& Judy Rebick
is participatory democracy? It is government that involves citizens at every
level of decision-making. The form of participatory democracy we know best in
Canada involves consulting citizens about policy. While experiences like the
citizens constitutional conferences before the Charlottetown Accord are an
important contribution to expanding our notions of democracy, the problem with
them is that they have no power to make decisions. They are strictly
consultative. Real participatory democracy, like the budget process in Porto
Alegre, Brazil, actually involves citizens in decision-making. Other kinds of
participatory democracy include citizens’ participation in the administration of
government, as in the case of citizens’ committees choosing members of boards or
agencies or citizen cooperatives running public services or citizen groups
solving community challenges via local initiative projects that are publicly
funded. For the New Politics Initiative (NPI), participatory democracy would
combine with representative democracy to form a new kind of politics.
Participatory democracy is government by the people and there are many examples
of its emergence today.
global economic level it has become clear that top-down planning is not the best
process to solving the world’s problems. Over the last twenty-five years, the
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) economists, scientists
and academics have attempted to impose their economic, technological and
cultural “expertise” onto the rest of the world with disastrous and violent
results. The countries of the Global South are less economically productive,
poorer and more heavily burdened by debt than they were before they took the IMF
and World Bank’s advice.
Left has also come to realize that the most progressive legislation can be
quickly wiped out by the election of a conservative government. This is
precisely what happened in Canada’s biggest province from 1995 to the present.
From 1990 to 1995, a social democratic government, the New Democratic Party (NDP)
ruled Ontario, home of one third of the Canadian population. Despite its
shortcomings, the party implemented many progressive policies and laws
including, employment equity, stronger labour laws, expanded pay equity, and
improved environmental protection. With the election of the Harris led
Conservatives, citizens of Ontario have watched the new government eliminate
every piece of progressive legislation that had been implemented over previous
Finally every government, even social democratic ones, can lose touch with their
electorate and therefore need regular interaction with the populace.
Participatory democracy not only provides that interaction but it also gives a
left-wing government a base of power outside of the corporate and bureaucratic
elites. The most significant appeal of Porto Alegre’s budget process lies in its
radical reform of the relationship between public, government and business. It
is a “radical reform” because while it does not overthrow capitalism, it
undermines corporate domination of the democratic process and gives left-wing
governments and popular mobilizations legitimacy against corporate power.
annual participatory budget process of Porto Alegre, that has taken place over
the last twelve years, is structured by a number of phases. The budget process
begins in March with citizen forums across sixteen geographic and sectoral areas
of the city. The forums of five hundred to seven hundred people elect two
representatives and two alternates to serve for one year on the participatory
budget council. In April and May, the forum representatives organize smaller
assemblies to propose the priorities that the public wants to see funded over
the following year. Between May and mid-July, the proposed priorities are
forwarded to the current, electorally chosen municipal council. Simultaneously,
the forum representatives attend training sessions on municipal finance. A draft
budget is constructed by the participatory budget council and municipal
bureaucrats and is sent to the mayor and the municipal council (33 councilors
elected by traditional democratic means) for consultation. Between October and
December, the participatory budget council amends and completes the budget for a
final rubber stamp from the municipal council and for its eventual
implementation in January. Together the four phases aim at maximizing public
involvement in setting the city’s social and economic development priorities.
similar example of government attempting to implement participatory democracy
occurred with England’s Greater London Council (GLC) in the 1980′s. Before the
Thatcher government dismantled it, the Council had attempted to change the
internal structure of the state in a number of ways. The GLC tried to share the
limited power it had as a municipal government with citizens’ groups. One of
their ideas was to shift power to the users of public services. The key to
shifting power to users lay in strengthening user groups that offered support,
legal advice and advocacy. Strengthened user groups led to greater awareness and
participation from the public. In Canada, advocacy groups have tried to play
this role over the last few decades but governments have stopped listening and
reduced resources have meant that such groups are less able to represent the
constituencies they serve. We need to develop new forms and broader forms of
citizen representation in the delivery of public services. Most important is the
involvement of the users of that service along with the workers providing the
service in making decision about how a given public service will be delivered.
For example, instead of the social service ministry controlling administrative
policy on welfare, a board in its majority of welfare recipients and former
welfare recipients might decide policy.
citizen’s democracy, welfare workers would play a different role as well.
Instead of policing welfare recipients, for example, a welfare worker would be
their advocate, assisting them in organizing to improve their lives not just as
individuals but as a group, including making demands on the government.
of the dangers of participatory democracy is that it would reproduce the class
exclusion and marginalization present in our current system. A true system of
participatory democracy would prioritize the involvement of those most
marginalized in our society, like poor and homeless people.
Participatory democracy can be promoted not only by progressive parties coming
into power but also by citizens’ groups tackling challenges through publicly
funded local initiative projects. An example of grassroots democracy is
Foodshare’s “Field to Table” program in Toronto. The program provides
subscribers with a box of fresh, healthy food every week for fifteen dollars.
Food is distributed to volunteers in various neighborhoods and poor and
middle-class people enjoy the same benefits for the same price. The basket is
available for free or at a reduced price for poor people, who in exchange work
in the distributing center. They are asked to work only as much as they are able
to. Because Foodshare deals directly with farmers, the price is kept low.
Therefore instead of going to a food bank and getting charity, poor people are
able to purchase fresh food just like everyone else. Significantly, the program
moves away from the hierarchical relations ensconced in food banks and towards
creating a cooperative, participatory process in relation to social and economic
Participatory Democracy and the Party
often our own organizations on the left reflect the top down hierarchical
structures of representative democracy. Whether in unions, social movement
groups or left-wing parties, the elected leadership tends to take power from the
membership and exercise it on their behalf. The biggest challenge for the NPI
will be to develop new ideas for participatory democracy inside a political
party. Some people in the New Democratic Party believe a first step in this
direction would be one member one vote where every member of the party, whether
or not they can attend convention, gets to vote on the leader and perhaps major
policy or constitutional changes via referendum. While this has considerable
appeal in terms of inclusion, it also poses numerous problems, like giving power
to people who sign up just to support a particular leadership candidate and
contribute nothing to the party. Another problem with OMOV is how affirmative
action measures can be implemented or the fairness of the province which happens
to have the most members because the party is in power there or a recent
leadership convention having the most influence. How can a left-wing party
empower its individual members at the same time as avoiding these pitfalls?
also seeks to remove the structural relationship between the labour movement and
the NDP. This relationship has become very bureaucratic and is no longer a
reflection of grass roots union members if it ever was. However, NPI seeks to
extend the close relationship between the party and the labour movement to a
variety of social movements. How would this be structured using principles of
idea might be to include two levels of party decision-making with a type of
party Senate with social movement/labour movement representation. Finally how
does the leadership political party, which has to make rapid decisions, remain
accountable to its membership. Can a relationship between the parliamentary
caucus and the grass roots of the party be more effectively structured to give
the grass roots more power?
Living, Participatory Democracy
New Politics Initiative, building on the examples above, believes that citizens,
not corporations, must be involved at every level of social and political
policy-making and policy implementation. Towards this end, the NPI proposes
creating a democratic political process that enables public participation. A
participatory democratic process recognizes that its citizenry is constituted
through different experience and expertise as both individuals and members of
communities. The struggles of people of colour, lesbians/gays/bisexuals/transgendered
and women over the last thirty years has highlighted the diversity of Canada’s
citizenry and demonstrated how our traditional institutions and processes of
democracy have marginalized and suppressed the diversity of our voices. Over the
past decade, poor people have been increasingly marginalized to the point of the
creation of a growing underclass.
Participatory democracy is a form of politics that celebrates diversity, and
encourages participation from a variety of constituencies, especially those who
are most marginalized in our current system. Different viewpoints enhance our
country’s creativity and capacity to tackle old and new challenges. For example,
immigrants, drawing from their own traditions, have promoted innovations in
healthcare such as acupuncture, shiatsu therapy and other alternative forms of
healing. As well, many immigrants from countries like Chile, South Africa and
India have participated in creative linkages between people’s movements and
political parties and have many insights to contribute to the left in Canada.
Participatory democracy principles also appreciate that people understand their
own situation best. Participatory democracy recognizes that it is people in
their own communities that understand what is best for them. It is citizens
consulting experts who should be making decisions not experts consulting
importantly, participatory democracy does not only recognize and celebrate the
diversity of public participation but also promotes its proliferation.
Participatory democracy encourages the development of new voices, new
communities, and new social movements as part of an ongoing process of
democratization. New issues such as biotechnology, the World Trade Organization,
economic apartheid, the creation of a global consumer culture, and the USA’s
newest military space technologies need to be debated by the public in forums
that are dominated by citizen participation not by the corporate-owned media.
Via the promotion of a living democracy, the NPI hopes a new progressive party
could create a direct relationship between the public and its government.