Ensuring participatory democracy without abdicating responsibility

Participatory democracy allows citizens to have a greater say in local decision-making, but it also raises questions of accountability. [Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic]

While participatory democracy sounds like an important goal to many, it also raises questions of responsibility, accountability, power and trust, according to a panel on citizen engagement. 

“Participatory democracy” sounds nice. Why should citizens not be more engaged in the decision making process than by simply putting a name on a piece of paper every four or five years? 

Advocates of participatory democracy argue that giving citizens a possibility to voice their concerns and ideas more regularly leads to better solutions as well as a more democratic result.

“Democracy should be a continuous process, it’s a daily process, building trust, and collecting ideas every moment of the day,” Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb told EURACTIV, following a panel discussion on participatory democracy in Marseille.

The accountability issue

However, participatory democracy also raises the question on who is responsible for political decisions. While politicians who make a bad decision can be reprimanded by the voters in the next election, citizens deciding something in a citizen forum cannot be held accountable in the same manner if bad outcomes occur.

“Citizen forums can only be a complement to representative democracy, not a substitute,” Muhterem Aras, president of the parliament in the German region of Baden-Württemberg, said during the discussion.

Under this condition, she said that there should be more citizen participation.

According to Aras, citizen panels could be especially useful when political debates were stuck in difficult debates and compromise seems impossible.

“Sometimes political questions are so blocked that a citizen forum is needed to overcome the blockade,” she said. In her regional parliament of Baden-Württemberg, for example, politicians could not agree on a reform of the parliament’s pension system.

A citizen forum that was largely independent from the party bickering finally helped to overcome the blockade.

Power and trust

While Aras advocated a more consultative role for participatory democracy, Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb argued that real power should be shared.

“You are most effective with power if you share it,” he said.

Rotterdam has divided the city into 39 neighbourhoods, in which neighbourhood commissions can decide some matters on their own, for example on how to spend the budget that the city assigns to the neighbourhood.

The neighbourhood commissions are elected, but unlike in usual Dutch elections, people can take part from the age of 16.

Moreover, Aboutaleb defined ten especially critical neighbourhoods to which he assigned so-called “city marines”, who are powerful figures in their areas. According to the mayor of Rotterdam, these “city marines” receive budgets to organise activities with citizens.

While giving local neighbourhood commissions or “city commissions” budgets sounds promising, as they are close to the ground and thus might have good ideas what to spend the money on, this also raises the question of possible corruption or other misuse of funds.

How would Aboutaleb ensure that accountability was also ensured in financial matters?

“It’s a matter of trust,” he told EURACTIV, to which he added after short reflection: “High trust and high penalties.”

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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