14th November 2003
Practicalities of Participatory Democracy with International
Attitudinal, Quantitative and Qualitative Challenges
- / -
Prepared for the Union of International
Associations in the light of the debate with respect to the European Constitution
and the explorations of the UN Secretary-General's High
Level Panel of Eminent Persons on Civil Society and UN Relationships
The purpose of the following text is to draw attention to some of the issues
relating to the practicalities of participative democracy as a major theme under
discussion in relation to the new European Constitution (notably Article 46).
The matter is to be the subject of a conference (8-9 March 2004) involving the
European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). A conference of European civil
society is to also be held in Spring 2004 in Rome with the theme: "The
European Civil Society - role in the Constitution process of the EU"
Other relevant initiatives include:
- The EESC has held a series of "Information and Dialogue Meetings with
Civil Society Organisations and Networks" in relation to the European convention
process. A Civil Society Contact Group has been created with the intention
of developing a structured relationship with the Praesidium of the Convention.
- An EESC conference was recently held on "Contribution of Organised
Civil Society to the Lisbon Process - for a more participatory Union"
(October 2003) at which "practical proposals" were presented "to
get the Lisbon strategy back on track in time for the 2004 Spring Summit".
Many of the issues debated are also relevant in relation to the UN Secretary-General's
High Level Panel of Eminent Persons
on Civil Society and UN Relationships whose main task is to produce a set
of practical recommendations for the Secretary General in April 2004 on how
the UN's relationship with civil society, as well as with private sector and
parliaments, could be improved (see the Terms
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
- 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.
Practical approaches to participative democracy
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
- As invited presenters: Presenters may have the right to speak
under precisely defined rules, possibly to present a written declaration
- As full participants: This is the format pioneered by the tripartite
organization of the ILO, but restricted to a highly select group of civil
- 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.
Electronic variants and developments of the above options
With the development of internet and related technologies, many of the above
options can be expanded -- whether in a loose manner or in a highly regulated
one. Such developments:
- can benefit rapidly from internet technology already in place
- allow for continuing exploration of more cost-effective and participative
modes of communication
- can build on considerable experience with such possibilities within civil
society networks (many owe their recent international success in a constrained
resource environment to competent and innovative use of internet technology)
- allow very specific and practical meaning to be given, through electronic
protocols, to the range of forms of communication (surveys, consultation,
information, media, etc), project elaboration and project implementation.
Relatively limited attention has been given to the cost-effective potential
of this electronic option in considering the practical options for increased
participate democracy. For example there is no trace of the exercise:
Collective Learning Online: a report on the Information Society and Governance
Project. (sponsored by the European Commission's Forward Studies Unit and
the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies,1998). It is unclear what
impact the 3rd European Conference on e-Government (Dublin, July 2003) has
on participative democracy issues. Emphasis has however been placed on the e-governance
theme by the initiative of the Barcelona European Council that drew up an Action
Plan for eEurope 2005.
The latter focused notably on e-government and e-learning services
- presumably integral to a more participative democracy in a learning society.
But conversely, that Action Plan restricts its concern with e-government to
"connecting public administrations" and "providing interactive public services"
- without any reference to participative democracy. Why there
is such a degree of absence of cross-fertilization of European intergovernmental
policy priorities in relation to participative democracy? This deserves close
attention in the light of the 1998 Aarhus Convention on Access to Information,
Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental
Review of the March 2004 Conference agenda
(in the light of the above distinctions)
Session I: The European Constitution and participative democracy
in the new Europe: This session is designed to respond to the question
of whether a civil dialogue already exists and whether it corresponds to the
needs of a new Europe.
In the light of the above criteria, it may be said that such a dialogue does
indeed exist. However it is a dialogue that has taken a minimalist form that
is readily perceived as being a non-dialogue and a means of claiming that
dialogue takes place when it does not -- according to the criteria of some
of the potential participants.
Session II: Towards a European civil dialogue: Here the initial focus
is on the "institutionalisation of lobbying" as the key to effective
civil society participation. This might easily be described as a simplistic
and impractical reframing of existing practice -- without exploring the "informatisatisation
of participative democracy processes" appropriate to its implementation.
Emphasis cannot be sufficiently strongly made to the problematic mathematics
of participation: Thousands of "civil society" lobbyists facing understaffed
and overloaded "civil servants" -- whose prime motivation must necessarily
be to reduce the time devoted to any "participative" interaction and the workload
that it might engender.
An appropriate metaphor describing the challenge is the problem for increasing
numbers of piglets in interacting fruitfully with their mother pig - who has
only a very restricted number of teats, encouraging a feeding frenzy. The
problematic suggestion that some piglets should overcome this difficulty by
using the teats of those privileged ("representative") piglets with direct
access to the mother is central to the perception of public apathy.
A second emphasis is on the criteria by which civil society actors can claim
to be adequately representative of the general interest. The manner in which
such selectivity can be manipulated to exclude those that can be successfully
labelled "unrepresentative" (whilst devising backdoor methods for including
those whose insights are valued as supportive) has long been explored. This
selectivity leads immediately to the dissatisfaction of those who perceive
their interests to be poorly represented. This emphasis addresses the practical
quantitative issue by a political subterfuge -- without seeking to benefit
from communication technologies that might reframe the challenge more meaningfully
for the benefit of all.
A third emphasis raises the possibility of applying learnings from the European
social dialogue (eg trade unions and employers) to the European civil dialogue.
This raises the question as to whether the social dialogue itself is to be
deemed appropriate to the challenge.
Session III: Participative democracy: for a new partnership between all
the actors of European governance: The first challenge here is to find
a way to avoid alienating the privileged social actors (trade unions and employers)
in the pursuit of participative democracy. The term "complementary" is put
forward - but without any articulation of the practical steps that would make
such complementarity credible.
The second emphasis is on the role of such social actors in civil dialogue
where acquired their privileges would be to some degree undermined.
The third emphasis is on the role of intergovernmental bodies, and their
new responsibilities, in any civil dialogue
Structure of European events: It is a reflection of the nature of
the challenge of participative democracy that the structure of events promoting
it -- and the manner of selecting, organizing and involving participants --
in many ways anticipates the kind of outcomes expected.
As might be expected, the "principal" European organizations and networks
of civil society are to be consulted and invited to formulate propositions
for the conference and those who are to represent them. Is there no sense
that the popular apathy that Article 46 is designed to address derives directly
from negative perceptions about the non-participative nature of such processes,
however much they can be presented as democratic (as with "democratically"
elected governments that represent their electorates).
In the light of current thinking, to be practical the event has to involve
a degree of selectivity and traditional organization that precludes the kinds
of possibilities already evident in other arenas. Why, it might be asked,
have the opportunities of electronic technology not been used to overcome
the challenges to organizing such an important event by conventional means?
Why have they not even been considered not that such technology is becoming
available in every office and increasingly in every home?
Practical considerations for a participative
Each of the following constraints can be bypassed by available internet
technologies or developments that have already been envisaged
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
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
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.
- Coherent Policy-making Beyond the Information Barrier: Circumventing dependence
on access, classification, penetration, dissemination, property, surveillance,
interpretation, disinformation, and credibility. 1999 [text]
- The Challenge of Cyber-Parliaments and Statutory Virtual Assemblies. 1998 [text]
- Future Operation of International Organizations within an Electronic Environment:
framework for reflection on intra- and inter-organizational issues of relevance
to both intergovernmental organizations and NGOs. Brussels, 1996 [text]
- Statement by the Union of International Associations on Secretary-General's
Report on NGOs. 1999 [text] (in response to "Arrangements and practices for the interaction of NGOs
in all activities of the UN System", A/53/170, 10 July
- Enhancing Sustainable Development Strategies through Avoidance of Military
Metaphors. 1998 [text]
- Enhancing the Quality of Email Dialogue using Artificial Intelligence. 2001
- Knowledge Gardening through Music: patterns of coherence for future African
management as an alternative to Project Logic. 2000 [text]
- Enhancing the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West metaphors.
- Undermining Open Civil Society: Reinforcing unsustainable restrictive initiatives.
- Interacting Fruitfully with Un-Civil Society: the dilemma for non-civil society
organizations. 1996 [text]
- NGOs and Civil Society: Realities and Distortions. 1994 [text]
- Policy Options for Civil Society through Complementary Contrasts. 1994 [text]
- Problems Hindering Action of International Nongovernmental Organizations. 1980
- Principles of Transnational Action: an attempt at a set of guidelines. 1973
- Mapping World Problems: illustrated by the case of IGOs and NGOs. 1972 [text]
- Metaphor as a Language for Global Governance. 1993 [text]
- International Organizations and the Generation of the Will to Change. 1970