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Practical considerations for a participative democracy

Practicalities of Participatory Democracy with International Institutions: Attitudinal, Quantitative and Qualitative Challenges (Part #6)

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Each of the following constraints can be bypassed by available internet technologies or developments that have already been envisaged and tested:

Physical architecture: Few intergovernmental meeting rooms are designed to permit an increased number of participants -- on whatever equality of footing. Already the EU will be greatly challenged in this respect in the case of the new member countries. The only way in which civil society representatives can be included physically is therefore by severely reducing the number allowed into the physical environment. This may indeed be done by requiring that civil society bodies nominate a representative through some collective forum. This may appear to solve the problem in the short term. It will however only make more evident how inadequate is the capacity of such representation in practice.

Organizing representative bodies: As implied above, the social architecture of hierarchical civil society bodies, that may be organized (in an "organized civil society") to "represent" their civil: society members, points to a fundamental challenge in a world of social networks. Few autonomous civil society bodies have a desire to be represented by others, especially if the representative has at the same time also to represent bodies holding divergent positions. An intergovernmental body may indeed hope to simplify its own challenges of representative democracy by expecting that conflicting views are settled within the context of external civil society forums. But clearly the frustration of bodies poorly represented will quickly become evident. This will only aggravate the tendency for marginalized bodies to seek out direct interaction with government representatives sympathetic to their views - undermining the coherence of participative democracy through non-democratic processes that already exist

Quantity of information: Considerable qualities of information are associated with the representation of democratic views in an increasingly technical society. Present practice involves the physical transfer of bulky documents under conditions that are increasingly impractical for those who receive them. The process is also expensive for those who generate them and for those who have to store them. This strongly suggests the merit of electronic documentation - which intergovernmental bodies have extensively explored - and on which civil society bodies have long been dependent

Knowledge organization: A principal issue in relation to the quantity of information is its organization to facilitate access to the right knowledge at the right time - appropriately set within an inter-disciplinary and inter-sectoral framework. This is increasingly impractical in conventional processes and in those currently envisaged to replace them. There are many approaches to this problem in an electronic environment that could be usefully explored. The alternative would seem to be to use lack of access to appropriate information as the excuse for inadequate policy-making. This would seem to be as unacceptable as pleas of ignorance of legal constraints.

Dissemination: The range of bodies involved in policy-making is large and may well be unknown to any one body - justifiably ignorant of the interests of some other body. The costs of dissemination of paper documents are very high - at a time when electronic dissemination offers ways of ensuring access to a wide audience without constraints on print runs, etc.

Language: In a democratic society that may involve a minimum of 25 language groups, and in which key people may have only a limited command of the languages of the people they have been appointed to represent, there is every argument to benefit from other technologies to ensure that a heightened level of alternative communication can compensate for such deficiencies - rather than have them aggravate the democratic deficit.

Psycho-social communication issues: There are major issues in communication processes - especially in a democratic society. Some people have greater strengths in face-to-face communication, speaking to an audience, or corridor lobbying - others have greater strengths in written communication (whether print-based or electronic). All such strengths may be conditional on skill in particular languages - and may involve cultural preferences, and to the possibility that some are physically, socially or mentally handicapped in processing communications. Greater sensitivity to these issues is required in addressing issues of participative democracy. Many of these have been more explicitly addressed in electronic environments.

Time constraints: Participative democracy is subject to enormous time constraints - as is evident in the case of the selectivity and prioritising with which items are included on agendas for debate and decision. It might be argued that it is completely unacceptable that such time constraints are used to abusively marginalize issues of interest to smaller constituencies in a democracy - whilst continuing to plead that decision-making is democratically participative.

Geographical constraints: Intergovernmental bodies are increasingly required to act in terms of the interests of peoples spread geographically distant countries. It is unacceptable that such distances are used abusively to minimize the representation of interested parties in debates - as is the case when participative democracy is dependent on the ability to participate physical in meetings, whatever the costs of transportation, accommodation, etc. electronic communication has long been demonstrated to bypass this problem.

Metaphoric impoverishment: Policy options are articulated, debated, and presented by the media for support, through the use of metaphors ("baskets", "pillars", "shields", etc). A key question is whether current proposals for participative democracy will engender richer metaphors capable of sustaining new kinds of policy that are more responsive and comprehensible to the needs of the population - and more capable of engendering new modes of imaginative social organization. The intimate relationship between appropriate governance and its supportive metaphors needs to be more effectively integrated into information in support of policy articulation and presentation.

Focus and coherence of policy options: The above points raise concerns about how appropriate knowledge and best practice is gathered, ordered, prioritised for relevance, subject to comment, and made accessible to those most in need of it and best capable of acting on it. Current discussion of participative democracy would appear to have ignored those technologies that address these issues directly - in favour of past patterns of organization that have contributed directly to a perception of democratic deficit.

Imaginative communication: The key phenomenon that has provoked the pursuit of participative democracy is the increasing level of apathy amongst the population with regard to political processes and their unimaginative outcomes. This is most evident in the contrast between the uni-media, un-interactive presentations of policy options - in a context in which many have access, in their homes or cafes, to sophisticated multi-media facilities. One EESC Conference conclusion stressed that the Lisbon strategy "needs to catch the popular imagination".

The possibilities of presenting policy challenges and options with such technologies have not been effectively considered in relation to issues of participative democracy. They notably offer the possibility of bypassing language constraints and the widespread challenge of functional illiteracy.

As an example, the online databases of the Union of International Associations (covering over 40,000 civil society bodies, 30,000 world problems, and 40,000 strategies) can be explored around the world using interactive visualization tools - integrated with tools used to enhance policy meetings (see access). Development of such facilities was funded by the European Commission from 1997-2000 ( This data also appears in book form in the Yearbook of International Organizations: Guide to global civil society networks and in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.

NB: There are many relevant studies pointing to the merits of employing electronic methods to a much higher degree in support of both participative democracy and more effective policy-making. The author was the evaluation team coordinator for the UNESCO Evaluation of the Cooperation between UNESCO and Non-Governmental Organizations (1995). Other references are indicated in the following.

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