Democracy and Public Square

We’re asking members of our advisory groups to write about Public Square and their interest in the programme. First up, Catherine Howe exploring some of the problems with our current democratic system and how Public Square might help to address them.

‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’

(Winston S Churchill, 11 November 1947)

Politics and democracy are often seen as being two sides of the same coin. That’s not really true. Instead, we should think of politics, democracy and civil society as a system of interrelated functions and behaviours which, when they are working together, produce decisions and outcomes that people trust — and, where they are working at odds, create the kind of system-dysfunction that we are seeing around us today.

The Public Square project has been created in order to look at how we bridge the gaps between these three aspects of a healthy democratic society: how we listen to each other and, in doing so, accommodate different views and beliefs to make better decisions and ultimately create the kinds of thriving local places that everyone wants to live in. We believe that new technology can help us — but only if we first focus on the connection and human networks that are the foundation of an engaged and active community.

Different democratic forms

We’ve got into the habit of thinking of democracy as a process of winning and losing, with binary choices being offered to citizens, and little opportunity to discuss or deliberate around these choices. Our representative democracy reflects a society where power is concentrated and where the few take decisions on behalf of the many.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Democracy provides a much richer set of tools and approaches than the few we currently use, and one of the most positive things to come from the breakdown that we see in our current democratic models, is the growth in interest in more participatory and deliberative formats such as citizen juries or assemblies or participatory budgeting. Our liberal representative democracy is just one democratic variant – there are many more to explore.

A truly accessible process

Any form of participatory democracy (including deliberative) relies on the ability of citizens to participate fully in the process and have access to the decision-making arena.  At present, this is not true. Our democracy is biased towards the privileged, the educated, the confident and, in the case of local government especially, towards people who are able to take the time needed to participate in lengthy meetings that clash with either work or caring responsibilities. Our democracy lives in spaces that have been designed to entrench that privilege: it is not designed to listen to the people where they gather and, as a result, we have lost our connection the public sphere.

One of the great hopes of the internet is that it can bridge these divides and connect individuals to decision makers. Instead, the capture of the places where we gather online by corporate interests means that we lack the public spaces that we once relied on in order to connect to and make sense of our neighbours’ views and perspectives.

Politics without tribalism

Politics is the process of turning views and values into action: however, in a democratic model that forces binary choices it becomes gladiatorial. Consensus building and collaboration are not designed into a system that is built around phrases such as ‘first past the post’ or ‘official opposition’. One of the most striking things about the current political landscape is the way in which mainstream political parties are imploding, but that in doing so they are blocking the way for alternative approaches or ways of thinking.

There is little connection between the politics we see in Westminster and what we are experiencing in our own lives. We vote in protest or because we have always voted thus — not because we expect our vote to have an effect.

What next?

The recently published final findings from the Civil Society Futures Inquiry connects together the need for shifts in power, accountability, connection and trust (PACT). In doing so, it explicitly makes the link between the rebuilding of civil society and the need to reform our democratic model and create new ways for people to share their views and values and find a way to co-create better outcomes for real places. This is unusual. For too long, participation and democracy have been seen as separate entities, with civic and democratic participation quite separate. This is unsustainable.

One of Demsoc’s current projects is with Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, looking at ways of creating connections between citizens and decision making in a context which brings the breakdown of trust between parts of society and the democratic bodies that are meant to speak for them into stark relief. The PACT is broken and while both sides are putting it back together, there is always the nagging concern the blueprint we are working to is from the past and will not see us safely into the future.

The Public Square programme is intended as a practical exploration of what we can do to reconnect these three elements of a healthy democracy; the ability to listen and learn, our systems of participation and our model of democracy that then translates this participation and learning into decisions and outcomes that people are connected to and can trust.

When talking about participation, it is easy to shy away from the difficult but slow process of democratic reform — but without this connection, participation lacks impact and can be evaded by people and institutions with power.

Democracy is flawed; but as Churchill said it is still better than anything else we have tried. We need to keep striving to remake it and that, as much as developing tools of participation and listening, is why we think it’s so important to think about how we recreate our public square.

Tell us what you think

Email team@thepublicsquare.org.uk or leave a comment if you would like to join the debate.