Hello again! I’m David Moscrop, a political theorist, author and commentator. 

Welcome to the second e-mail in our four-part series on democracy in Canada — a look at what’s working, what’s not and what we might do to improve self-government in this country. Throughout my years of studying politics and self-government I’ve come across countless ideas to make democracy work for more folks. A few stand out.

In our first email, I wrote about how Canada’s liberal democracy asks little of its citizens when it comes to taking part in self-government. In turn, it offers few opportunities to participate in public life outside of election time — and even then, the offerings are slim. For most folks, democracy in Canada is thus reduced to elections every few years in which 60 to 70 per cent of the citizenry casts a ballot to “reward” or “punish” the incumbent political party. 

We can do better.

Participatory democracy has been around as long as democracy itself. Last time, I wrote about the Athenian polis — the ancient heart of Greek civic life. 

Athenian democracy was direct and participatory, but also restricted. The actual percentage of Athenian residents who took part in self-government was much lower than you might think — likely somewhere between 10 to 20 per cent. Political life in Athens was “participatory,” but it was also exclusionary: reserved for free, male citizens. But for those who did take part in what was known as the Ekklesia, the Athenian popular assembly, the job was hands on. 

Today, democracies tend to rely on elected representatives to do the work of governing. That makes good sense. Few of us have the time, energy, or, frankly, the desire to take part in government full-time. We have other things to do. 

But many of us would like and accept more opportunities to engage in meaningful ways to supplement the work done by those we elect at the local, provincial and national levels. We’d welcome more opportunities to help set the policy agenda and communicate our preferences and priorities to those we elect. The good news is that this can be done; in fact, it can be done quite easily. 

For a long time, I’ve argued that we don’t need much democratic innovation. We’ve known for years what we need to do to improve citizen participation in public life. We just need to do it — what we need is implementation

Two common, effective ways of bringing people into public life are citizens assemblies and participatory budgeting, each of which resembles past democratic practices going back to the ancient democracy of roughly 2,600 years ago. 

Citizens’ Assemblies

At its most basic, a citizens’ assembly (CA) is a group of individuals drawn from a given population — say, a neighbourhood, city, province or country — and brought together to consider some question or questions. A CA may either decide on what is to be done or what should be put to some other body that will make a final decision, such as a legislature or the people themselves by way of referendum. 

These bodies are deliberative, which means that rather than relying on strategic, partisan tactics, they are tasked with good-faith learning and reason-giving in the service of cooperating to work out what ought to be done. 

Citizens’ assemblies are often drawn by lot (a process known as sortition), with randomly selected individuals opting in before or after the process of selection begins. The chosen assemblies can be as small as handful of people or as large as the G1000 in Belgium, which ended up with 704 participants at the Citizens’ Summit, although more than 6000 individuals took part in the agenda setting phase of the process.

The CA model has been used in Canada and around the world to enhance democracy and help keep governments accountable, on track and close to the populations they’re elected to serve. In 2016, Ireland established a standing CA made up of 100 citizens who help set the political agenda. The United Kingdom, Poland and the Netherlands have also used CAs to help sort through policy options.

Closer to home, both Ontario (2006 to 2007) and British Columbia (2003 to 2004) have held CAs, each of which dealt with electoral reform and made a recommendation that was put to the people of their respective provinces in a referendum. While both recommendations were rejected by voters, in B.C. 57.7 per cent of residents who voted said ‘Yes’ to electoral reform — the only reason the vote failed is that the B.C. Liberal government set the threshold for success at 60 percent.

Participatory Budgeting

The goal of participatory processes is to bring citizens closer to government and to help them set the policy agenda, or even policy itself. That includes the budget, a document that is central to political life since it’s usually where the rubber hits the road on policy — or doesn’t. 

Participatory budgeting (PB) in its current manifestation was pioneered in Brazil in the late-1980s. The idea behind participatory budgeting is to apply popular participation and deliberation to the process of determining where a portion of public funds will go.

The virtues and potential of the PB process are well known. When you give citizens more direct control over resources — even a small portion — they tend to know where to direct them to best serve their communities. Imagine that. 

In a study of PBs, political scientists Michael Touchton and Brian Wampler found that these processes led to more spending on municipal healthcare, sanitation and civil society organisations, and are associated with lower infant mortality. The PB process also helps foster trust and build civic capacity. 

PBs are becoming more common around the world, appearing at various levels of government in states including Brazil, South Korea, the United States, Spain, Poland, India, Portugal, Slovenia, France, Mexico, the U.K. and Canada. 

Indeed, between 2015 and 2017 Toronto ran a PB pilot in which it “invited residents to propose and vote on capital projects to improve their neighbourhood.” The program generated “approximately 2,500 interactions with residents who suggested almost 700 ideas for local improvements, and voted for 37 capital projects worth a total of $1.87M…” And stuff got done. By 2019, as the pilot program final report notes, “All projects selected in 2015 and many from 2016 have been built, and planning is underway for the remaining projects…”

Victoria, B.C ran its own pilot around the same time as Toronto. Victoria extended theirs with plans to continue into 2021. Vancouver is also in on the action

Governing together

Participatory democracy is a necessary complement to representative democracy. I have no interest in replacing councils and legislatures; given the size and complexity of contemporary bureaucratic, regulatory states there will long be a need for elected representatives. 

But the work of those who are elected ought to be accompanied and constrained by regular participatory processes that build civic capacity, help set the political agenda, produce policies that communities want and generate trust among the citizenry and between them and their government. 

The trick, however, is that these processes must count. It’s not enough to merely convene people. Governments must fund these initiatives. Governments must compensate those who take part in them. And governments must listen to what people tell them by ensuring uptake — or at least serious, good-faith consideration — of what the people recommend. 

If participatory efforts are used by politicians as cynical exercises in democracy washing, they won’t work. In fact, they might make things worse by inducing further cynicism and distrust of politics and politicians. 

Making participatory processes a routine part of democratic life is essential to improve democracy at the local, provincial and national levels. But it’s not enough. As we’ll see in the next email, we need to go further by democratizing not only democracy itself, but also the economy.

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