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Practical approaches to participative democracy

Practicalities of Participatory Democracy with International Institutions: Attitudinal, Quantitative and Qualitative Challenges (Part #3)

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In assessing future initiatives, the emphasis in this note is on the merit of making an effective distinction between:

  • Verbal presentations and declarations (on the part of all governmental and nongovernmental sectors) supportive of participative democracy: There is a long tradition (notably in relation to UN bodies) of extolling the merits of some manner of involvement of "civil society" and "social partners" in the processes of governance. The focus in practice tends to be on articulations by representatives of intergovernmental bodies suitable for media presentation -- in search of support from civil society bodies in the promotion of established intergovernmental programme priorities.

  • Development of procedures for consultation of representative social actors by representatives of intergovernmental bodies: Again there is a long tradition of what is termed "consultation" of civil society bodies. The term may be used ambiguously to define the right of civil society bodies to "consult" intergovernmental bodies, rather than the right of civil society bodies to be consulted. Such consultation may be articulated through forums of civil society bodies (raising the question as to the participative involvement of any such bodies which perceive themselves to be poorly represented by such forums, whether they are members or not). This consultation may take any of the following forms:

    • Postal consultation and surveys: In this case it is unclear what use is made of any given observation, or whether the consultation is simply a matter of form (to claim that such consultation had been made). Questions may be carefully selected to preclude raising controversial issues of importance to some civil society bodies
    • Collective briefings involving question and answer: In this form a representative of an intergovernmental body will brief any from 20-500 civil society representatives on future programmes and invite questions and comments. This form is problematic because of the perceived selectivity of any invitation list and the simply mathematics of question/answer time if more than a few civil society bodies seek to comment. Again it is totally unclear whether any account is taken in practice of comments made - especially when the session is not recorded and no accessible report is made.
    • Invitation to expert group sessions, including requests to make presentations to them: This form is welcomed by those civil society bodies that are perceived as more acceptable to intergovernmental perspectives. It tends to be perceived as problematic and non-participative if the involvement of some civil society bodies is minimized (selective invitations, minimal time to intervene, absence of government delegates when they do, etc)
    • Invitation of submissions (including contracted reports) from civil society on proposals by intergovernmental bodies: This form may be welcomed by those civil society bodies so invited. It becomes problematic when such requests are perceived as a device to be able to claim effective participation of civil society bodies when the intention is merely to ignore points made in the submissions if they do not support the intergovernmental position, or cannot be answered effectively.
  • Presence of civil society representatives in policy-making meetings: This may take several forms (and again the "representative" may be required to be that of a forum of civil society bodies to restrict numbers):
    • As corridor lobbyists: Participation may be restricted to the right to interact with intergovernmental delegates outside meeting rooms
    • As observers: In this form, civil society bodies are present in the intergovernmental meeting room, possibly with very restricted right to intervene.
    • As invited presenters: Presenters may have the right to speak under precisely defined rules, possibly to present a written declaration or submission
    • As full participants: This is the format pioneered by the tripartite organization of the ILO, but restricted to a highly select group of civil society bodies.

  • Partnership arrangements in the implementation of projects: These are usually articulated through contractual arrangements Criticism of such arrangement by both intergovernmental and civil society bodies include issues of high costs of participating in such processes (especially if contracts funds are not obtained, or are delayed), biases and non-transparency in the bid/evaluation process, long-term sustainability of projects, etc.

The general point to be made with regard to many of the above options is their failure to address the loss of credibility of non-transparent institutional arrangements - however participative they are made to appear. This reinforces tendencies towards apathy - even amongst the well-informed.

The EESC Conference queried whether the Lisbon Strategy for a participatory Union was effectively a priority for the elites "offering little for the ordinary citizen". Briefly stated, the problem for all parties is the extent to which "participative democracy", or "proximity democracy", is an exercise in a form of tokenism with which many civil society bodies are already very familiar - or whether it will be perceived as such, even though efforts are made to ensure an enhanced degree of participation.

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