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.