Participatory democracy

Participatory democracy emphasizes the broad participation of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems. Etymological roots of democracy (Greek demos and kratos) imply that the people are in power and thus that all democracies are participatory. However, participatory democracy tends to advocate more involved forms of citizen participation and greater political representation than traditional representative democracy.

Participatory democracy strives to create opportunities for all members of a population to make meaningful contributions to decision-making, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to such opportunities. Since so much information must be gathered for the overall decision-making process to succeed, technology may provide important forces leading to the type of empowerment needed for participatory models, especially those technological tools that enable community narratives and correspond to the accretion of knowledge. Effectively increasing the scale of participation, and translating small but effective participation groups into small world networks, are areas currently being studied.[1] Other advocates have emphasised the importance of face to face meetings, warning that an overreliance on technology can be harmful.[2]

Some scholars argue for refocusing the term on community-based activity within the domain of civil society, based on the belief that a strong non-governmental public sphere is a precondition for the emergence of a strong liberal democracy.[3] These scholars tend to stress the value of separation between the realm of civil society and the formal political realm.[4] In 2011, considerable grassroots interest in participatory democracy was generated by the Occupy movement.


Participatory democracy has a long history. One instance is the Iroquois confederacy (also known as the Haudenosaunee confederacy) which operates under the oldest surviving constitution in the world. In 7th and 8th century Ancient Greece, the informal distributed power structure of the villages and minor towns began to be displaced with collectives of Oligarchs seizing power as the villages and towns coalesced into city states. This caused much hardship and discontent among the common people, with many having to sell their land due to debts, and even suffer from debt slavery. Around 600 BCE the Athenian leader Solon initiated some reforms to limit the power of Oligarchs and re-establish a partial form of participatory democracy with some decisions taken by a popular assembly composed of all free male citizens. About a century later, Solon's reforms were further enhanced for even more direct involvement of regular citizens by Cleisthenes.[5] Athenian democracy came to an end in 322 BC. When democracy was revived as a political system about 2000 years later, decisions were made by representatives rather than by the people themselves. A minor exception to this was the limited form of direct democracy which flourished in the Swiss Cantons from the later Middle Ages. In the late 19th century, a small number of thinkers, including Oscar Wilde[6] began advocating increased participatory democracy. It was in the 20th century that practical implementations of participatory democracy once again began to take place, albeit mostly on a small scale, attracting considerable academic attention in the 1980s.[7][2]

During the Spanish civil war, from 1936–1938, the parts of Spain controlled by anarchist members of the Spanish Republican faction was governed almost totally by participatory democracy. In 1938 the anarchists were displaced after betrayal by their former Republican allies in the Communist party and attacks from the loyalist forces of General Franco. The writer George Orwell, who experienced participatory democracy in Spain with the anarchists before their defeat, discusses it in his book Homage to Catalonia, and says participatory democracy was a "strange and valuable" experience where one could breathe "the air of equality" and where normal human motives like snobbishness, greed, and fear of authority had ceased to exist.[2]

The mystic and philosopher Simone Weil, who had helped the Spanish anarchists as a combat soldier, would later promote participatory democracy in her political manifesto The Need for Roots.[8]

In the 1960s the promotion and use of participatory democracy was a major theme for elements of the American Left.[9]

In the 1980s, the profile of participatory democracy within academia was raised by James S. Fishkin, the professor who introduced the deliberative opinion poll. Experiments in forms of participatory democracy that took place within a wider framework of representative democracy began in cities around the world, with an early adopter being Brazil's Porto Alegre. A World Bank study found that participatory democracy in these cities seemed to result in considerable improvement in the quality of life for residents.[2]

In the early 21st century, low profile experiments in participatory democracy began to spread throughout South and North Americas, to China and across the European Union.[10][11] A partial example in the USA occurred with drawing up the plans to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with thousands of ordinary citizens involved with drafting and approving the plan.[2]

In recent years, social media has led to a change in how participatory democracy is conducted. In the 2016 election social media was used to spread news and many politicians used social media outlets like twitter to attract voters. Social media has been used to organize movements to demand change. Mainly through hashtags, citizens join political conversations with differing view points.[12] To promote public interest and involvement, local governments are using social media to make decisions based on public feedback.[13] Though it requires much commitment, citizens have organized committees to highlight local needs and appointing budget delegates who works with the citizens and city agencies.[14]

In 2011, participatory democracy became a notable feature of the Occupy movement, a movement largely started by a Tumblr post titled "We Are the 99 Percent", protesting and claiming few individuals held all the power. Occupy camps around the world made decisions based on the outcome of working groups where every protestor gets to have their say, and by general assemblies where the decisions taken by working groups are effectively aggregated together. Their decision process was an attempt to combine equality, mass participation, and deliberation, but caused slow decisions. By November 2011 the movement had been frequently criticized for not yet coalescing around clearly identifiable aims.[9][15][16][17]

In 2012 the Quebec Tuition Protests began. In response to the announcement by the provisional government of Quebec that the tuition would be raised, college students began to organize mostly on social media websites. Bill 78, passed to restrict protesting and demonstration due to violent interactions, also brought much attention to this movement.[17]

In 2013 Black Lives Matter movement began organizing protest of the police brutality of African American teens in the United States. Trayvon Martin's death in a police shooting was the rallying point for the movement. The hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BLM were used on many social media outlets and sparked nationwide debate.[17]


Representative democracy is not generally considered participatory since it tends to assume a lack of time, knowledge or will in individual citizens to contribute to policy making.[18]

Pateman[19] characterizes the participatory model as one where maximum input (participation) is required, and where output includes not only policies but also the development of the social and political capacities of each individual. The literature generally emphasizes this combination of influence on policy making, quality of deliberation, and citizen engagement based on what has been argued that a successful institution of citizen participation is one that (i) provides a channel of influence in policy making, (ii) engages citizens in a process of deliberation and public communication, which in return provides legitimacy to the institution, and (iii) is able to attract a constant or increasing number of participants.[20]

Deliberative democracy differs from traditional democratic theory in that authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of a law's legitimacy. It adopts elements of both consensus decision-making and majority rule. When practiced by small groups, it is possible for decision-making to be both fully participatory and deliberative. But for large political entities, the democratic reform trilemma makes it difficult for any system of decision-making based on political equality to involve both deliberation and inclusive participation. With mass participation, deliberation becomes so unwieldy that it becomes difficult for each participant to contribute substantially to the discussion. Professor James Fishkin argues that random sampling to get a small but representative sample of the general population can mitigate the trilemma, but notes that the resulting decision-making group is not open to mass participation.[21]

See also


  1. Shirky, Clay Here Comes Everybody
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Ross 2011, Chapter 3
  3. Alternative Conceptions of Civil Society, edited by Simone Chambers and Will Kymlicka (Princeton University Press, 2002)
  4. The Idea of Civil Society, by Adam B. Seligman (Princeton University Press, 1992)
  5. Osborne 2006, pages 50 -56
  6. Principally in The Soul of Man under Socialism.
  7. Elster 1998, pages 1-3
  8. Simone Weil (2002). The Need for Roots. Routledge. pp. 44–55. ISBN 0-415-27102-9.
  9. 1 2 James Miller (2011-10-25). "Will Extremists Hijack Occupy Wall Street?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  10. Fishkin 2011, passim, see especially the preface.
  11. UK participatory budgeting homepage: a church sponsored charity that supports participatory budgeting in numerous local communities.
  12. Krutka, Daniel G.; Carpenter, Jeffery P. (November 2017). "DIGITAL CITIZENSHIP in the Curriculum: Educators Can Support Strong Visions of Citizenship by Teaching with and about Social Media". Educational Leadership. 75: 50–55 via EBSCOhost.
  13. Won, No (April 2017). "Ideation in an Online Participatory Platform: Towards Conceptual Framework". Information Polity. 22: 101–116 via EBSCOhost.
  14. Mattson, Gary A. (Spring 2017). "Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America". Political Science Qaurterly. 132: 192–194 via EBSCOhost.
  15. Laurie Penny (2011-10-16). "Protest by consensus". New Statesman. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  16. Michael Skapinker (2011-11-09). "The Occupy crowd is no match for banks" ((registration required)). Financial Times. Retrieved 2011-11-14.
  17. 1 2 3 Gismondi, Adam; Osteen, Laura (2017). "Student Activism in the Technology Age". New Directions for Student Leadership. 2017: 63–74 via EBSCOhost.
  18. Fischer, Frank (1993). "Citizen participation and the democratization of policy expertise: From theoretical inquiry to practical cases". Policy Sciences. 26: 165–187.
  19. Pateman, Carole (1970). Participation and Democratic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  20. Serdült, Uwe; Welp, Yanina (2015). "How Sustainable is Democratic Innovation? Tracking Neighborhood Councils in Montevideo". Journal of Politics in Latin America. 2: 131–148.
  21. Fishkin 2011, Chapters 2 & 3.


  • Roger Osborne (2006). Civilization: A New History of the Western World. Jonathan Cape Ltd. ISBN 0-224-06241-7. 
  • Carne Ross (2011). The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Can Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 1-84737-534-0. 

Further reading

  • Baiocchi, Gianpaolo (2005). Militants and Citizens: The Politics of Participatory Democracy in Porto Alegre. Stanford University Press. 
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