Our newly released animation, ‘Democracy is more than a vote’, calls for a different way of thinking about both democracy and society. In recent years, our ability to vote or not has seemingly become the single yardstick of whether a country is democratic or not.
Democracy beyond the ballot box
But a vote alone won’t give a person the ability to learn more, to have greater agency or to think more critically about the things that affect their lives. A vote alone won’t give a person the ability to go out and ask for the change they wish to see to make their lives better. And a vote alone won’t give people the agency and ability to shape their futures, rather than being limited to making a judgement about their past. For these reasons, we need to look beyond the ballot box – understanding elections and electoral democracy as one part of a wider, more complex system of democracy.
There is now a renewed sense of urgency about these issues. The appalling quality of debate we continue to experience about Brexit, the growth of populist moments across the world, the sense that citizens have fallen prey to more and more technocratic models of decision making which have locked them out of power, and the emergence of the era of ‘post-truth’, all speak to both the scale of the challenge and the pressing need for change. We also live in an era where knowledge, money and power are arguably less fairly distributed than they have ever been in history.
Democracy as a deliberative system
How might we go about finding a new narrative for democracy that can help address these kinds of huge challenges? Democracy, Professor John Dryzek once said, should be understood as a deliberative system. Consider the word itself – ‘deliberation’ comes from Latin and means ‘to weigh up or to consider well’. Deliberation helps us look to the future; bring diverse people together; encourage learning and reflection; and promote consensus and compromise over bitter divides. In Athens, the use of deliberation helped to support and complement representative democracy (the election of political representatives) by ensuring elected politicians engaged with citizen perspectives and views. When viewed through this historical lens, democracy beyond the ballot box is not a new idea – for us, the task is about restoration (ensuring that it remains true to its roots), as much as it is about innovation.
The ideal of democracy as a deliberative system says that the essence of effective democracies are how able they are to operate as a feedback loop – transmitting and acting as accountability mechanisms between those who hold power; and those who have an interest in the outcome of the issue or the decision. Healthy democracies are able to promote responsiveness and accountability between institutions, experts and citizens; whilst those that fail to, do lack precisely those qualities. In rethinking democracy, we are asked to demand more of ourselves as well as of our institutions – confronting deep cultural change in the way we interact with those whose lives we affect, simply by the mere fact of our own existence.
Democratic restoration and democratic innovation
In our animation, we provide just two examples of the many democratic innovations across the world where countries across the world are seeking to create new and different feedback loops between citizens, experts and politicians on complex and challenging social problems – the kinds of problems that require the ‘whole system’ to be engaged. They are doing so through the creation of ‘mini-publics’; spaces such as citizen juries, assemblies and participatory budgets; which aim, in different ways and to different purposes, to engage the ‘whole system within a room’. We feature examples such as Ireland’s constitutional convention, which proposed a referendum on same-sex marriage, as well as participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil. But there are many other such examples across the world – notably the extended deliberative processes emerging in Canada and in Australia as covered by Claudia Chwalisz’s recently published book, The People’s Verdict. In the UK alone, democratic innovations such as the NHS Citizen Assembly, Democracy Matters, Sciencewise, the Citizens’ Brexit Assembly and the RSA’s very own Citizens’ Economic Council draw upon the principles of deliberative democracy to illustrate the potential of a democracy beyond the ballot box. It is clear from our experience that these types of approaches have to support citizens and experts to refashion a better, less technocratic, less populist and more collaborative democracy.
The scale of the challenge and opportunity ahead
I want to add a few caveats at this stage. Firstly, the growing use of mini-publics has been in response to a widespread perception of a democratic deficit in policymaking. But that is not to say that they alone can solve our most difficult social challenges – they cannot. Systems are complex, emergent and are constituted of individuals and institutions with competing incentives and barriers. Democracies are no exception to this rule. It would be naïve for us to suggest that mini-publics alone have the capability to shape and to create a more deliberative, democratic and legitimate system.
The question of creating a better democracy might present us with more challenges than perhaps we are equipped to answer – but they also present us with opportunities. Perhaps the best description of what these opportunities look like is, again, one of the oldest. The Ancient Greek thinker Archimedes once said; ‘give me a lever, and a fulcrum upon which to place it – and I shall move the world.’ We say that deliberation might be just one of those levers amongst many that exist to effect meaningful democratic systems change – but it’s a vitally important one nevertheless.