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Response: beyond anti-politics through democratic innovation.

Since support for democracy as an ideal remains high, interpretations of anti-politics often point to the pitfalls of 'actual democracy' and its engine: party politics. Consequently, Clarke, Jennings, Moss and Stoker outline reasonable recommendations to improve practices and perceptions of party politics. But this ignores the web of relationships (media, interests, allies, foes ...) that entangles and constrains politicians. Based on their insightful research, the authors (laudably) want to foster more genuine engagement between citizens and politicians, convinced that 'talking, engaging, explaining ... will defeat antipolitics'. But can our current democratic processes and institutions enable high quality engagement? Can a new game be played on the same board, with the same rules?

We should expect more from elected representatives, but perhaps we must first create the conditions for new forms of democratic leadership. Democratic innovations--processes and institutions that enable direct participation of citizens in political decision making--can do this. Well-known examples include participatory budgeting, online crowdsourcing, citizen ballot initiatives, and mini-publics (citizens' assemblies and juries, consensus conferences, planning cells), and the field exudes experimentation with new innovations and hybrids (see Such innovations are happening in local, national and transnational contexts, on issues ranging from finance, to energy, environment, public services, electoral reform and constitution-making. They show that when citizens are supported to participate, learn about issues, perspectives and tradeoffs, and deliberate with diverse others under appropriate conditions, they can engage with complex debates and offer considered judgements to inform decision making. (1) Far from perfect, democratic innovations bring new challenges, but also the potential to redesign our institutions and create a deeper form of democracy.

Clarke et al. state: 'We are not opposed to democratic innovations. but we think the main message of citizens to politicians is: do your own jobs better!' This overlooks the possibility that politicians may do their jobs better precisely by drawing on democratic innovations. These can help increase transparency in decision making; place values, evidence and public reasoning at the heart of policy making; diminish undue influence by lobbyists; and increase legitimacy and trust in our institutions.

The authors add: 'We have found no evidence of a widespread desire among ordinary citizens for more participation in decision-making'. This is too stark a summation of mixed evidence. Firstly, we must be cautious about unequivocal statements about 'what citizens want', as there are limitations in research methodologies. For example, when survey or focus group participants are asked whether they would like to participate more, what kind of participation might they have in mind? Arguably, many will envision mainstream opportunities for participation (consultations, associations, public meetings, campaigns), not fringe democratic innovations. Many people may be unenthusiastic about prevailing forms of participation. But when citizens who participate in democratic innovations are asked about their experience, they tend to say participation is rewarding, meaningful, enlightening, challenging, and even enjoyable. (2) Furthermore, other studies have found evidence of a desire for more participation. (3) The debate on stealth democracy vs. sunshine democracy is, thus, far from over. This is a choice between government by competent elites (civil servants, experts, politicians) versus government by citizens in collaboration with elites. And this choice entails, at least, two fundamental questions for the left.

The first is: What kind of citizen are citizens invited to be? Besides the ballot box, mainstream forms of political participation typically offer citizens roles as spectators, bystanders, followers, complainers... Democratic innovations allow citizens to be co-creators, problem-solvers, deliberative thinkers, decision makers. Different spaces and institutions for participation create different dynamics, and more or less diverse publics, (4) and this has profound consequences for the effectiveness and legitimacy of democracy. Democratic innovations seek to involve diverse citizens, especially those currently suffering from inequalities of power and influence.

The second and related question is: Should the left subscribe to an elitist or a participatory vision for democracy? An elitist model says governing should be the business of the few. A participatory model says it should be the business of the many. This ideological divide cuts across traditional left and right. Citizen participation can be articulated and implemented with different agendas in mind (e.g. a consumerist model vs. a social justice model). I would argue that, drawing on its democratic and social justice heritage, the left should be at the forefront of articulating a compelling vision for participatory democracy built on democratic innovation. To do this, we must reclaim terms and concepts that have become narrowly defined in public life. Politics is more than party politics. Democracy is more than representative democracy. Anti-politics is a hole that widens when political life is reduced to a spectators' game, feeding unchecked cynicism that often excels in complaints but fails in the problem-solving department. Part of the remedy is to engage in democratic experimentation grounded on ongoing research and critical optimism.

Clarke and colleagues rightly say that improving the party political game is possible, but I doubt that this can be accomplished by focussing solely on elite players. Democracy can be an elite sport, or one that also includes citizens and communities. The temptation is often to solidify democracy, fixing it in its current form, rather than learning to evolve with democracy in flux. I believe that is precisely the outstanding quality of democracy: it's a never-ending collective endeavour that contains the seeds for its ongoing reinvention. The left must look back and forward, and become an engine for social justice through bold democratic innovation.

Oliver Escobar is Lecturer in Public Policy at Edinburgh University and Co-Director of What Works Scotland.


(1.) K.Gronlund, A.Bachtiger, and M. Setala, Deliberative Mini-Publics: Involving Citizens in the Democratic Process, 2014, ECPR Press; N.Dias, Hope for Democracy--25 years of participatory budgeting worldwide, In Loco Association, 2014. http://www.; T.Nabatchi, J.Gastil, G.M.Weiksner and M.Leighninger, Democracy in motion: Evaluating the practice and impact of deliberative civic engagement, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2012; G.Smith, Democratic innovations: Designing institutions for citizen participation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2009.

(2.) J.Roberts, and O.Escobar, Involving communities in deliberation: A study of three citizens' juries on onshore wind farms in Scotland, ClimateXChange, 2015; M.Flinders, K.Ghose, W.Jennings, E.Molloy, B.Prosser, A.Renwick, G.Smith, and P.Spada, Democracy matters: Lessons from the 2015 Citizens' Assemblies on English Devolution, Report by the Economic and Social Research Council, Crick Centre at the University of Sheffield, University of Southampton, University College London, University of Westminster and the Electoral Reform Society, 2016.

(3.) M.A.Neblo, K.M.Esterling, R.P.Kennedy, D.M.J. Lazer, and A.Sokhey, 'Who wants to deliberate--And why?', American Political Science Review, 2010,p104; C.Chwalisz, The populist signal: Why politics and democracy need to change, Policy Network, 2015,http://; Ipsos MORI Attitudes to local democracy in Scotland, COSLA Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, 2014; Hansard Society Audit of political engagement 13, 2016, http://www.

(4.) O.Escobar, Transformative practices: The political work of public engagement practitioners, PhD Thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2014. handle/1842/9915.
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Author:Escobar, Oliver
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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