#5PAPERS – Week 4 Day 3

by Nivek K Thompson

  1. Reference to the Article 

Warren, M. E. (2009). Citizen Participation and Democratic Deficits: Considerations from the Perspective of Democratic Theory. In J. DeBardeleben & J. H. Pammett (Eds.), Activating the citizen (pp. 17– 40). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  1. What attracted me to this Article?

The title says it all really – it includes almost everything I’m interested in knowing more about as underpinning for my research.

  1. What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)

Warren wants to ‘clarify the question of democratic deficits as they relate to the participatory elements of democracy.’ p.17 In particular he wants to understand how participatory elements could be ‘in deficit’.

  1. Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework)

Warren considers two different aspects of democratic deficit

  • In the formal institutions of representative democracy
  • In the new forms of citizen engagement (which developed in response to the former aspect)
  1. What did they do? (Methodology & Method)

He reviews the literature: both theoretical and empirical.

  1. What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)

The term democratic deficit which was first used in 2000 in relation to the EU, he notes that ‘democratic deficit’ is an apt metaphor for the problems in established democracies, which he believes fall short of a crisis – he suggests ‘that we think about democratic malaise structurally, as a misalignment between citizen capacities and demands, and in terms of the capacities of political institutions to aggregate citizen demands and integrate them into legitimate and effective governance.’ p.20 Suggesting that ‘the concept identifies long-term problems which, if left unattended, are likely to gradually undermine the legitimacy and capacities of governments.’ p.21 He also notes that with the increasing complexity and scale of government action ‘the most common and least costly form of citizen participation – voting for representatives – has less functional value.’ p.21

He discusses the role of citizen participation (beyond voting) as an antidote to the democratic deficit starting with consideration of the concept of ‘stealth democracy’ where citizens don’t actually want to participate in adversarial politics. Warren suggests that whilst this view has been overstated, citizens are likely to choose how they ‘spend’ their political engagement resources – from the ‘less costly’ voting on the basis of trust in their elected representatives as their proxies, to ‘more costly’ engagement where the outcomes matter more to them or they don’t trust their elected representatives. He proposes that ‘the political institutions of a democracy should strive to underwrite these participatory expectations.’ p.23

He goes onto assess whether representative democracies are delivering against these expectations and decides that they aren’t. He bases this conclusion on the

  • obvious mistrust citizens feel for their elected representatives
  • decline in voter turn out and
  • growth in alternate mechanisms to engage citizens.

He notes that the cause of citizen disaffection is not clear with a range of reasons suggested by different scholars including ‘the poor performance of political institutions’, better informed & educated and less deferential citizens, a general decline in social groups, distaste for how politics operates and what it focuses on (p.25)

Warren considers these issues from a normative perspective and identifies three components in regard to representative democracy: authorization, equality & inclusion and accountability. He goes on to review, with lots of interesting detail, whether these components are working effectively and concludes that generally they aren’t.

Considering the broad range of non-electoral participatory mechanisms, he identifies that they ‘usually having administrative rather than “political” origins.’ p224, he notes that this administrative origin has ‘perhaps masked the essentially political nature of these developments.’ p.224 and that it is important to consider their impact on ‘the democratic system as a whole’ despite them happening outside of formal representative institutions.

Warren suggests that even these new forms of ‘democratization’ can give rise to democratic deficits, which can, paradoxically, result in decreased democratic legitimacy. He also notes that where broader engagement involves representative claims these are untested because we don’t have any useful conceptualisation of representation outside of electoral representation.

In turning to consider solutions/responses to these problems Warren identifies two broad areas

  • reform of representative institutions – such as electoral reforms to deliver more inclusive and deliberative parliaments, devolving power to Parliament vis-à-vis Ministers, and establishing popularly elected houses of review and other review bodies
  • retro-fitting of representative institutions – using new democratic mechanisms at the level of administration and governance – a key issue for this response is working out how to design an engagement process to suit each particular issue and situation
  1. What did I learn?

Warren talks about the complexity of today’s world and mentions on a couple of occasions that citizens can’t be expected to be or want to be on top of this complexity. For me this also applies to elected representatives – neither can they be expected to be on top of ALL of this complexity and we don’t expect them to be, that’s why they have advisors and why they benefit from getting citizen input.

He sets out a range of limitations in practice to delivery of the three normative components, which I will need to go back to down the track. I liked his explanation of how the power of the Prime Minister’s office effectively removes the accountability of Members of Parliament not from the ruling party. To my mind this would apply to all Ministers in a government where there is a ‘ruling party’.

I particularly like his almost throw away comment about the lack of a useful understanding ‘of what representation means outside of the formal institutions of electoral representation, in spite of the current and growing importance of these informal domains of representation.’ p.225 I am very interested in developing a more ‘modern’ notion of representation, despite the fact that my research doesn’t explicitly address this question!

Warren’s division between reform of existing institutions of representative democracy and retro-fitting of primarily the administrative institutions to address democratic deficits is interesting for me as my research aims to bring these two together – identifying the impact of democratic innovations on the understanding and practices of political elites.

Warren’s suggestion that a key issue for democratic innovations is which design works for which issue/s is also interesting. I have been arguing for some time that citizens should be engaged in making these type of decisions, rather than political elites making these decisions.

This chapter is another example of how an experienced academic can bring together a diverse range of issues and ideas. I need to re-read this and consider in more detail how he has structured this paper to encompass so many ideas, examples and bring them altogether in an easy to understand and follow manner.

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