Quoting: G. Sgueo, The Practice of Democracy. A Selection of Civil Engagement Initiatives, Parliamentary research Service, PE 651.970 – June 2020
Public powers are currently facing extraordinary challenges, from finding ways to revive economic growth without damaging the environment, to managing a global health crisis, combating inequality and securing peace. In the coming decades, public regulators, and with them academics, civil society actors and corporate powers, will confront another dilemma that is fast becoming a clear and present challenge. This is whether to protect the current structures of democratic governance, despite the widespread perception of their inefficiency, or adapt them to fast-changing scenarios (but, in doing so, take the risk of further weakening democracy).
The picture is blurred, with diverging trends. On the one hand, the classic interest-representation model is under strain. Low voter turnouts, rising populist (or anti-establishment) political movements and widespread discontent towards public institutions are stress-testing the foundations of democratic systems. Democracy, ever-louder voices argue, is a mere chimera, and citizens have little meaningful impact on the public decision-making process. Therefore, critics suggest, alternatives to the democratic model must be considered if countries are to navigate future challenges. However, the reality is more complex. Indeed, the decay of democratic values is unambiguously rejected by the birth of new grassroots movements, evidenced by record-speed civic mobilisation (especially among the young) and sustained by widespread street protest. Examined more closely, these events show that global demand for participation is alive and kicking.
The clash between these two opposing trends raises a number of questions that policy-makers and analysts must answer. First, will new, hybrid, forms of democratic participation replace classic representation systems? Second, amid transformative processes, how will power-roles be redistributed? A third set of questions looks at what is driving the transformation of democratic systems. As the venues of political discussion and interaction move from town halls and meeting rooms to online forums, it becomes critical to understand whether innovative democratic practices will be implemented almost exclusively through impersonal, ascetic, digital platforms; or, whether civic engagement will still be nurtured through in-person, local forums built to encourage debate.
This study begins by looking at the latest developments in the academic and institutional debates on democratic participation and civic engagement. Contributing to the crisis of traditional democratic models are political apathy and declining trust in political institutions, changes in methods of producing and sharing knowledge, and the pervasive nature of technology. How are public institutions reacting to these disruptive changes? The central part of this study examines a sample of initiatives trialled by public administrations (local, national and supranational) to engage citizens in policy-making. These initiatives are categorised by three criteria: first, the depth and complexity of cooperation between public structures and private actors; second, the design of procedures and structures of participation; and, third, the level of politicisation of the consultations, as well as the attractiveness of certain topics compared with others.
This analysis is intended to contribute to the on-going debate on the democratisation of the European Union (EU). The planned Conference on the Future of Europe, the recent reform of the European Citizens’ Initiative, and on-going debates on how to improve the transparency of EU decision-making are all designed to revive the civic spirit of the European public. These efforts notwithstanding, severe political, economic and societal challenges are jeopardising the very ideological foundations of the Union. The on-going coronavirus pandemic has placed the EU’s effectiveness under scrutiny once again. By appraising and applying methods tested by public sector institutions to engage citizens in policy-making, the EU could boost its chances of accomplishing its political mandate with success.