a crisis of representative democracy, Moskovic added.
Speaking about his experiences, he told us the history of the origins of the G1000 organisation. It was created in 2011 during the political crisis in Belgium. In November 2011, after 500 days without a federal government, they started to think about how to revitalise the Belgian democracy. A three-stage process started. On the first stage, everyone in Belgium could give any idea or solution for the crisis Belgium was living in on an online platform. Out of all ideas gathered, they created 25 principal subjects. On the second step, they gathered 1000 randomly selected people to discuss how to deal with the current political crisis. The selection respected age and gender balances to ensure same opportunity to participate. In the last phase of this process, 35 people out of 1000 were elected to continue further in drawing some new policy recommendations and preparing a detailed proposal. Even though at the end of the day no concrete action was taken, this initiative demonstrated that democracy is so much more than citizens who vote and politicians who negotiate.
Last who took the floor before our refreshment break was Thibault Gaudin. Coming from academic field and being himself a PhD student, he provided a theoretical background to our theme of discussion. The first issue Gaudin pointed out was the
huge confusion that exists today between participatory and deliberative democracy. The first is a variant of traditional representative democracy that involves more direct participation. Deliberative democracy, conversely, is more a procedural matter. The central point is deliberation, discussing and agreeing upon a decision without voting.
What does participatory democracy mean? Every democracy should be participatory. Historically, democracy and representation were complete opposites. What today is called a democratic system for Gaudin is a representative government or an elective aristocracy. This does not mean we cannot introduce more democratic elements in our systems. Referenda is, of course, a tool which democratises representative governments, but it is not the only one. The advisory referendum that exists here in Belgium can be another tool.
Before finishing his intervention, Gaudin mentioned what for him is a very interesting democratic tool dealing with budget issues, despite the elites not wanting citizens to talk about the budget. A participatory budget was introduced in Porte Alegre, Brazil. People were invited to elect representatives to discuss the priorities of the budget. This initiative worked very well although it was stopped after a few years. Gaudin concluded with a short comment on people’s lack of interest in politics: it does not mean there is a total disinterest in everything politics deals with. This lack of interest can be solved through education, although it is not a fatality.
Second section: the workshops
This workshop was mainly focused on the topic of crowdsourcing. Elisa Lironi, before providing the audience with concrete examples (success stories and unsuccess stories), gave a definition of what exactly crowdsourcing means. Crowdsourcing is the practice of gathering ideas and information by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community. ECAS focuses more on online crowdsourcing although it can be done offline as well.
To better understand the general context, Lironi told the audience about two national cases of crowdsourcing experiences. The first one was in Iceland, where people lost trust in political institutions in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. In 2010, citizens were very frustrated with their government because of the way it was dealing with the crisis. The government started thinking about regaining the people’s trust through a crowdsourcing experience. How did they do that? They used both online and offline forms to manage to gather people’s ideas and proposals on the revision of the national constitution. They created a national citizens’ forum with 1000 citizens to collect ideas and values that they would want to add to the new constitution. The whole process was moderated by the parliament. Afterwards, 25 citizens out of 1000 formed a restricted council to analyse the ideas already collected, and then to draft a
new constitution. In the third phase, citizens were asked to vote if they wanted to adopt the new constitution via referendum. With a voter turnout of 49%, the referendum was approved almost unanimously. It was blocked in the parliament in the last phase.
Another crowdsourcing case deals with Finland, which is one of the most digitalised countries in Europe. High-speed internet access is a fundamental right for citizens there. This is one of the reasons why the Finnish believe in e-government. They have set up a citizensinitiative. If citizens could manage to come up with 60,000 signatures on a certain proposal, parliament would automatically discuss the issue. A harmonised platform was created with a huge contribution by the civil society. This citizens’ initiative was working so well that it pushed the Finnish government to actually implement the platform at a national level, and to decide to open up a crowdsourcing experience about off-road traffic. How did they actually reach out people? In both cases, there was an incredibly active role of the civil society both in developing online platforms and through offline meetings and debates. Exactly like in the Icelandic case, in the last phase, the draft was dismissed by the parliament in the last phase.
A question was raised by someone from the audience about the potential risk that online crowdsourcing would create a gap between younger people and elders who do not necessarily have the means to use this kind of tool. Lironi’s answer put an emphasis on what she already had mentioned before – online democracy does not replace the traditional one, it complements it. Both these cases show that, on the one hand crowdsourcing may be a nice way for citizens to have a say as far as policy- making is concerned, and on the other hand, no real impact was made because of the lack of political willingness to translate that into policies.
This logically lead to another issue. As Elisa Lironi pointed out, what we also need in the European Union is digital education. We are already running behind in digital education. In order to enhance our possibilities to have a say in policy making process, we need to have the right tools to do that.
Three main questions need to be raised when analysing crowdsourcing processes:
● Can online crowdsourcing be implemented in every policy field?
In order to achieve results through crowdsourcing process, a good balance between emotion and reason is needed. If we ask citizens what are their ideas about very hot issues concerning their nowadays lives, most probably we will come up with some emotional reactions rather than well-thought proposals. The other way around happens if we ask people about very technical issues.
● The second question is about the timeframe. When should we intervene if we want our voice to be heard?
In public consultations at the EU level, citizens are consulted almost at the end of the process. To have a say in EU consultations basically means choosing between a few limited alternatives that are given to you. What if none of those alternatives represent my ideas and my concerns? What the Finnish case did is the exact opposite. In the first phase, they tried to gather general information about what people think and what are their problems. In the second phase citizens were asked to propose solutions, and in the third phase they came up with concrete policy recommendations.
● The third question is about the kind of platform that would be more appropriate if we had to choose between a unique EU platform and different national platforms?
Lironi invited the participants to think about which can be the best e-participatory platform to be implemented. Her intervention encouraged the participation of the audience. Several comments, reactions, answers and other questions from our participants. Regarding time frame, a young man from the audience answered that it depends on the issue at stake. When it comes to issues such as air pollution, time frame does not matter much. It is a timeless concern. About platforms, we need to choose what is really important, so we can reach concrete results. Both forms imply problems. If you do not have a harmonised platform, you risk fragmentation between members’ countries. On the contrary, having one single European platform instead of many national ones, may not represent different approaches of member states. Furthermore, linguistic barriers and poor translations need to be addressed.
More interventions by members of the audience followed. Someone raised a question if instead of asking what the EU can do for us, we ask ourselves what we can do for the EU. If it aims at enhancing the quality of the relationship between government and citizens, it has to work in both directions.
To conclude this animated workshop, Elisa Lironi tried to highlight once again what she believes is the most important thing: citizens initiatives and crowdsourcing procedures need to be simple and to have clear rules about how they work. This, however, does not mean that they will be successful in terms of modifying some old legislations or making new ones. It is important for citizens to understand that « may be done » is different from « will be done ». The success of crowdsourcing depends on the platform used, on the role of civil society, on the topic under discussion, and on political willingness to follow through.
Our other workshop on participatory democracy was a bit less topic oriented. This gave the attendees a large space where to voice their ideas and concerns about the way citizens are included in the political life of the EU and their country.
Thibault Gaudin, a PhD student from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, started the workshop with a brief intervention about the importance of deliberation. Deliberation is not only important to reach a well-thought agreement, but is important per se. The process of deliberation allows the citizens to voice over their opinions, to feel included, and eventually to understand better the outcomes of the discussion because they witnessed the whole process that leads to a particular result. His research on the 2012 general student strike in Québec taught him one thing: good procedural rules can make deliberation good. The Canadian students came up with a many pages long deliberation rulebook, and people followed it.
Participation needs rules, and rules dictate in what way people may engage in a discussion. The idea is not so much to focus on the result of an increased participation, but rather to look at how decisions are taken in a given political system. Elections are far from being the only way for a citizen to participate.
Following this intervention, someone else raised a problem of issuing good rules for deliberation: how can we deliberate on a good way to deliberate? Organising deliberation is not the key problem in his view. What matters most is the inclusion of people who are not interested in taking part in a deliberation, or even to participate in any way to the political system. A woman from the audience replied that his conception of politics was too narrow. Politics is about the polis, ancient Greek for “the city”. Politics is also daily life, and people find various ways to show political commitment. This broad definition would allow us to state that we should not be overly dramatic about the alleged political apathy that threatens democracy.
She continued her intervention with the following statement: “we must reconnect the different ways to do politics to the democratic institutions.”. Representatives are elected because citizens cannot deal with every aspect of politics. In her view, politicians are here to provide knowledge of the institutions and of party politics to the general population. This implies that politicians should know more about the institutional life and its procedures. Procedural knowledge is necessary for a politician to be efficient, and to avoid a waste of time and efficiency that would hinder the whole system.
Georges-Louis Bouchez, a young Belgian politician, strongly disagreed with this intervention. Politicians should actually know just as much as their constituents. Procedural knowledge is provided from the administration to the politicians. Politicians are not elected for their institutional knowledge, but rather for their keen sense of the general interest. Representatives are normal people who have a
particular interest in pursuing the common interest. They base their decisions on their own points of views, their ideas, and even their feelings. “Politicians still need some political culture: the power, the desire, to convince others”, Bouchez concluded.
Jonathan Moskovic from G1000, underlined that the goal of deliberation is to find the common interest. The virtue of organising deliberations is to lessen the confrontations in politics because it often helps participants to realise that the general interest might not be A or B as two conflicting sides can think, but could actually be C. He backed up his observation with his own experience observing the Irish Constitutional Convention, where consulting the general population through deliberation clearly affected the final outcome.
An audience member argued that formal education does not matter much in political participation. The willingness to engage in discussions and actions, as well as some political know-how, are the key factors of participation. The lack of willingness to participate is thus the root problem that we need to address if we want to include more participation in our system. A EU-Logos team member then stressed out that this lack of willingness to participate might not originate from a lack of political goodwill, but actually from a perceived lack of ability to engage in any kind of political activity. This impression disproportionately plagues citizens with little formal education but can be found in all spectrums of society. To this, a 1989 Generation Initiative member suggested that online participation could be a way to get rid of some of the causes of this perceived lack of ability, but regretted that online participation would sadly miss empowering every part of the population.
A woman from the audience disagreed, and came back to her definition of politics: “politics is also about finding new ways to spend an evening together”. And this does not require any political ability. This only thing necessary is to be willing to engage in a conversation with others. People who do not to participate do not want to participate, regardless of their own perceived legitimacy to engage in political activities. The civil society can bridge this gap, and progressively connect the citizens to the upper scales of politics, including the institutions. Fighting this non-willingness must be our main goal, because democracy is also about our daily interactions within the polis. A man from the audience agreed that triggering willingness is the key. And the only way to do it is to start locally. Local events can eventually convince people to come participate, and thus to show them they also are entitled to decide on politics.
Georges-Louis Bouchez does not believe in a miracle solution. Politicians are not to blame for this lack of commitment from the general population, and yet they always are. Representatives make choices according to their ideas, their philosophy, and their feelings. Experts provide them with a lot of detailed and sometimes conflicting information, but representatives always end up forming opinions by themselves. The difference between them and their constituents is the commitment, and above all an idea of the general interest. Politicians must think to identify what are the most
relevant topics where they can act for the general interest. This operation can be hard and tricky, because every citizen has a clear idea about what he believes is right and important.
He also agreed that a good debate is necessary to create an agreement about the decision. “People must understand the reasons behind decisions”, he said. “For example, about fiscality: the right wingers want less taxes, and the left wingers say that rich people must pay more. But it is more complex than that”. In his view, today’s debates are just shows with an entertainer, and not a moderator. Politicians must come up with new and relevant ideas for legislation and policies, the media should explain and criticise these proposals, and citizens must analyse them and form an opinion about them. Democracies require the three actors to do their jobs properly. And it is not the case today. Some citizens abstain from voting. And when they do vote, they do not choose their candidates on their policy programmes, but they usually base their choices their personal feelings about the candidates.
Bouchez also accused the media of providing incomplete information and favouring entertainment over information, which is even less acceptable when public media are involved. They give more attention to pop stars than they do political debates and policies proposals. He understands that entertainment appeals more than politics, but it remains unclear if people are to blame for having such a preference or if the media are to blame for exploiting this preference. A man of the public seconded that, underlining that most of the European media provide no to little information about European politics.
A member of the 1989 Generation Initiative objected that this situation reflects a failure of the politicians to deliver a convincing debate that would create interest in the general population. Political meetings are not enough to connect with the electorate. More qualitative interactions are needed to bring citizens back to the debate arena.
The Belgian politician then replied that his neighbours are not interested in such a debate, and politicians cannot help it. He underlined what he believes to be a decisive argument: we have today the highest level of education we have had in history, yet people are more apathetic than ever when it comes to politics. Jonathan Moskovic pointed out that this is because of rational ignorance. People fail to see how their knowledge can translate in politics. Fighting rational ignorance is crucial to fix our democracies, and it is the core rationale behind G1000’s action. Consultation, deliberation, and co-decision are ways to bring people back in politics. Moskovic firmly believes that people will speak up and voice over their opinions if they are given the right space to do it. His experiences organising such gatherings in Belgium, and witnessing the Irish Constitutional Convention in 2012, reinforce his conviction that fighting the non-willingness to participate is actually a matter of giving people
space where to participate. This argument echoes with Gaudin’s opening statement about the importance of having good rules for deliberation.
Thibault Gaudin concluded this workshop with the following comment: “we had deliberation here”. Not everyone agreed, not everyone participated, it will be hard to remember every point that was raised, but what we did here is a form of political commitment. Our deliberation was useful per se. This conclusion can be extended to the whole event. Both of the workshops and the introductory conference gave us precious insights on the different facets of participatory democracy, while giving all the participants space where to express their opinions and to think of participatory democracy and the alternatives to referenda. The friendly and intellectual atmosphere of the event helped people to interact and to learn from all of our special guests, and the informal drink allowed the attendees to exchange with even more people interested in the questions of democracy and European Affairs.
“Participatory democracy: what alternatives to referenda?” was the second instalment of Eu-Logos’ cycle of events on democracy. Together with 1989 Generation Initiative and Students for Europe, we organised a conference on the good use of referenda in late February. Our next event, in cooperation with our traditional partner associations, will focus on more concrete questions. We started with an academic conference, we continued with workshops, and next, we will meet up with every willing citizen to come up with policy recommendations for a better democracy.
Zana Çanaku, Rémi Petitcol