Democracy’s not as broken as you’d think — here’s how we prove that
By Scott Fletcher, Managing Editor, Participedia
When I was first hired on the Participedia Project, I was an undergrad, disenchanted with the political system, and completely ignorant to the world of democratic innovations. After a week on the job, reading through and cleaning up case entries, my understanding of political participation had been turned on its head, my belief in the power of the ‘ordinary citizen’ confirmed, and my faith in democracy restored. Almost 4 years later and I still get excited every time I log in to the site.
To many of those familiar with Participedia, the site is a place to document formal or ‘institutionalised’ democratic innovations. For those unfamiliar with the site, that last sentence probably looks like it’s written in Greek. The first two questions that popped into my undergrad mind are probably the same ones you have right now: ‘what is a democratic innovation?’ and ‘who cares?’
The answer to that first question isn’t really an answer at all, because — contrary to popular (or perhaps ‘Western’) belief — democracy and democratic participation can exist beyond formal institutions of political power. Democratic innovations are really just alternative ways of participating in public life — ie. beyond voting, signing a petition, or running for office. Sure, there are the very formal, institution-adjacent examples like Citizens’ Assemblies and participatory budgeting, but what happens when we step outside of the world of policy and politicians? Suddenly, democratic innovation and alternative forms of public participation — or, as I like to think of it, participation in the public good — are everywhere!
Think of it this way: democratic innovations include any action or event that:
- Gets people more involved in decision-making,
- Gives citizens more control over the decisions that affect them,
- Brings people together as a community, and
- Instills democratic values like inclusion, trust, and respect.
You don’t have to look very far to start finding examples. Grassroots activism and organised demonstrations allow people to take action and be heard outside the election cycle. Participatory art installations allow residents to interact with their environment and each other. Community-owned enterprises give residents direct say over the distribution and quality of resources. Even Burning Man is an example of democratic innovation!
Now I think we can tackle the second question: ‘who cares?’ That one’s easy: anyone who’s ever wanted to make a difference in their own life or someone else’s; anyone who’s ever felt powerless to change the status quo; and everyone that thinks political participation is an exercise in futility. Voting is not the be-all and end-all of democratic participation and government is neither the life blood nor the heart of democracy. People — ‘ordinary citizens’ — are.
I like to think of Participedia as a kind of Pandora's box: once I opened it, my world was never the same. Suddenly, I was finding examples of hope in a time when so much of my newsfeed is filled with suffering, anger, and conflict. Now, every time I come across people-powered solutions, grassroots organisations, and public participation projects, I enter them into Participedia. Those protestors demanding more action on climate change? “Participedia!” That summer camp bringing together Jewish and Palestinian Israeli youth? “Quick Submit!” A laundry truck helping the unhoused access clean clothes? “Siri, open Participedia.net!”
Adding cases and examples to Participedia is like adding fuel to a fire: the more cases we collect, the more people we’ll inspire to take action; to lead a participatory process of their own, to research and design better ways of engaging citizens, or to simply feel more empowered to make a difference. Because if there’s one thing Participedia taught me and that it can teach everyone else, it’s that we do matter; we can make a difference, and there are ways of making our voices heard beyond the ballot box.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Participedia or its partners.