Participatory democracy

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Democracy has been categorised as having several elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; protection of the human rights of all citizens; and a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. These can fall under sub-elements of democracy, including:

  • Direct democracy.
  • Representative democracy.
  • Constitutional democracy.
  • Monitory democracy.


Al Gore once termed democracy as ‘hollowed out’, whereby the mechanisms that relate citizens to the polity - or system of government - lack the basic linkages that allow people to be engaged, listened to and empowered. Instead, democracy is often charged with being elitist, not supportive of women and ethnic minorities and often failing to live up to election manifesto promises to deliver change. Eralens term of the Restoration “Government for the people but without the people” seems fitting to explain some instances of political exercise within Western liberal democracies. Meanwhile, because of these systemic problems engagement remains low and political apathy remains high. In his book, Owen Jones calls for a 'democratic revolution' which he defines as "reclaim(ing) by peaceful means the democratic rights and power annexed by the Establishment". To fill this inertia, many groups are turning to direct, or pure democracy, where people decide on policy initiatives directly, without any intermediary. This can involve members passing executive decisions, using sortitons, making laws, electing or removing officials or conducting trials. To be effective, members or citizens need to be fully engaged to foster legitimate challenges to power. Such approaches aim to “democratise democracy” (Patman, 2012).

As a political ideology, participatory democracy has its roots in the notion of the Greek term demos that emphasises the notion of people in power within democratic systems.  Theorists Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Stuart Mill helped to shape democratic decision-making, with was further advanced through ideals of socialism at the turn of the 20th Century, which emphasised a call for a fairer society that addressed widespread inequalities and human decency. These later influenced the co-operative movement. Jurgen Habermas also influenced deliberative democracy through his work on communicative rationality and the public sphere.

It is a more active form of participation than representative democracy which relies on a more passive form of governance through elections, which confer responsibility to make decisions onto the elected representative.  At its core, participatory democracy aims to strengthen civil society to lead to a stronger polity and emphasises accountability, inclusion and empowerment of ordinary people.

Direct Democracy

Within direct democracy, there are two branches, participatory democracy and deliberative democracy.  Participatory democracy uses engagement strategies that emphasise the wide participation of members, or constituents, and that they are actively involved in decision-making.  To some degree, referendums and initiatives suggested by citizens reflect participatory democracy as a form of direct legislation. More participatory initiatives also include those to tackle issues of climate change through Citizen's assemblies which make policy recommendations, but these recommendations are not necessarily taken up by government and there is often no mandate for them to be accepted by politicians.  Participatory budgeting is another example of an inclusive approach to citizen engagement on (government) spending as a form of institutional reform that is being used by different tiers of government to decide how public money should be spent, such as in Frome (Somerset, UK) at the municipal level and notably in Porto Alegre in Brazil (Baiocchi, 2001)  which challenges traditional forms of decision-making in liberal democracies. Such approaches have been found to result in considerable improvement in the quality of life in these areas.

Deliberative democracy

Deliberative democracy involves consensus decision-making and majority rule, such as People’s assemblies.  However, at a higher level of government, the deliberative government is extremely rare since equality of power is a key tenet of this approach and many electoral systems involve a Whip to ensure party-political compliance on key policies. At this level, mass participation also becomes unwieldy, making genuine equal input challenging and time-consuming and lead some to argue that these approaches at a large scale can’t work without some element of representation.[1] Indeed, deliberative referendums actually involve a process of public deliberation.  These approaches tend to be used to generate authentic reflections on public sentiment on key issues. It is also the basis for anarchist strategies since it emphasises a smoothing of power relations and equality of members in decision-making.

James Fishkin[2] highlights five characteristics for legitimate deliberation:

  • Information: The extent to which participants are given access to reasonably accurate information that they believe to be relevant to the issue
  • Substantive balance: The extent to which arguments offered by one side or from one perspective are answered by considerations offered by those who hold other perspectives
  • Diversity: The extent to which the major positions in the public are represented by participants in the discussion
  • Conscientiousness: The participants should be willing to talk and listen, with civility and respect.
  • Equal consideration: The extent to which arguments offered by all participants are considered on the merits regardless of which participants offer them

Such movements have become increasingly popular due to the influence of social media which has expanded their reach and potential for uptake, such as through hashtags that rapidly build social movements. However, not all forms of participatory democracy seek to achieve the same goals: some focus on policy influence, some are centred around direct influence on issues that affect people’s lives (for instance in their own community or shared living space) while others have more radical, subversive ambitions. For instance, within the Occupy movement: Occupy focused on ensuring every protestor had their say through general assemblies and working groups.  This sought to encourage equality and a participatory approach centred on deliberative decision-making but as a result this was slow.

Real world examples

Numerous councils and public administrations around the world, especially at the regional and local level, are utilizing some participatory democracy elements. Some of the most common examples of citizen participation are; participatory budgeting, citizen councils, neighbourhood councils, participatory planning.[3] Participatory democracy in this sense works as a top-down mechanism to include citizen input in the public sector.

There are also other more heterodox practices of participatory democratic practices emerging outside the public sector. In the private sector, as well as the third sector, organizations and groups are increasingly using participatory practices to engage, consult or mobilize target groups.[4]

The Five Star Movement in Italy is one example of a political party adopting the ideals of participatory (direct?) democracy to shape its political agenda. The party’s electoral success in recent years poises interesting questions about how the constituents wish to interact with their representatives. The Five Star Movement uses internet platforms to include members of the party in shaping the political programme by means of discussions and voting. The utopian intention is to dissolve the representative democracy along with entrenched party politics, as the founder, Grillo, of the movement states; “we would like parties to radically disappear… and that at the end of this process the Movement would not be longer necessary”.[5]

In Athenian democracy, citizens made decisions directly without nominating an elected representative to make decisions on their behalf but representation was limited to a select number of citizens and excluded women, slaves and non-Athenians. The Roman Republic also included elements of citizen-led lawmaking. Today, direct democracy exists at the municipal level, Swiss Canons and the federal state and citizens where citizens vote regularly on various issues at different political levels four times a year and can propose changes to the constitution or ask for a referendum on key issues (although only 10% have been voted in to date).


  1. (Plotke, 1997)
  2. Fishkin, James (2011). When the People Speak. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-960443-2.
  3. (Bherer et al., 2016)
  4. (Bherer et al., 2016)
  5. (Mosca, 2020)