What makes participatory processes democratic? From external to internal inclusion

Jane Alver

Jane Alver is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

Contemporary democracies are faced with a difficult tension: One the one hand we see the proliferation of participatory spaces across the world, yet on the other hand citizens still feel dissatisfied with the way democracy works, and they feel disconnected from the actual decision-making processes. In order to overcome this tension, we need to change our approach to inclusion and design democratic processes to allow space for broader styles of communication and interaction. 


Think of a time when you felt you weren’t being listened to. Now think of a time when you were being listened to. You had a voice. What was different? What did the setting do right? Was the design different? How can we design institutions that increase and deepen citizen participation in community and political decision-making processes? There is growing disillusionment with the current institutions of democracy, yet at the same time there is also increasing interest in new ways of involving citizens in the political decisions that affect their lives. As Graham Smith notes in a recent piece, when we look around the world we see participatory budgeting in Brazil, Citizens' Assemblies on Electoral Reform in Canada, direct legislation in California and Switzerland and emerging experiments in e-democracy among many other examples.

Online discussion forums have also been proposed as solutions to the practical limits to mass deliberation though they also generate problems for democracy. Researchers have pointed out that political choices are made both about the format and operation of the online discussion, and that this affects the possibility of deliberation. It has been widely argued that democratic methods such as citizen assemblies, and electronic participation can improve the quality of democracy.

However not all is rosy. There is still exclusion in participatory process. Allegedly participatory processes often exclude members of racial and ethnic minorities, with fewer women than men, fewer working class people than professionals, are age biased, and rarely involve people with disabilities. There is structural exclusion, through practical norms we are so used to we see them as normal, that is what proper speaking sounds like, biases against accents, biases against speaking haltingly. These prejudices limit the voices of many people in the room, if they even come into the room.


What is the problem? Internal vs external inclusion

Feminist academics have argued that simply having differing groups in the room is not enough to make for inclusive democratic processes. In her seminal work ‘Inclusion and Democracy’, Iris Young, for instance made a distinction between external and internal inclusion.  External inclusion is about formal presence of marginalised groups, not about their influence in the debate. By assuring external inclusion only, participatory practices risk reflecting the interests and perspectives of the more socially powerful groups in the room unless explicit measures are taken to counter this tendency. Take the example globally of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations. Based on my participation there as a civil society delegate in 2015, I observed that it was not designed well and voices were silenced. Despite having access passes to the main building, the civil society venue for parallel sessions is blocks away making it difficult to juggle attendance at both. There is little interaction as a result between states and civil society organisations. Access passes are restricted so we could not enter the negotiation on working methods. We protested the exclusion of grassroots and women’s non-governmental voices on the UN steps with our mouths taped shut.

This is where the importance of design and good facilitation come to the fore. An opening up of methods that could be used more to build an authentic community wide vision for positive social change through innovative design is the key. To counter structural exclusion, organisers of events need to create adequate time so that voices can be heard not just sound bites, paying lip service. We need to hear dissent.  For example agenda setting bodies that represent diverse constituencies, facilitators whose job is to introduce unmentioned topics and self-conscious mechanisms for widening discussion and challenging consensus. The recent ACT Council of Social Service Inc. (ACTCOSS) conference in Canberra introduced for instance a Dangerous Ideas café with provocateurs as facilitators.

As academic Iris Marion Young says that to be democratic deliberation must be widely inclusive of the major interest, opinions and social perspectives of differently situated groups. The more inequality (social, economic, political) among them the more cultural differences they have the wider the variance in value commitments and the more contentious the deliberation is likely to be. You can mediate conflict by using small or less public bodies for discussion. Differing and disagreeing people do not have to be together all the time. Sometimes it is better for diverse groups to organise themselves and deliberate about what they want in order to build their confidence to present their ideas as a whole or send informed representatives.

Imbalances of power favour one perspective over another and cultural patterns favour one style of communicating over another and favour rational debate. A limited view scorns emotional input even where it yields additional insight. 


What is the solution?  Internal inclusion requires flexible design

Ensuring broader community engagement requires flexibility about design and type of engagement not just inviting one more person into the room. Citizen engagement in local community activities can be increased through better design. Facilitators and participants can both articulate values up front such as diversity, shared vision, accountability, support and all of this will help to generate ownership.

Consultations need to be supported, if they are to be sustainable. Be conscious that the choice of location and time of meetings can impede participation. You want to hear more than just from ‘the usual suspects’. Designers need to be able to capture input in multiple ways for examkle online, mail, phone, in person. Strengthen the will of those to speak out. Assist potential dissenters to find at least one ally.

Build in community voice into the design of the group. My school board of which I am the Chair has a community member position, and the private hospital board on which I sit which comprises staff, former clients, local business people, former staff and community members.  In order to make public hearings less intimidating get off the stage and out from behind the microphone, be creative with ways of contributing for example get the children involved through colouring of their vision, students in essay competitions.


Moving forward – Some innovative ideas and examples

I am a firm believer that forums such as the ACTCOSS event are for starting a discussion about new ideas not merely listing ideas already tried and tested, I want to propose that it is not enough to merely invite diverse voices into the room if we say to them– ‘you have to stick to the already set rules.  Speak a certain way. Look a certain way. Communicate in a certain way. Rational, unemotional.‘ We can all learn from innovative examples. See for example the Members of European Parliament  who on 29 January 2013 in Brussels, rose and danced with Eve Ensler in a One Billion Rising flashmob to call for an end to violence against women and girls. See the Commission on the Status of Women 2015 youth forum drawing which captured key messages.

At a forum of young women emerging leaders from Asia, Pacific and Africa I recently attended in Myanmar participants shared stories, co-designed the space and the forums designed to build skills to mobilise for change. There were multiple voices and accents, with multiple presenters supporting each other to more confidently present in English (not being their native language), singing, dance, theatre, posters, sharing, social media, and creating selfies all towards a common vision for positive change. The participants were joyful when they sang together and laughs were plenty. So were tears which were also contagious! One person’s tears sprouted others tears in empathy as they told of their life’s journey and barriers faced and overcome. Genuine bonds were established in 5 days - a cohort of young women leaders established to support one another globally.

This blog entry is based on my presentation to the ACTCOSS conference on citizen voice and building a community vision for positive social change. My call to action at that forum: to broaden even more the types of communication to broaden the voices we hear. I invited the assembled audience that if they liked the ideas they had heard, not to politely clap but to whoop and holler. Whoop they did.

You can follow Jane on Twitter @janealver

Follow us
Why the EPBC Act Does Not Need a Review, it Needs Replacing (by @Global_Garden0) https://t.co/Y5MK9NF4Uz @UCIGPA? https://t.co/2Qv5eQY46Z
Does COVID-19 Change the Debate about Democracy? Read our new blog post by @MarkEvansACT @ProfStoker who are lookin? https://t.co/qv57AluFBu
Interesting reading on implications for the ACT Budget from #Coronavirus, by Jon Stanhope and Khalid Ahmed today:? https://t.co/K14Gy13p1e
The latest #BlackLivesMatter protests highlight how American policing falls short of its charge, by @KoehlerJA? https://t.co/d1yWMLGjrU
New by Jon Stanhope and Khalid Ahmed: Should Auditor-General audit Annual Budget? https://t.co/OtjSdhkuF0 @UCIGPA? https://t.co/U9doiHcNZR
NEW: Are We becoming Digital Slaves? Why Online 'Privacy' is a Misnomer - by Mick Chisnall @UCIGPA? https://t.co/oTNsKHbFU2