Our world is experiencing multiple pressing crises; political elites’ inability or unwillingness to address them has contributed to diminishing trust in representative institutions. Democratic Innovations and participatory governance processes engaging citizens directly in politics and policymaking have been hailed as an antidote to elected representatives’ plummeting legitimacy. But they have also attracted much criticism, as they give much power to commissioning organisations, who design the process and choose who to invite, while there is limited follow-up on citizens’ recommendations.
Reclaiming Participatory Governance, a volume I co-edited with Adrian Bua for Routledge’s Democratic Innovations series, provides an analysis of how social and grassroots movements are reclaiming and reinventing democratic innovations to strengthen the impact of citizen participation for social change. The book is articulated into three main sections to provide 1) theoretical and 2) empirical analyses of these processes, and to reflect on 3) challenges to the implementation of radical projects of social transformation. Through 17 chapters covering a range of cases, the volume captures the growing synergy between social movements’ mobilisations, the commons and participatory deliberative democracy, exploring how grassroots democratic action is mobilising to foster alternative forms of participatory politics and economics.
Throughout the book we apply democracy-driven governance as an analytical framework. We initially developed this concept to describe how social movements and grassroots groups who mobilised across Spain against austerity politics in the early 2010s used the deliberative and participatory toolbox, first to build movement parties’ platforms and later, after winning elections in many major cities, to transform local state institutions. Democracy-driven governance captures these social-movements-led forms of democratic innovations that aim to widen the scope of participatory governance from political institutions to the economy and wider society.
It is a counterpoint to Mark Warren’s governance-driven democratisation which refers to democratic innovations mostly initiated by public agencies, particularly at the local level. Governance-driven democratisation responds to specific policy issues and what Warren calls “pluralised ungovernability” (2014, 49). This refers to situations of high complexity that administrators are caught in as they navigate, on the one hand, dispersion of governing capacity, and on the other hand, high interdependence. The potential of Warren’s governance-driven democratisation resides in its pragmatic, problem-solving orientation, addressing problems of political leadership and public administration. However, by decoupling politics and economics and failing to attend to socio-economic factors, the practice of governance-driven democratisation has been quite tokenistic, falling short of making substantive positive change to the lives of citizens, in a context of widening inequalities.
Both governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance exist in a dynamic relationship, which shouldn’t be understood as a mere bottom-up v. top-down heuristic. They both attempt to foster participatory governance or to include citizens in the work of public administration through “routinised participation”. They also interact with other participatory spaces, such as oppositional politics (protests) and the commons, where citizens create their everyday democracy by managing public goods through their own democratic decision-making rules and with limited interactions with state institutions.
The contributions to the volume look at how democracy-driven governance emerges across different socio-political and geographical contexts, and how it develops and navigates (or fails to) the constraints of day-to-day politics and public administration. Firstly, we wanted to test the analytical power of democracy-driven governance. By applying these concepts to a range of diverse cases, the chapters help flesh out the empirical characteristics of different forms of participatory governance. Secondly, we were interested in assessing how democracy-driven governance’s aspirations to social justice fare when applied to the real world. Can it strengthen the politics of the commons by making it visible and linking it to state institutions, as in the case of civic management and community-wealth building in Barcelona, or collective electoral mandates in Brazil? Can it facilitate processes of decommodification to help re-embed the economy in democracy and the wider society? Are these new approaches to politics and policymaking sustainable in the face of existing legal, business and public administration constraints?
The contributions trace practical challenges, from participation fatigue and activists’ disappointment with the slow pace of administrative work, to bureaucrats’ resistance or the challenges of reconciling democratic innovations, where citizens can participate as individuals, with assembly democracy, which strengthens organised civil society. One important aspect of democracy-driven governance concerns the digital commons, and the digital sphere will increasingly be the new battleground against the expansion of algorithmic capitalism.
The book provides many insights on the contested space to advance democracy, showing how social movements and citizen participation continue to play a crucial role in furthering the cause of critical theory: to challenge incumbency and demonstrate the possibility of other worlds.
The book launch is on 7th June 2023, at the University of Birmingham and on Zoom – register here.
Sonia Bussu is associate professor of Public Policy at INLOGOV. Her main research interests are participatory governance and participatory action research. Over the years, she has led research and published on participatory and deliberative processes, community engagement, coproduction of public services, and participatory research ethics.