Re-valuing The Public

Teresa L. Córdova

When we are on the ground getting the policies implemented, or perhaps even making the policies, we focus on doing what we can get done. One of our first questions is, “what are the constraints, the limits of what is possible (or probable), given current fiscal conditions, regulatory structures, or political dynamics.” In focusing on getting done what is more likely in our power to influence, we might also make the decision to leave the more difficult – or nearly unattainable – goals behind. Working under conditions of limited government resources, our focus might be to accept the constraints of the “changing times” and focus our efforts on budgets, minimizing as much as we can, cuts to vital services. We might implement strategies for “efficiency,” introduce new technologies, or shift organizational structures. We work with what we got; we adapt; we innovate. As politician, as manager, as innovator, as activist, we act with the best of intentions. It makes sense; it is a way for good-minded people to be engaged, to contribute.

Does it also make sense to evaluate our choices to engage in these ways? Does it make sense to ask about the implications of given actions as to whether they contribute to solutions or unintentionally exacerbate the problems? How might our choices with respect to local governance, for example, strengthen or weaken our mechanisms to govern ourselves in ways that promote the collective good? Because if we look closer, we can make the connection between the conditions that exist at the level of local governance (i.e. insufficient revenue and decreasing ability to deliver) as part and parcel of the same set of dynamics that are creating disparities that threaten the foundational fabric of our communities.

Though we may be at the ground level attempting to sustain both the public sector and its value to local governance, we might remember that the cuts to public sector budgets didn’t just happen. There are economic interests that with their power have directed wealth to themselves through tax and regulatory policies – thus depleting the revenue base of the public while adding to its costs. The concentrated wealth does not however, make its way to job creation and shared benefits. Instead, anti-government rhetoric makes government itself the scapegoat and further erodes the public’s belief that government should be valued. All of this makes way, for the further privatization of government functions and policies that serve, not the public interest necessarily, but the drive for generating profit through the administration of those functions, e.g. prison industrial complex in the U.S.

Under conditions of our stewardship with its limited power, how might we sharpen our abilities to get at the root cause for the conditions we face, perhaps change, but at least not make worse? We might ask, does our approach to democracy and local governance strengthen the collective good or take us to the door of furthering the demise of the public sector, or more to the point – the public’s commitment to itself. Hopefully, the desire to salvage from what is possible does not deliver us deeper into the entrenched logic of furthering the concentration and centralization of power, decision-making and wealth. The choices that we make in how to address conditions of reduced revenue streams, new technology and pressures for privatization will either reinforce the very forces that create those conditions – or challenge them. We need to pay attention to our policy choices, their logical extension and their implications. Articulating values of the collective good, making way for multiple stakeholders, working in coalitions and partnering with citizen organizations are among the strategies that we can employ to re-create – and strengthen the public, for the public.



Teresa L. Córdova, Ph.D. is Professor in Urban Planning and Director of The Great Cities Institute, representing UIC’s Great Cities Initiative and commitment to its Urban Mission.  Professor Córdova is an applied theorist and political economist whose focus is community development and Latino Studies.  She approaches her work as a scholarship of engagement in which her research, pedagogy and service are integrated.  She studies the impacts of globalization on Latino communities with particular interest in global/local dynamics.  Throughout the span of her academic career, Professor Córdova has engaged with communities outside the university and is an expert in community/university partnerships.

Democracy in The Circle: a route to reconnection and engagement?

Frank Hendriks

One of the theme’s at INLOGOV’s 2014 summer symposium is “Strengthening democracy and participation: routes to re-connection and engagement.” One of the possible routes is tellingly sketched in Dave Eggers’s recent novel The Circle (2013).

I will not try to summarize this rich, dystopian novel which is in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, brimming with ideas as well as fears. The vision of democracy presented in The Circle is what I focus on here. It is called ‘demoxie’, and it might be a better prediction of future democracy than many theorists would think.

In the book, demoxie is quite typically introduced as a hitherto unthought-of ‘next step’ in a development process. It starts with the idea to make everyone with a Circle account automatically a registered voter. In the brave new world of The Circle, virtually everyone has such an account, as it is the merger of all other accounts. Think of Google, Twitter, Facebook, and all that coming together in one big company, with a monopoly on the internet and all connected data. One of the company founders, Bailey, first sees this as an opportunity to perfect electoral democracy, to close ‘the circle’ between electors and elected so to speak. “Now think,” he says at a company meeting, “if we can get closer to full participation in all elections (…) As we know here at the Circle, with full participation comes full knowledge. We know what Circlers want because we ask (…) if we observe the same model nationally, electorally, then we can get very close, I think, to 100 percent participation. One hundred percent democracy.”

There is applause, but the fatal heroine of the book, Mae Holland, has a brainwave and suggests to take the whole thing one step further. Why not oblige everyone to vote? “Everyone would agree that 100 percent participation is the ideal.” Until the requested vote has been cast, a circle account will simply be blocked. “And then we can take the temperature of everyone at any time.” The developers at the firm are so excited that within a week they have a beta version of what now is called ‘demoxie’ – “It’s democracy with your voice, and your moxie. And it’s coming soon.” The first try-out question is “Should we have more veggie options at lunch?” In no time the demoxie result appears: “75% of respondents want more veggie options. More veggie options will be provided.” The company’s founders are excited, they want more of these direct votations and promise to implement the majority ‘moxie’ within a day. Demoxie would be the best shot at ‘pure’, direct democracy the world ever had.

Is this unreal ‘science-fiction’, completely detached from our world? I don’t think so. Like everything in The Circle, demoxie is a radical extrapolation of developments already visible. It’s actually quite close to what the Five Star Movement, one of Italy’s biggest parties nowadays, envision. It’s very close to what pirate parties around the world call ‘liquid feedback’ – heeding the voice of constituencies on a permanent basis, feeding it back directly to political processes at hand. It’s an extrapolation of consumer polls, internet surveys, facebook counts, and the like, now with the promise of swift take-up, and response rates that can hardly be ignored.

I see ‘demoxie’ as a radicalized version of what I call, less poetically, ‘voter democracy’. I tried to give it due attention in my book ‘Vital Democracy’, but quite honestly it needs much more. Democratic theory is traditionally focused on the distinction between Westminster (indirectly-aggregative) and consensus (indirectly-integrative) democracy. More recently the attention has been extended to communicative and deliberative democracy of the directly-integrative type. Surely, these are routes to re-connection and engagement, and we should continue to study them. However, we should also realize that these routes are followed more often in theory than in practice. Democratic theorists are intrigued by experiments with mini-publics, deliberation days, and the like, but the wider public quite often just prefers to quickly vote, and see their votes aggregated directly and efficiently.

There is not only a popular pull in this direction, but also a strong technological push, which are two reasons to take this other, directly-aggregative, route to re-connection and engagement more seriously than we do. Because whether we like it or not as democratic theorists, it is here to stay and it is bound to grow.


Frank Hendriks is full professor and research director at the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, and co-director of the Demos-Center for Better Governance and Citizenship at Tilburg University. His current research is focused on the design and quality of democratic governance – on political leadership and active citizenship, on public decision-making and participation, on reform and innovation in democratic institutions – at the level of the city and the state at large. Frank is also a Fellow at the Montesquieu Institute in the Hague and Visiting Fellow at St Edmunds College, Cambridge University.

Examining citizen participation: theory and practice

Laurens de Graaf

As a researcher of citizen participation I often discuss the functioning of local democracy with, among others, councillors, officers and citizens. These discussions are showing that knowledge of democratic theory in the field is not often very present.

Partly, this is understandable –if the field consisted of political scientists only, would democracy function at all? But it seems as if limited knowledge about democracy creates some practical problems. To put it more precisely, the perspective on democracy appears to depend on the slogan: ‘where you sit is where you stand’. Councillors see themselves as guardians of democracy, because they are (the only ones) elected, and are the representatives of the people. Officers don’t often understand the (seemingly) irrational decisions councillors make and see democracy often as frustrating for their policy process. Citizens are distant observers and only a few committed citizens are actually participating in democratic processes.

Councillors and officers have been aiming for (more) citizen participation since the 1990s. But what effect does citizen participation have on local democracy?

Citizen participation is vital to democracy

Citizen participation is usually seen as a vital aspect of democracy. Many theorists claim that citizen participation has positive effects on the quality of democracy. Theories of participatory democracy, deliberative democracy and social capital assert that citizen involvement has positive effects on democracy. It contributes to the inclusion of individual citizens in the policy process, it encourages civic skills and civic virtues, it leads to rational decisions based on public reasoning, and it increases the legitimacy of the process and outcome. These aspects are summarized in the table below.

Aspects of democracy Clarification Theoretical Perspective
Inclusion Allow individual voices to be heard (openness; diversity of opinions) Social capital & Deliberative democracy
Civic skills and virtues Civic skills (debating public issues, running a meeting) and civic virtues (public engagement and responsibility, feeling a public citizen, active participation in public life, reciprocity) Participatory democracy & Social capital
Deliberation Rational decisions based on public reasoning (exchange of arguments and shifts of preferences) Deliberative democracy
Legitimacy Support for process and outcome Participatory democracy

Table: Aspects of citizen participation and democracy; a framework for analysis

What councillors and officers are telling me is that they are not fully aware of all these different aspects, but like the overview. It helps them to reflect on democracy from different angels.

Local participatory policymaking in the Netherlands

My article – co-authored by Ank Michels – examines the probability of these claims for local participatory policymaking projects in two municipalities in the Netherlands. However, I think that the claims can also be applied to local democracy in the UK and other countries. The article focuses on the relations between citizens and government from a citizens’ perspective.

The findings show that the role of citizens in participatory projects is limited, serving mainly to provide information on the basis of which the government can then make decisions. Nevertheless, the article argues that citizen involvement has a number of positive effects on local democracy: not only do people consequently feel more responsibility for public matters, it increases public engagement, encourages people to listen to a diversity of opinions, and contributes to a higher degree of legitimacy of decisions. One negative effect is that not all relevant groups and interests are represented. The article concludes that for a healthy democracy at the local level, aspects of democratic citizenship are more important than having a direct say in decision-making.

Reflecting on the functioning of (your local) democracy can be a fruitful exercise once in a while. The framework of analysis that was presented here may help, among others, councillors, officers and citizens to understand democracy more broadly and empathise with (each) other’s perspectives and roles.

A full account of this research is available in my recent article with Ank Michels: ‘Examining Citizen Participation: Local Participatory Policy-making and Democracy’. Local Government Studies 36 (4), 477-491.

Laurens de Graaf is a lecturer at Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, Tilburg University, The Netherlands. In the last ten years he conducted theoretical and empirical research with regard to citizens participation and in a broader sense: the functioning of local democracy. He is often in the field moderating workshops and trainings for councillors, mayors, active citizens and (neighbourhood) professionals about their role and their potential added value to local democracy.