Can direct democracy reenergize West's disillusioned voters?

Innovative activists across Europe and the US are launching experiments to involve people more actively in political life, though with some mixed results.

From 26 September to 1 October 2014 the Parisians for the first time vote for the projects of tomorrow "Paris Participatory Budgeting." ballot box and ballots in the town hall of the 2nd district.

One recent evening, as rain poured down outside, Ana Paula Lima chose a seat at one of the six tables spread out around her local village hall, its walls decorated with blue and white ceramic tiles. Slowly, others trickled in. At 9:45 p.m., when Mass at the nearby church was over, the meeting began.

Ms. Lima, a 30-something high school teacher, had come to present her idea for a riverside park to other residents of this suburb of Águeda, an industrial town in northern Portugal, and to win their support to get it funded by the city government. Others at the assembly had competing pet projects to promote.

Welcome to participatory democracy, Portuguese style, which gives citizens a chance to come up with their own ideas of how to make their lives better, campaign for community backing for those ideas, and see them made real with public money.

“We have the feeling that politics is corrupt, and it’s difficult to get involved,” Lima said as a handful of townspeople joined her at her table to discuss the three projects that were up for a vote. “This is a way to do things differently.”

Around the world, citizens are losing faith in the traditional institutions of representative democracy. Voter turnout is dropping; political party membership has slumped; a growing number of voters say they are disenchanted about being ignored by an elitist, unresponsive political class.

Peter Ford/The Christian Science Monitor
Ana Paula Lima at the participatory budgeting session in Valongo do Vouga, Portugal.

But at the same time, in many parts of the world, innovative activists are launching imaginative experiments to involve people more actively in political life. And while focused primarily at the local level because of added complications on a larger scale, such efforts give people a real say in some of the decisions that affect their lives.

Relying on citizens to decide issues is not new; juries do that routinely in court. But new forms of direct democracy “give people more voice and more options over questions that are close to them,” says Tanja Aitamurto, a member of the Crowdsourced Democracy Team at Stanford University in California.

That’s a better fit with today’s society, say advocates of new decisionmaking processes. “In the 21st century, citizens are more educated, have the internet, and are not afraid of authority,” says Matt Leighninger, who works for the New York-based nonprofit Public Agenda. “They want to be heard and to contribute.”

All about trust

The idea behind these democratic experiments is that people will have greater trust in decisions they, or their neighbors, have made themselves. And when politicians implement those decisions, some of that confidence will rub off on them.

They could use that trust. In the United States, just 10 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the country’s overall political system, while 51 percent have only some confidence and 38 percent have hardly any confidence, according to a poll last year by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

And it’s not just an American problem. Milan Ranđelović, the head of economic development in Serbia’s third-largest city, Nis, knows what it looks like, too.

“The city government has a telephone help line, an SMS service, and an app for citizens to report problems in their neighborhoods,” he says. “They don’t use them; they call in to local radio shows instead. People have lost faith in the system.”

It’s a common phenomenon. In 21 of the 28 countries surveyed by the Edelman Trust Barometer last year, citizens who trusted their government were in the minority. In 19 countries, a majority believe that their political and social systems are failing.

And that translates into apathy. Around the world, voter turnout at elections has been sliding for the past 30 years, studies by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Stockholm show. It has gotten so bad in Europe, a recent International IDEA report warned, that “there is a risk that elections might lose their appeal ... as a fundamental tool of democratic governance.”

The most popular idea

Of all the new and alternative tools that have sprung up in recent years, none have spread as widely across the globe as participatory budgeting, the process in which citizens make binding decisions on how to spend public funds.

Boosters see it as a remedy for many ills, from corruption to political extremism. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

In Valongo do Vouga the other evening, Lima had a chance to put forward her project for a riverside recreation area. Eventually it won enough votes to go forward to a feasibility study by city engineers. But the meeting was hardly an example of vibrant democratic debate animated by a sense of civic responsibility.

What happened was that a former mayor of the district, Antonio Rachinhas, had rallied relatives and neighbors to show up and vote en masse for his proposal to spruce up a public park near his home. They spread themselves out among the six discussion tables and dominated the proceedings.

Almost all Mr. Rachinhas’s supporters gave both their votes to his project. Lima’s idea and someone else’s proposal (to fill in a half-built, abandoned swimming pool and grass it over into a sports facility) went through only because the meeting was empowered to approve three projects.

“You often find that these meetings have been decided in advance,” says Cesar Silva, an information technology entrepreneur who sold the software that the  Águeda City Council uses to manage its participatory budget program. “It’s politics.”

That frustrated Daniela Hercolano, the current mayor’s chief of staff and a champion of participatory budgeting who moderated the meeting. “Old pols who know their way around used this space to push their agenda,” she complains. “But that is not usual.”

Participatory budgeting has worked well in the three years since Águeda embraced it, she says, and it has drawn in just the sort of citizens who are disillusioned with the “old pols.” Sixty percent of participants do not normally vote in national or regional elections, according to Ms. Hercolano.

“It has changed two things in the city,” she says. “The administration is closer now to citizens, and to problems it had not been aware of; and it has strengthened the community. It makes Águeda easier to govern, but it means political leaders have to be ready to share management with citizens,” she adds.

Debate on participatory budgeting for mayor of Paris with Anne Hidalgo Mayor of Paris and the Parisians.

Projects around the globe

In the industrialized world, some governments are turning to participatory democracy channels to help set broad policy: The Finnish government invited ideas on how best to regulate off-road vehicles, and in Palo Alto, Calif., the city leaders crowdsourced ways to update their urban planning strategy.

For the most part, though, participatory budget projects in the developed world are small fry, of consequence only to the people living in the neighborhood. In Maribor, for example, a crumbling postindustrial city in Slovenia, participatory democracy activists were motivated by a desire to rebuild a sense of community, but the changes that emerged from the public debates they organized included such mundane things as more trash cans and gardening classes for schoolchildren.

Parisians were particularly keen on having more public toilets and cleaner streets. In Cowdenbeath, Scotland, townspeople chose to extend the network of bicycle paths and build an outdoor gym.

In general, participatory budgeting seems to have worked best when it has funded projects close to people’s homes and hearts, although Portugal is trying a national version this year.

In the developing world, participatory budgeting has had a much stronger effect, says Tiago Peixoto, senior governance specialist at the World Bank and a leading “new democracy” guru. In fact, it saves lives. [Editor's note: This paragraph was updated to clarify Mr. Peixoto's title.]

In Brazilian cities that had been using participatory budgeting for more than eight years, infant mortality rates were 20 percent lower than the national mean, two US researchers found in a 2014 study. That, says Dr. Peixoto, is because “local people know better than governments what they need” and use the money they control to improve sanitation, access to water, and other services that better their health.

In India, citizens’ audits have reduced corruption. Studies in Russia, Latin America, and Europe have found that people cheat on their taxes less in cities where participatory budgeting has given them the sense that their preferences have been taken into account.

“You see positive effects across the spectrum, on citizens’ social capital, on solidarity, on resilience,” says Peixoto. “There are more good development outcomes.”

Reality check

Even participatory democracy’s most enthusiastic advocates do not pretend that its processes always faithfully represent public opinion or that they draw on representative samples. Those who choose to join are a self-selected group.

When participation rates are low, that casts doubt on the legitimacy of the results. If 10 to 15 percent of a local population votes on projects emerging from a participatory budget, that is considered good by most experts in the field.

Technology can help people take part, offering the chance to vote by SMS or on a website, or providing the opportunity to form online discussion groups to refine ideas and lobby for them. A mix of high technology and simple face-to-face meetings tends to elicit the best response, say people whose job it is to design participatory democracy processes.

Even so, cautions Mr. Silva, who designs software to make participation easier in Portugal, “when you haven’t listened to citizens for a hundred years, you cannot expect them to engage massively overnight.”

Equally problematic in many parts of the world is the resistance that local politicians and bureaucrats may put up to the idea of more popular participation in decisionmaking. The ideas that the citizens of Maribor came up with were hardly revolutionary, but the city government dragged its feet at every opportunity, complains Gregor Stamejcic, one of the activists who helped introduce participatory budgeting in his city.

“The municipality does not want to give up its power,” he explains. “They find it a challenge to their authority and don’t see that it could make their job easier.”

Support from the authorities is a key condition for success, says Peixoto. “If politicians feel threatened by this, the process is short-lived,” he warns.

Indeed, a lack of support from the local government can ruin even the strongest experiments.

Earlier this year Porto Alegre, Brazil, which in 1989 became the first city in the world to introduce participatory budgeting and is the global poster child for the whole idea, suspended its program for two years. A backlog of projects that citizens chose but the city could not find the money to pay for was undermining the program’s credibility.

Despite the problems, participatory budgeting is spreading worldwide, and other forms of more direct democracy are going mainstream. Traditional representative democracy may be creaky and showing signs of age, but it is old-fashioned anyway, says Alistair Stoddart, who works for The Democratic Society in Scotland, setting up small-scale direct democracy experiments.

“What is emerging now,” he says, “is a new, 21st-century idea of representation.”

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