#5Papers – what effects do​ institutional changes enhancing citizens’ role have on the role orientation and behaviour of Councillors?

by Nivek K Thompson

Citation                                           

Denters, B. and Klok, P-J. (2013) ‘Citizen Democracy and the Responsiveness of Councillors: The Effects of Democratic Institutionalisation on the Role Orientations and Role Behaviour of Councillors’ in Local Government Studies Vol 39 No.5 pp661-680

What attracted me to this Article / Chapter?    

I’ve been trying to find some foundational texts or review articles about elected representatives and role orientation. I’ve had some great recommendations but unfortunately one of the key texts isn’t available at my uni library or any others I can assess 😦

So I went back to my files and found this one that appears to focus not simply on role orientations but how different institutional arrangements, in particular around the role of citizens vs. parties, impacts on role orientations. This is likely to be of relevance to the work I’m doing on the roles of elected reps in democratic innovations and my research on the impact of democratic innovations on the perspectives of elected representatives.

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

Research question: whether and how cross-national variations in the institutions of local democracy affect the responsiveness (in both their role orientations and their role behaviour) of councillors.

The authors investigated the impact of two different approaches to institutionalising democratic systems at the local level:

  1. citizen oriented institutions
  2. party oriented institutions.

Using Pitkin’s notion of responsiveness they hypothesise that in a citizen focused democracy elected reps would make it a priority to keep “abreast of the opinions and needs of citizens” p665 And that ‘variations in institutional contexts will go hand in hand with differences in the value orientations and behaviours of actors in the affected political arenas.’ pp665 – 666. They identify nine hypothesises all up.

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

Their starting points are:

  • literature about changing nature of government in particular arguments that fundamental changes are happening to how democracy operates via providing a greater role to citizens
  • the suggestion that these changes can address the democratic deficit

They note that in many parts of Europe (although not all) there has been a growth in citizen-oriented institutions e.g. direct election of mayors, citizen-initiated referendums, voting systems that weaken the position of parties and independent candidates. This provides them with the potential to undertake cross-national research (in the absence being able to conduct effective experiments) to assess the impact of these changes.

What did they do? (Methodology & Method)   

The authors use data from the Municipal Assemblies in European Local Governance project using a multilevel regression analysis.

The two dependent variables are: individual councillors’ responsiveness in practice (behaviour) and attitudinally (role orientation).

Explanatory variables: composite measure based on 0:1 score for elements of citizen or party democracy [NB even though the authors mention participatory processes in passing all of the elements are structural and primarily related to the election process]

To identify the individual Councillor’s support for more participatory governance four questionnaire items were combined into a composite measure. The four items were:

  • ‘Residents should participate actively and directly in making important local decisions’
  • ‘Residents should have the opportunity to make their views known before important local decisions are made by elected representatives’
  • ‘Political decisions should not only be taken by representative bodies but
    be negotiated together with the concerned local actors’
  • ‘Local referenda lead to high quality of public debate.’

They also included a variable measuring councillors’ motivation to join politics. Gender, level of education and size of the municipality were used as control variables.

What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)     

Based on scoring for citizen vs. party democracy the following countries were at the party end of the spectrum: Austria, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. And at the citizen end were: Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Poland and Israel.

Expected effects VS what they found:

  • the more citizen-democratic the institutions of local government in a country are, the more strongly the political culture amongst councillors will be supportive of participatory governance – this was not confirmed
  • the councillor’s individual support for participatory governance is thought to be influenced by the dominant belief on this issue of his colleagues – this was confirmed
  • by the nature of the democratic institutionalisation – this was not confirmed
  • the individual support for citizen democracy may be affected by the personal characteristics of the councillor – the only characteristic to have an impact was gender with female councillors being “generally more supportive of participatory governance”
  • the more an individual councillor is supportive of participatory governance, the more he/she will be convinced that the role of a councillor implies the necessity of frequent interactions with citizens (rather than their party), and will feel the need to explain and justify their political behaviour to the public – this was confirmed
  • behavioural orientations are also affected by the value orientations of his peers – this was not confirmed
  • the role behaviour of councillors is determined by their role orientations: the more councillors value responsiveness the more likely they will be to behave in a responsive manner – this was confirmed
  • the individual’s democratic value orientations will have an effect on the role behaviour of individual councillors – [I couldn’t find what their data told them re: #8]
  • the dominant democratic culture will have an effect on the role behaviour of individual councillors – this was not confirmed

Interestingly their overall conclusion was that “there was a statistically significant negative effect of citizen democratic institutions on behavioural responsiveness. We found that the stronger citizen democratic institutions in local government were, the less councillors maintain contacts with citizens and local groups.” p676 They note however that it isn’t possible based on their research to determine whether this is because of councillors or because citizens have other avenues for influence.

They specifically caution against assuming that institutional change will result in social and political change.

What did I learn?                           

This was a very interesting paper (despite my limited ability to fully appreciate the statistical analysis) in demonstrating that institutional changes do not automatically lead to attitudinal changes. I think this aligns with Dryzek’s view that changes to ‘hard’ institutions may not deliver without change to the informal institutions such as the discourses surrounding those structures.

Our main conclusion casts doubt on the expectations of democratic reformers and some academicians who expected that more citizen democratic institutions would lead to improvements in the relations between representatives and the represented, together with an increase in the democratic responsiveness of representatives. The expectation that the introduction of citizen democratic reforms will lead to a metamorphosis of the system of political representation and urge councillors to be more responsive to their constituents (Manin 1997), receives only weak empirical support. p675

Interestingly their overall conclusion was that “there was a statistically significant negative effect of citizen democratic institutions on behavioural responsiveness. We found that the stronger citizen democratic institutions in local government were, the less councillors maintain contacts with citizens and local groups.” p676 They note however that it isn’t possible based on their research to determine whether this is because of councillors or because citizens have other avenues for influence.

Of interest to my research the institutions identified as providing citizen centred democracy were all very structural and predominately associated with how elections are run, whereas the attitudinal aspects included aspects of between election democracy such as consulting with citizens. My research is focused more on the institutions that implement those attitudinal aspects – I’ll need to think more about what the implications of this might be for my research?

                                                         

                                                         

                                                         

                                                         

                                                         

                                                         

                                                         

                                                         

 

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