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Practicalities of Participatory Democracy with International Institutions: Attitudinal, Quantitative and Qualitative Challenges (Part #2)


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The matters under discussion have been of concern, in different ways, for many decades. They might be usefully summarized under three categories:

  • Attitudinal: The relationship between intergovernmental institutions and civil society bodies (NGOs, etc) is faced with several fundamental attitudinal problems that date from past practice:

    • For civil society bodies: Problem of official dismay at the efforts by civil society bodies to seek to intervene in governmental processes. This "dismay" can take a variety of forms summarized by a perception of dismissive arrogance and a practice of avoidance of interaction with civil society bodies wherever possible

    • For intergovernmental bodies and delegates: Problem of the bewildering variety of civil society bodies, whose representativity can be readily challenged but whose representatives may be irritatingly persistent in their lobbying activity.

    • Cultural issues: Steps taken to improve participative democracy and consultative relationships may not effectively take into account the various political cultures of the delegates, official or civil society bodies. These may undermine the effectiveness of the relationship in unpredictably ways.

    • Technophobia: The traditional technophobia of intergovernmental institutions is unfortunately matched by a quality of enthusiasm for internet technology that fails to take account of the legitimate concerns of the many civil society bodies who favour face-toface dialogue.

  • Quantitative: There are several purely quantitative constraints and improvement in the quality of participative democracy and relationship with civil society bodies:

    • Number of civil society bodies: Key intergovernmental institutions are now faced with literally thousands of civil society bodies seeks to interact with them in some way. This can be handled as a purely administrative problem of registering their presence and interest. Any question of providing for substantive interaction with either a single official or with an intergovernmental session becomes highly problematic. It can be only be handled by a high order of selectivity or use of "briefing sessions". These completely undermine any sense of "participative democracy", especially when there are legitimate security concerns

    • Number of issues meriting debate: The number and variety of issues that fall within the mandate of intergovernmental bodies continues to increase dramatically. It is increasingly problematic to ensure that these can be handled by disparate intergovernmental sub-groups in relation to to concerned civl society bodies, especially when all concerned are overburdened and face scheduling conflicts.

    • Number of documents: The issue of information overload is common to both intergovernmental delegates and to civil society bodies.

    • Time pressure: All concerned are increasingly faced with severe time constraints. This situation is rendered even more challenging because some of the issues that need to be handled are themselves urgent, possibly to the point of disrupting any possible discussion of secondary concerns that are considered vital by some constituencies

  • Qualitative: The problems associated with the two clusters of points above impact directly on perceptions of the quality of participative democracy and any "consultative relationship". They have direct consequences for an increasing sense of political apathy and democratic deficit. These trends encourage the search for more radical (and occasionally violent) approaches that further diminish the quality of the interaction. Areas of concern include:

    • Quality of dialogue: The quantitative constraints severely undermine the quality of any possible dialogue which may be forced into a a form of unilateral declaration unresponsive to any alternative perspective.

    • Quality of knowledge management: The mass of information and the range of concerned bodies calls for maximal use of the best skills in the merging disciplines of knowledge management and the technologies that support them. The major administrative challenge of ensuring distributing documents currently precludes effective use of such tools to match relevant parties in the light of relevant information.

    • Quality of insight: The complexity of the challenges of modern society calls for processes to ensure the emergence of higher quality insights -- new modes of thinking -- in order to meet these challenges successfully. The above challenges tend to minimize the chance that such new thinking will emerge -- and focus on patterns of thought that tend to have been the basis for inadequate solutions to problems that continue to remain unsolved. It is precisely the quality of these patterns of thought that leads to widespread perception of the ineffectiveness of international institutions -- and discourages involvement of bodies that endeavour to respond to these challenges.

In the discussion below, the emphasis is placed on more effective use of information technology (including internet and web) to respond to the challenges of the interface between intergovernmental and civil society bodies in the light of the attitudinal, quantitative and qualitative challenges above. It is significant that references to the use of internet and web technology in the discussion relating to participative democracy tend to reflect the traditional technophobia of intergovernmental institutions rather than the creative enthusiasm of civil society bodies that have been much empowered by it.


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