Democracy-Driven Governance for Climate Transition

Authored by Paola Pierri

This post was originally published on the PSA Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group’s blog Agora.

The relationship between climate and democracy has been the subject of scholarly debate for long time. Several interesting questions have been raised by democratic scholars dealing with climate change and in my chapter, in the forthcoming edited volume Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations, I ask the question, what kinds of democracy and democratic governance arrangements are best to address the climate emergency more effectively and democratically? The core answer to this question, and the main argument in my chapter, is that for climate action to progress through more participatory and democratic ways, social movements need to play a key role in democracy and more specifically governance innovation. Unfortunately, practical examples of social movements’ participation in democratic innovations are still the exception and not the rule.

My chapter draws on the case of the Assise pour la Transition Écologique in France (in the metropolitan area of Orléans) to outline an interesting approach where social movements can play a transformative role as ‘agenda setters’ within right-wing administrations, which have historically been less sympathetic to climate concerns and less open to engage with progressive movements. This case sheds light on building alliances across the political spectrum. Whilst we can find in the literature examples of democratic innovation developed through direct cooperation with left-leaning governments, instances where social movements have engaged in dialogue with more conservative administrations are sporadic. This is potentially a limitation when it comes to swinging the balance towards an ecological transition, since climate movements need to find allies and work with governments at different scales and across the political spectrum.

Social movements play a key role in advancing Democracy-Driven Governance, but how this relationship pans out in political contexts dominated by more conservative governments is not clear. My chapter suggests looking at Empowered Participatory Governance (EPG), as this could provide a useful bridge between models of democracy-driven governance (DDG) and governance-driven democratisation (GDD).

EPG and DDG both present interesting characteristics and design principles that I used to analyse the Orléans case:

  • They problematise the question of power, challenging common objections from the literature against the power-neutralising claim of deliberative and collaborative modes of governance;
  • They do not aim to advance universal solutions to all issues of governance, as they recognise that institutional arrangements are a shifting terrain, where different needs, constellations of actors and power dynamics can change, which will require changes in institutional design;
  • They are equally interested in the question of processes as well as the question of outcomes, as the two should not be assumed to be directly related variables;
  • Finally, they both recover – although in different ways – a role for more critical voices (and specifically social movements’ approaches) within the space of collaborative governance. This is the main point my chapter is exploring.

The EPG model of governance highlights one crucial point that arguably remains partially unclear in the conceptualisation of DDG, that is the role and the skills needed for social movements to advance their agenda within top-down and more conservative governance structures. In order to achieve that, social movements – under EPG – need to dismiss their adversarial tones and tactics and become ‘collaborative countervailing power’ (2003). Differently from adversarial forms of countervailing power that develop through rigid and maximalist frames in opposition to institutional actors and elites, collaborative forms, although still countervailing, develop ways to build collaborations with institutional actors and towards meaningful forms of Empowered Participatory Governance (EPG). ‘Collaborative countervailing power’ might seem – as the authors themselves say– ‘a bit of an oxymoron’ as the concept incorporates two elements seemingly in opposition. Collaborative and adversarial forms of countervailing power require different skills-set and political attitudes that have attracted less research.

The case of Orléans illuminates how radical forms of demonstrating and taking to the street can generate the right political opportunities to shift the role and attitude of social movements towards collaboration – whilst still playing a countervailing role – to put the right pressure on more conservative governance structures towards a democracy-driven regime. This case illustrates the clear intention of the local climate movements to establish direct connections with political parties and influence the upcoming political elections, since movements can play a key role as catalyst of political crises and realignment of political forces. Local activists attempted to set up a full citizen candidate list to push forward their requests on climate change action. When the list option did not materialise social movements and grassroots organisations tried to put pressure on the political establishment through different means. In the months before the elections, they published a visual explainer assessing each candidate’s climate-related pledge and “grading” each programme accordingly.

The case also shoes how movements can be the providers of alternative spaces of political debates, which for climate action means for instance to ensure that adaptation and mitigation strategies are framed as political and not merely as technical questions. Since climate policy has become a central issue in the political and public agenda, studying how strategies for mobilising more conservative elites will evolve together with movement strategies and roles in governance will be crucial. Even when these experiments are not successful they still play a role in shifting important political balances and perhaps in inspiring the democratic innovation of the future.

About the author.

Paola Pierri is currently Director of Research and Design at Democratic Society, where she researches processes of democratic innovation and social movements. She has a doctorate in Design Anthropology and has been a Fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute addressing the question of the impact of digital tools on our democratic lives. She is a visiting lecturer at the London College of Communication and the Technische Universität in Berlin, where she teaches on the topics of design in the public sector, digital inequalities and digital activism.

Expanding participatory governance through digital platforms

Authored by Joan Balcells, Rosa Borge and Albert Padró-Solanet.

This post was originally published on the PSA Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group’s blog Agora.

The forthcoming edited volume by Adrian Bua and Sonia Bussu, Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations, sheds light on how current social movements are reclaiming and reinventing participatory processes. Nowadays these movements and initiatives are highly digitalised. In our contribution we focus on the significant role of digital platforms as enablers of new forms of democratic governance that can either push forward democracy-driven governance or instead adapt to the bureaucratic ways of governance-driven democratisation.

Our analysis is based on the case of the digital platform Decidim (“We Decide” in Catalan) which combines elements of democracy-driven governance and governance-driven democratisation. Using the analytical framework provided by these two models of governance as background reference, we discuss some of the conflicts and problems involved in the digitalization of participatory policies through digital platforms.

The Decidim platform was originally designed and led by activists from the 15M and free-software movements as an instrument for radicalising democratic governance. One of the most promising assets of digital participation is its potential to reach out to new publics and widen the number of participants in any participatory process, thanks to the openness and ubiquity of digital technologies. Since its first implementation in Barcelona, following the electoral victory in the 2015 local elections of a new political party – Barcelona en Comú – partly derived from the 15M anti-austerity movements, this platform has rapidly spread to other local governments. Nowadays nearly a hundred local governments across Catalonia are using Decidim as a tool for supporting participatory processes, and it has also been adopted by local and regional governments, institutions and organisations around the world. There is also a growing community around this digital platform (the so-called MetaDecidim and the Decidim Association), led by programmers, practitioners and researchers working for the continuous improvement of the platform as a space for innovation and sharing of experiences.

However, this convergence between the logic of social movements and public administration is not unproblematic. The gap between the democratic expectations and the bureaucratic constrictions experienced by local administrations raises some thorny questions. Do digital platforms help to promote bottom-up citizen initiatives and increase the potential number of participants? Does the digitalization of participatory policies necessarily lead to a technocratic bureaucratization of citizen participation? How do the actors involved in participatory policies react to this process of digitalization?

To better understand how digital participatory platforms fit the workings of public administration, we conducted several in-depth interviews with local managers in charge of implementing Decidim in the Catalan municipalities that pioneered its use. We also administered an online questionnaire targeting managers in charge of Decidim in all local governments in Catalonia where it was being used. The reason for focussing on these particular actors is that they play a liaison role between local administrations and civil society, experiencing first hand the challenges involved in the deployment of Decidim. Through this methodological strategy, we were able to collect perceptions concerning issues such as the reasons for using Decidim, ensuing problems and tensions, or how the digital platform has been received by different actors involved in participatory policies, from politicians and public officials to citizens and local associations.

Our analysis revealed some remarkable findings. Interestingly enough, the municipalities that were more ambitious in the use of Decidim (i.e. the ones that had a higher proportion of citizens registered on the platform) were more likely to experience frictions with previous structures of participation. For instance, public managers had difficulties in translating existing working routines and procedures into the logic and functionalities of the digital platform. Participants in our study also detected resistance to the platform from civic associations who feared losing influence and power of intermediation, as digital platforms can empower direct participation by lay citizens. In previous research, we found that public managers, when assessing the performance of the platform, tend to value more goals such as transparency, organisation of information and the collection of citizen proposals, rather than deliberation and transfer of sovereignty to citizens (Borge, Balcells & Padró-Solanet, 2022).

On the one hand, these aspects logically reflect some of the fears, pressures and problems that are associated with any process of change. But, on the other hand, they may also show that, when seriously implemented, digital platforms can have a disruptive democratic political impact. We have found that the platform implementation can foster full-fledged participation if it is backed and used by grassroots movements and local civic organisations; when it is combined with strong face-to-face participation; and if it enjoys both sincere support from politicians and oversight not only by the technologically savvy but also by participatory activists/users (e.g. the Decidim Association).

To sum up, digital platforms can actually introduce an element of disturbance in the ecosystem of participatory policies. That potential for disruption opens a window of opportunity for experimenting with new forms of governance and rethinking the borders of citizen participation, though it may come at a price. If digital participation aspires to be transformative and transfer decision capacity to citizens and civil society, the emergence of new challenges and resistance from within and outside local administrations might be unavoidable. Yet, the lack of democratic deepening may signify the irrelevance of participatory digital platforms as simply a new tool, technologically fancy but democratically shallow.

About the authors.

Joan Balcells is Lecturer in Political Science at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), and member of the research group GADE ‘eGovernance: electronic administration and democracy’. His research interests are in democratic theory, digital democracy, public opinion and deliberation.

Rosa Borge is Associate Professor in Political Science and the leader of the research group CNSC at the IN3 (Internet Interdisciplinary Institute), Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). Her main areas of research are online deliberation and participation, social networks and the use of social media and digital platforms by public administrations, political parties and social movements.

Albert Padró-Solanet is Lecturer in Political Science at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), and member of the research group GADE ‘eGovernance: electronic administration and democracy’. His research is mainly focused on the impact of ICTs on political parties, public opinion, and deliberation.


Democracy-Driven Governance and Decommodification

Authored by Nick Vlahos

The forthcoming edited volume, Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations, provides a conversation about how political economy overlaps with public participation and deliberation. This is relevant because democratic innovation research suffers from a lack of theoretical, analytical, and empirical engagement with critical research on capitalism.

My contribution to the goals of the volume stem from a perspective that the ends of participatory and deliberative governance (PDG) should entail the decommodification of social well-being.

In capitalist societies, PDG exists in contexts where the pathologies stemming from market-based ideology and strategies of economic adjustment have led to poverty and social exclusion. Governments and public administrations support the structural reproduction of gross inequalities. This has adverse implications on the potential for democratic innovations to deepen and reimagine the participatory and deliberative role of citizens in representative democracies.

Considering PDG is embedded within capitalist economies, we need to be more critical and thorough in how we account for the intersections of capitalism and democracy. A foundational problem of capitalist democracy is the coexistence of formal political equality with socio-economic inequality. As a result, capitalist democracy cannot be comprehensively understood without recognizing how structurally unequal agents mobilize power resources to reshape the bases of political and policy decision-making.

PDG needs to be connected to transformative agendas that seek to reconfigure the operation of politics, administration, and economics. This agenda requires an understanding of the preconditions for establishing equal citizen engagement in deliberative and participatory processes, including how public decision-making can help tame the problems associated with the market economy, elevating the social well-being of those being adversely impacted by rising inequality.

This is why Bua and Bussu’s conceptual distinction between democracy-driven governance (DDG) and governance-driven democracy (GDD) is so important. They seek to uncover how democratic innovation and participatory governance can avoid accommodating (neo)liberal political economy. DDG is concerned with embedded forms of regulatory democratic decision-making that can lead to social transformation. The ontological starting point of what innovations in participatory governance strive to achieve differs between GDD and DDG.

I argue that while both GDD and DDG bear the stamp of democratizing democracy – because they involve the implementation of participatory and deliberative decision-making innovations – they differ in their potential to reinforce or alleviate inequality in capitalist societies based on the extent to which they are integrated in or seek to be distanced from the capital-driven logic of capitalist democracy.

I build upon the distinction between GDD and DDG by situating them within two political-economic heuristic devices: the double movement and welfare states and systems of stratification and decommodification.

The social history of market economies across industrialized countries indicates that governments consciously intervene in support of capitalism. Karl Polanyi (1944) calls this the double-movement. It entails the spread of the market economy alongside the implementation of policies and powerful institutions to support private accumulation, as well as limit severe results arising from the commodification of land, labour, and money. The contradictory nature of the double movement means that the state and the market economy influence how social welfare is administered in society.

Polanyi helps us appreciate the need for participatory democratic control – or re-embedding – of commodified goods to ensure that society is not run as an adjunct to the market. However, the slow development of democracy in market societies has meant that there has been initially (or rather only) limited mass participation in the governance of social well-being.

Gøsta Esping-Andersen (1990) expanded the work of Polyani, showing how modern welfare state regimes condition the extent of the commodification and decommodification of the public. For Esping-Andersen, while the welfare state involves an ideal picture of state responsibility for securing a basic modicum of welfare for its citizens, he noted that welfare states are systems of stratification. Welfare states involve either targeted or universal programmes, and the conditions or restrictions for eligibility, the quality of benefits and services, as well as the extent to which rights are a part of citizenship, differ across countries.

A key point is that the more ‘market-independence’ for an average worker – i.e. the right to an adequate standard of living regardless of previous employment, performance, needs-test, or financial contribution – the greater their level of decommodification. While the politics of commodifying workers has led to collective action to produce a tolerable level of welfare and security, decommodification cannot completely eradicate labour as a commodity so long as capitalism constrains collective social well-being.

Through two local case studies in Toronto, Canada, my chapter shows how GDD and DDG arise and utilize democratic innovations, which are differentially linked to a double movement, and involve forms of stratification and (de)commodification. In terms of the former, at a political and bureaucratic level, policy objectives and implementation are contradictory; the dis-embedding of market imperatives leads to strategies to offset severe inequalities by devising controlled forms of resident involvement. Governance-driven democracy in Toronto involves a double movement of the deployment and then mitigation of governance policies that have contributed to the perpetuation of inequality. In terms of the latter, spatial forms of resident mobilization and engagement coevolve to counteract problematic social, economic, and political phenomena, and are differentiated in how they approach and (can) devise strategies to address systemic problems. Thus, participatory, and deliberative decommodification is not a complete emancipation from capitalism, but the elevation of social well-being vis-a-vis public decision-making.

I see a participatory and deliberative consideration of politics, economics, and democracy as something that seeks to establish new nexuses of decommodification via the public’s involvement in the distribution of resources that fulfil collectively determined social well-being indicators. If we consider participatory and deliberative processes as (de)commodifiers, then we are left with how inequality is or is not being addressed to the extent that it could, or in comparison to other spaces, and regimes.

Nick Vlahos is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. He is author of The Political Economy of Devolution from the Postwar Era to Brexit (2020). Nick’s research interests include the interconnection between political economy, decentralization and deliberative democratization. Previously, Nick worked in the public sector at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation and the Civic Innovation Office in Toronto.

This post was originally published on the PSA Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group’s blog Agora.

Reclaiming participatory governance: social movements and the reinvention of democratic innovations

Authored by Adrian Bua and Sonia Bussu with Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Joan Balcells, Rosa Borge, Dannica Fleuß, Roberto Falanga, Patricia García-Espín, Cristina Herranz, Fabiola Mota, Albert Padró-Solanet, Sixtine Van Outryve d’Ydewalle, Nick Vlahos, Henk Wagenaar, and Srinivas Yerramsetti.

We organised a workshop at the last ECPR joint sessions to discuss contributions to a forthcoming edited volume with Routledge, on how social movements and grassroots politics are widening the scope and reach of democratic innovations. We decided to start a blog series on Agora to capture and explore further the main points that emerged from the discussion. This blogpost sets the scene, explaining the purpose of the book and the main topics we covered at the workshop. The book provides an analysis of social movement-led processes for democratisation across different contexts. We’re interested in understanding better how these movements are reclaiming and reinventing the deliberative and participatory toolbox to recouple politics and economics and strengthen the impact of participatory process on people’s everyday life. In the book we ask what occurs when social movements are involved in shaping the institutionalisation of participatory governance processes and if/ how their involvement can lead to deeper embedding of a participatory culture within policymaking and the wider society. Contributions examine recent initiatives, digital and/ or analogue, by using different theoretical frames, from deliberative democracy to the commons and the right to the city. To find answers we consider:

● the extent to which these initiatives can sustain the radical potential of citizen participation for social transformation;
● whether we see new forms of participation emerging, or new usages of participatory institutional design;
● the obstacles that these efforts encounter as they try to broaden the scope of democracy;
● the tensions between the different demands of lay citizens, organised civil society, and public officials.

Throughout the book we apply democracy-driven governance as an analytical framework to understand recent developments. What is democracy-driven governance? – we hear you ask. The experience of New Municipalism in Spain inspired us to develop this concept, to capture how social movements and grassroots groups engaged with participatory and deliberative democracy practices, as a response to austerity politics following the 2008 financial crash, first to build movement parties’ platforms and later, after winning elections in many major cities, to transform local state institutions. In a nutshell, democracy-driven governance describes the kinds of participatory projects that arise when social movements engage with participatory deliberative institutional design, as part of their strategy to reclaim the state. It is a counterpoint to Mark Warren’s governance-driven democratisation which refers to democratic innovations mostly initiated by public agencies, particularly at the local level, to respond to specific policy issues and enhance epistemic value. The potential of Warren’s governance-driven democratisation resides in its pragmatic, problem-solving orientation as well as its proximity to the “nuts-and-bolts” of public administration, although feedback loops and responsiveness to citizen input has often been lacking. By decoupling politics and economics and failing to attend to socio-economic factors, the practice of governance-driven democratisation over the past 30 years has fallen short of making substantive positive change to the lives of citizens, as we see inequalities growing and democratic space actually reducing.

Democracy-driven governance addresses risks of decoupling the practice of democracy and politics from socio-economic constraints. As social movements learn and renew the deliberative toolbox they are developing new forms of democratic participation that aims to widen its scope from political institutions to the economy and wider society. Both governance-driven democratisation and democracy-driven governance exist in a dynamic relationship, and this shouldn’t be seen as a simple bottom-up v. top-down heuristic. They both attempt to foster participatory governance or to include citizens in the work of public administration through “routinised participation”. They also interact with other participatory spaces, such as oppositional politics (protests) and the commons, where citizens create their everyday democracy by managing public goods through their own democratic decision-making rules and with limited interactions with state institutions. In Barcelona, for instance, we saw democracy-driven governance emerge from protests and the commons and then interact with spaces of governance-driven democratisation as social movements entered the local state. This is a powerful illustration of the continuous and open-ended push and pull of democratic politics.

Through a range of different contributions, we look at how democracy-driven governance emerges, develops and navigates (or fails to) the constraints of day-to-day politics and public administration. Firstly, we want to understand the analytical power of democracy-driven governance. We agree it is historically situated, in that it emerges from growing disillusionment with neoliberal (participatory) democracy over the past decade. But is there a risk it is interpreted as functionalist in that it expresses a relation between means and ends, yet the ends might be prescriptively defined in terms of what participatory democracy must pursue? In the paper, we emphasise how governance-driven democratisation is focused on strengthening and improving administrative functioning and services, while democracy-driven governance aims to improve democratic goods such as inclusivity and social justice. More work is needed to distinguish empirical characteristics linked to these two forms of governance across different contexts. Secondly, we are interested in assessing how democracy-driven governance’s ambitions fare when applied to the real world. Can it help make the invisible, but powerful, politics of the commons visible, through engaging with the state to support alternative political and economic models such as community-wealth building, as seen in Barcelona? Can it facilitate processes of decommodification to help re-embed the economy in democracy and the wider society? Are these new approaches to politics and policymaking sustainable in the face of existing legal, business and public administration constraints?

Democracy-driven governance aims to realise a radical democratic ambition to give citizens not just space to deliberate but actual decision-making power on all policies and decisions that affect them. The contributions trace the practical challenges to this project, from participation fatigue and activists’ disappointment in the face of the inevitably slow pace of change, to bureaucrats’ resistance, to the difficulty of reconciling participatory democracy, where citizens can participate as individuals, with assembly democracy, whereby organised civil society might feel bypassed – do we risk depoliticising participation by focusing too much on non-organised citizens? One important aspect of democracy-driven governance concerns the digital commons, and digital will increasingly be the new battleground for data sovereignty and against the expansion of algorithmic capitalism. Yet the effects of participatory platforms such as Decidim on participation need to be explored further. How do different administrations use these platforms? How do these platforms balance engagement from civil society organisations and individual citizens? How is the digital divide being addressed?

All these issues are explored in the book. The discussions we had at the workshop were so rich that this short post couldn’t possibly do them justice. Responses to this introductory piece will help flesh out some of these thorny questions. Watch this space!

This post was originally published on the PSA Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group’s blog Agora.