Renewing democracy in an age of complexity and disillusionment

Claudia Chwalisz
Feb 11 · 7 min read

The context

In our age of polarisation, populism, and pessimism, the future of democracy and governance have become salient concerns. Books about its end, death or crisis have proliferated. At the same time, there is a refrain about ‘checks and balances’ as a safeguard from full erosion. But are they enough, or does democracy need to evolve to survive? And do its foundations of strong civil society and civic space need attention? As John Dewey remarked in Freedom and Culture (1939), we must not believe that “democratic conditions automatically maintain themselves… for what is actually going on may be the formation of conditions that are hostile to any kind of democratic liberties”.

We often find explanations for our current malaise in economic terms — the “left behind” revolting against inequality and globalisation. Others argue that it is rather due to identity and cultural anxieties, aggravated by immigration. There is some truth in both of these theories; the intended and unintended consequences of globalisation have been in tandem with long-term trends in value changes.

However, there is a third part of the puzzle. The trust upon which liberal societies rely upon to function has been damaged. There was never a ‘golden age’, but public disenchantment and distrust have reached historic highs in the past few years. While the 2018 Gallup World Poll suggests that trust in government in OECD countries is back to pre-crisis levels (45%), it varies widely from above 70% in Switzerland and Luxembourg to 20% or less in Greece and Latvia. It also remains far below levels first measured in the 1950s and 60s.

Confidence in national government in 2018 and its change since 2007. Source: OECD (2019), Government at a Glance 2019, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Furthermore, as Will Davies writes:

“The project that was launched over three centuries ago, of trusting elite individuals to know, report and judge things on our behalf, may not be viable in the long term, at least not in its existing form. It is tempting to indulge the fantasy that we can reverse the forces that have undermined it, or else batter them into retreat with an even bigger arsenal of facts. But this is to ignore the more fundamental ways in which the nature of trust is changing”.

Image: Protest Posters, Tree Abraham (CC)

This trend coincides with ever greater numbers of people feeling like their voice does not count. Recent elections and protests around the world highlight that the most economically disempowered feel not just disillusioned, but forgotten by the democratic system, distant from any meaningful expression of agency to shape the decisions affecting their lives.

As Peter MacLeod aptly says, the triangulated relationship between the people, public servants, and politicians has thus gone awry. The people say, “You don’t speak for me”. Public servants say, “But you only speak for yourselves”. And politicians respond defensively with: “I have a mandate”. How to overcome the divisions that arise from this situation?

Defending democracy requires us to recognise that the failings of our current system to address some of the most pressing challenges are partly due to democratic processes and institutions that are not fully fit for purpose anymore. It’s not only the outcomes of the political game that count; the rules of the game shape the outcomes. In many OECD countries, these rules were set in the 18th century. While advances have been made, and policy makers use new tools, the institutional architecture of the system has remained largely unchanged.

In their book New Power, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms describe that there is an increasing move away from ‘old power’ to ‘new power’ values:

The New Citizenship Project has also highlighted the shift in thinking of people as consumers, which leads to asking what one can sell “them” or provide for “them”, to thinking of people as citizens, asking to what we can all contribute.

The logic of top-down public service delivery, political parties competing for our votes, and measuring societal success by financial economic outputs dominated the past few decades, but is increasingly out of date.

Given the new opportunities also brought by technology, the new paradigm is about empowering people and accelerating wider civic momentum for a more open, equitable and participatory world.

In this light, the OECD has launched a new area of work that aims to address some of these challenges and seize the opportunity to shape the conversation around the future of democracy.

The OECD’s Innovative Citizen Participation work will explore the paradigm changes already underway towards a more inclusive governance. We will tap into this collective intelligence to better understand the new forms of deliberative, collaborative and participatory decision making that are happening, analysing what works well and what doesn’t, and asking how democratic institutions might change in the longer term as a result.

We are living the principles we advocate, taking a collaborative approach by working in an interdisciplinary way across the organisation, as well as with the OECD Innovative Citizen Participation Network of democratically and civically minded individuals and organisations who are already ideating, prototyping and iterating a future, open democracy. Participo will also serve as a new platform of digital exchange on these questions.

Activities and outputs

This area of work has three pillars of activity and output: (1) research & analysis of innovative citizen participation practices; (2) the OECD Innovative Citizen Participation Network, and (3) the Participo Medium publication.

1. Research & analysis of innovative citizen participation practices

There are many different types of innovative citizen participation. Given the focus on inclusiveness and representativeness in the OECD Recommendation of the Council on Open Government (2017), the first focus in this research series is on deliberative processes, such as Citizens’ Assemblies, Juries, and Panels. They are one part of a bigger picture of the systemic change that is needed.

The first output is a forthcoming international report: Catching the Deliberative Wave: Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions (June 2020):

Image: Toronto Planning Review Panel, MASS LBP. It is an example of one of the types of deliberative processes that is described in the forthcoming OECD report.

The report builds a new international evidence base about the use of deliberative processes for public decision-making in OECD Member countries, presenting a comparative analysis regarding design integrity, sound deliberation, and influence on public decisions. It identifies and compares different models of deliberative processes and highlights global, regional and national trends. The empirical sections are based on an analysis of 56 different variables.

The cases included in this study needed to meet a minimum of three criteria to be included:

  1. Impact: The process must be commissioned by a public institution;
  2. Representativeness: Participants are chosen through random selection with demographic stratification, and
  3. Deliberation: Requires time, operationalised as a minimum of one full day of face-to-face meetings.

The data in this report is a repository of as many cases as possible that fit the minimum criteria of inclusion during the data collection period of January-October 2019. The data collection was conducted through desk research, a targeted call to the international Democracy R&D Network of deliberative practitioners, and an open call through the OECD Toolkit Navigator for Open Government Platform.

Two chapters have been co-produced with international advisory groups of practitioners, civil servants, and academics who are implementing, experimenting and studying deliberative processes. With their contributions and extensive feedback, the report identifies principles of good practice for deliberative processes used for public decision-making and addresses the increasingly salient questions of whether and how these processes should be institutionalised, or embedded, in public decision-making procedures.

The report will be launched at the Danish Democracy Festival on 11th June 2020. Stay tuned for more info!

2. OECD Innovative Citizen Participation Network

As part of this area of work, the OECD has been engaging with a network of practitioners, designers, academics, researchers, civil servants, and curators to frame the topic and scope of research, to gather feedback and inputs to the research in an ongoing manner, and to strengthen the ties between these important groups of actors.

The objectives of the network are to:

  • Enable international connections and collaborations between democratic innovators
  • Shape the OECD Open Government Unit’s work on innovative citizen participation
  • Connect the worlds of practitioners, academics, designers, and civil servants
  • Provide physical and digital spaces for exchange through an annual meeting and the Participo platform

3. Participo publication

This new Medium publication, Participo, is a digital space of exchange between public servants, practitioners, researchers, academics, and designers about innovative citizen and the future of democracy more broadly. The OECD team in charge of this area of work will post regular blogs and updates about the project, research, related events, and interviews with experts. There will also be external content commissioned by the OECD team on the key themes of this area of work.

Please note that this is a moderated forum that is subject to the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy of the OECD website. The views expressed and arguments employed herein are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OECD or its member countries. The Organisation cannot be held responsible for possible violations of copyright resulting from the posting of any written material on this website. Your comments to posts are valuable; please contribute in a civil and constructive way. OECD reserves the right to delete or edit any comments before they are published. The OECD Secretariat will not respond systematically to each contribution. Note that the views expressed can be personal views.

More information about the OECD Innovative Citizen Participation area of work is available here. You can also follow our activities on Twitter: #delibWave.


Participo is a digest for the OECD Open Government Unit’s area of work on innovative citizen participation. Articles by external contributors are their own and do not reflect the views of the OECD.

Claudia Chwalisz

Written by

Leading work on innovative citizen participation at OECD. Author of ‘The People’s Verdict’ and ‘The Populist Signal’. Views my own.



Participo is a digest for the OECD Open Government Unit’s area of work on innovative citizen participation. Articles by external contributors are their own and do not reflect the views of the OECD.

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