The Secret to Making Democracy More Civil and Less Polarized

Essay by Matt Qvortrup: “…Too often, politicians hold referendums when they themselves are in a tight spot. As the economist John Matsusaka has written, governments often rely on referendums for issues that are “too hot to handle.” In the late 1990s, British Prime Minister Tony Blair held a referendum on a parliament for Scotland in order not to alienate voters in England, and in 2005, the French government submitted the European Constitution to voters for fear of upsetting the large segment of French voters who were skeptical of the EU.

This process of elected politicians submitting unpopular questions to voters is not direct democracy. It is an abuse thereof. And it is entirely out of step with the current moment and how people want to engage with the world. By contrast, over the past three decades, some local and national governments have taken a much more proactive approach to citizen engagement through participatory budgeting.

The idea is simple: the government distributes a percentage (typically 10 percent) of the local budget to the citizens, who decide what to spend the money on. “How would you spend one million of the City’s money?” asked a pamphlet distributed to New Yorkers in 2011 that introduced them to the process.

Participatory budgeting came to Tower Hamlets, one of the most unequal parts of London, in 2009 and 2010 in a project designed to help the area choose new social service providers. The borough was divided into eight smaller areas; in each, a representative section of community volunteers could question the providers on whatever they wished, including social responsibility and commitment to the community. Eventually, the citizens were able to negotiate with providers on the details of how service would work.

Finally, after this process, a vote was taken on which providers offered the best value and which were most likely to provide employment to local residents. This participatory project was a success. An evaluation by the local government association concluded that “a majority of participants said they had developed skills linked to empowerment, and the community overall felt they could better influence their local environment and services.” It was popular, too. More than 77 percent wanted the council to repeat the event in the future.” This level of engagement was considerably above the average for similar boroughs, where as few as 20 percent of residents even bother to vote.

The Tower Hamlets experiment—as well as participatory budgeting in places as different as Porto Alegre, Brazil and Paris, France—shows that citizens behave responsibly when they are given responsibility.

The money allocated in participatory budgeting is finite, and those involved in the process know that they have to make hard choices. Admittedly “trust” is a difficult concept to measure, but research by the World Bank suggests that citizen engagement grows trust in the political system. Moreover, citizens learn democracy by doing it. As Harvard political scientist Jane Mansbridge wrote, “Participating in democratic decisions makes many participants better citizens.”…(More)”.