More Top-Down Participation, Please! Institutionalized empowerment through open participation

Michelle Ruesch and Oliver Märker in DDD: “…this is not another article on the empowering potential of bottom-up digital political participation. Quite the contrary: It instead seeks to stress the empowering potential of top-down digital political participation. Strikingly, the democratic institutionalization of (digital) political participation is rarely considered when we speak about power in the context of political participation. Wouldn’t it be true empowerment though if the right of citizens to speak their minds were directly integrated into political and administrative decision-making processes?

Institutionalized political participation

Political participation, defined as any act that aims to influence politics in some way, can be initiated either by citizens, referred to as “bottom-up” participation, or by government, often referred to as “top-down” participation.  For many, the word “top-down” instantly evokes negative connotations, even though top-down participatory spaces are actually the foundation of democracy. These are the spaces of participation offered by the state and guaranteed by democratic constitutions. For a long time, top-down participation could be equated with formal democratic participation such as elections, referenda or party politics. Today, however, in states like Germany we can observe a new form of top-down political participation, namely government-initiated participation that goes beyond what is legally required and usually makes extensive use of digital media.
Like many other Western states, Germany has to cope with decreasing voter turnout and a lack of trust in political parties. At the same time, according to a recent study from 2012, two-thirds of eligible voters would like to be more involved in political decisions. The case of “Stuttgart 21” served as a late wake-up call for many German municipalities. Plans to construct a new train station in the center of the city of Stuttgart resulted in a petition for a local referendum, which was rejected. Protests against the train station culminated in widespread demonstrations in 2010, forcing construction to be halted. Even though a referendum was finally held in 2011 and a slight majority voted in favor of the train station, the Stuttgart 21 case has since been cited by Chancellor Angela Merkel and others as an example of the negative consequences of taking decisions without consulting with citizens early on. More and more municipalities and federal ministries in Germany have therefore started acknowledging that the conventional democratic model of participation in elections every few years is no longer sufficient. The Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, for example, published a manual for “good participation” in urban development projects….

What’s so great about top-down participation?

Semi-formal top-down participation processes have one major thing in common, regardless of the topic they address: Governmental institutions voluntarily open up a space for dialogue and thereby obligate themselves to take citizens’ concerns and ideas into account.
As a consequence, government-initiated participation offers the potential for institutionalized empowerment beyond elections. It grants the possibility of integrating participation into political and administrative decision-making processes….
Bottom-up participation will surely always be an important mobilizer of democratic change. Nevertheless, the provision of spaces of open participation by governments can aid in the institutionalization of citizens’ involvement in political decision-making. Had Stuttgart offered an open space of participation early in the train station construction process, maybe protests would never have escalated the way they did.
So is top-down participation the next step in the process of democratization? It could be, but only under certain conditions. Most importantly, top-down open participation requires a genuine willingness to abandon the old principle of doing business behind closed doors. This is not an easy undertaking; it requires time and endurance. Serious open participation also requires creating state institutions that ensure the relevance of the results by evaluating them and considering them in political decisions. We have formulated ten conditions that we consider necessary for the genuine institutionalization of open political participation [14]:

  • There needs to be some scope for decision-making. Top-down participation only makes sense when the results of the participation can influence decisions.
  • The government must genuinely aim to integrate the results into decision-making processes.
  • The limits of participation must be communicated clearly. Citizens must be informed if final decision-making power rests with a political body, for example.
  • The subject matter, rules and procedures need to be transparent.
  • Citizens need to be aware that they have the opportunity to participate.
  • Access to participation must be easy, the channels of participation chosen according to the citizens’ media habits. Using the Internet should not be a goal in itself.
  • The participatory space should be “neutral ground”. A moderator can help ensure this.
  • The set-up must be interactive. Providing information is only a prerequisite for participation.
  • Participation must be possible without providing real names or personal data.
  • Citizens must receive continuous feedback regarding how results are handled and the implementation process.”

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