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Towards Participatory Democracy in Scotland

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http://postmag.org/towards-participatory-democracy-in-scotland/
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationScotland 44
Subtitle of host publicationIdeas for a new nation
Editors POST
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherPOST
Pages24-33
ISBN (Print)978-0-9930004-0-9
StatePublished - 2014

Abstract

Democracy is always in the making: a never-ending project that requires constant rethinking and development. There are many ways of understanding and practising democracy, and this essay is concerned with those that put citizens at the heart of democratic life.
My hope is that, in Scotland 44, politics will mean more than party politics, elections and media rituals; and democracy will mean more than representative democracy. Reclaiming and recasting politics and democracy is a core challenge for participatory democrats. The key argument is that citizen participation can reinvigorate democratic life by infusing diversity, experience and knowledge into official decision making. The question is what kind of participation.
In representative democracy, citizens are usually given a thin role in public life, and participation often means casting a ballot every few years, and being occasionally invited to inconsequential consultations. It seems unsurprising that most citizens don’t grab such opportunities with both hands. Lack of public interest can then be used as an excuse for not supporting citizens to become more involved in governing themselves.
But there are alternative understandings of democracy where participation means direct influence for citizens on the decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods. Why citizen participation? Because our current political systems too often struggle to cope with the pressing issues of our time. We need more problem-solving capacity, better policy and decision making, and new ways of governing. In other words, representative democracy needs a substantial upgrade.
Although there seems to be broad support for democratic principles amongst citizens, there is also growing mistrust in how current institutions work. Representative democracy suffers from low turnouts, political disaffection, public cynicism and loss of legitimacy. As the grandchild of a woman who survived forty years of dictatorship, I’m bound to say the following. The answer to the problems of democracy must surely be more democracy, a more meaningful and engaged kind – a participatory democracy, perhaps.
Well-known forms of participation, including volunteering, voting, organising, campaigning and so on, coexist now alongside those that eschew traditional models of organisational affiliation. For instance, many engage passionately on single issues that matter to them, others are political in how they spend their money and time, yet others work to develop new forms of economic life through cooperatives or social enterprises. All forms of participation can contribute to develop a vibrant democracy, but here I focus on participatory policy-making because I’m interested in how to build public institutions sustained on citizen engagement. Can Scotland 44 be a place where participatory democracy blossoms? My hopeful answer is a qualified yes, though it will require new institutions and practices.

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