What we mean by Participatory Democracy

What we mean by Participatory Democracy

04 August 2016

Participatory Democracy is a term we at the Trust use quite a bit when talking about our Creative Space for Civic Thinking work.

Through our Civic Activism Programme and our Open Government Partnership work, we draw a clear line between what we describe as representative democracy – electing people to the NI Assembly, for example, and giving them the mandate to make decisions on our behalf and what we term as participatory democracy.

However, the term itself is up for debate so we thought it would be useful to look at it in a little bit more depth and seek to define what it really means.

Essentially participatory democracy means the broad participation of citizens in the direction and decision making processes of the political institutions governing their everyday lives.

Recently, a number of global social movements have had participatory democratic traits. Many of these, the highest profile of which is the Occupy movement which was started in protest to economic inequalities following the global financial crash in 2008, have come out of what would be described as the political and economic Left.

Historically, this has been the case as well with entire regions of Spain were governed by almost total participatory democracy when under the control of Anarchist Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.

In fact, in his book ‘’Homage to Catalonia’’, George Orwell described participatory democracy as a "strange and valuable" experience where one could "breathe the air of equality" and where normal human motives like snobbishness, greed, and fear of authority had ceased to exist.

More recently, a participatory democracy model was used by the Citizens of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina with thousands of citizens involved in drafting and approving the plan to rebuild the city.

We at the Trust believe a more participatory democracy is a healthier one which includes the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise sector at the heart of it. All the while, working alongside representative democracy bodies and institutions such as local councils, the Stormont Assembly and Westminster. 

Our Civic Activism Programme has brought together tools, ideas and practices from across the world for the public to use to help make the decision making processes Northern Ireland more participatory.

These are wide ranging but we have divided them into six distinct areas – Budget Tools, Debate Tools, Information Tools, Oversight Tools, Policy Tools and Public Service Tools - so they’ll be easier to navigate.

As well as this, we believe an Open Government is a more participatory government so have initiated and funded the Northern Ireland Open Government Network who have been working over the last year or so to hold the NI Executive to account. You can find out more about them here.

Finally, we think the NI VCSE is a key player in a vibrant democracy. So, in conjunction with Ulster University, we are researching the independence of the Northern Ireland Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise sector, a particularly important question as the sector becomes ever more reliant upon government funding and contracts. 

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