Deepening Democracy: The Varieties of Participatory Institutions

When most people imagine deepening democracy — increasing citizen participation in power — their mind often jumps to the furthest extreme of direct democracy: endless meetings of every citizen ignorantly voting on every issue.  If this is what deep democracy means — all of us taking time to discern the right policy regarding inland fisheries regulations and medical device taxes — then deep democracy is ridiculous.

But this is the wrong way to think about deepening democracy. Rather than seeing a deep democracy as a system where every citizen has a vote on every issue, we should imagine it as a system where every citizen has a variety of open avenues to having their voice heard and ideas realized. To deepen democracy is to open up power — the power to start projects, change projects, and stop projects — to more people in more ways.  

The mechanism for deepening democracy is the participatory institution: a system that gains political power for the purpose of distributing it to a wider variety of people. A deep democracy would consist of a dense array of interconnected participatory institutions.

i. Passive and Active Input Tools

One such category of participatory institutions are what one might call “passive input tools”: avenues built into closed governing bodies to allow citizens to directly engage with legislative processes when they have reason to do so. A prime example is the “notice and comment” periods that federal agencies host before enacting new regulations and city planning boards host before approving new zoning changes. Each citizen does not vote on every regulation or zoning change, but when a new change arises that they wish to have input on, they have the opportunity to have their voice heard. Less potent examples include surveys and listening sessions that governing bodies utilize and town hall meetings that legislators occasionally hold.

Other passive input tools have more bite. For example, the initiative and referendum — which allow citizens to put legislation on the ballot — allow citizens to not only have their ideas heard, but also have their ideas directly enacted.  Ralph Nader’s idea of the citizen summons is a mechanism by which a certain number of signatures on a petition would require a Congressperson to meet in person with a group of citizens. There was even a movement at the turn of the 20th century — the social centers movement — which aimed to mix weekly local forums with the initiative, thus allowing citizens to meet to find consensus proposals and then immediately have enough signatures to get their conclusions on the ballot.

Even better are “active input tools”: systems which force governing bodies to actively seek citizen participation on certain governing decisions.  One example is participatory budgeting, which sets aside a portion of a governing body’s budget to be decided on by the citizens themselves. Another example is the periodic community visioning, which invites the whole community to come together to lay out its priorities and ideas for the coming years.  One could imagine other active input tools, such as a requirement that Congresspersons hold Congressional District visionings to set priorities for the coming term or a system by which an annual citizen convention is held to place, say, five issues on the ballot without having to go through the initiative or referendum process.

ii. Standing counterbalances to organized power

Perhaps the most effective participatory institutions are what we, in the Democratic Alternative intervention, refer to as participatory counterbalances to corporate and state power.  These are standing participatory organizations that address the same issues as bureaucratic entities, but are organized to better engage and amplify the unorganized public at large. The classic example is the trade union, which organizes workers to counterbalance employer power. But other examples include: consumer purchasing cooperatives, which organize consumers of certain projects to counterbalance seller power; tenant unions, which organize tenants to counterbalance landlord power; and the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in D.C., which organize neighborhoods to counterbalance city council power.

In creating a layer of participation in between an unorganized public and a powerful entity that affects that public, participatory counterbalances serve multiple purposes.  

First, they provide a venue to organize and channel an unorganized publics’ interest: instead of having to organize protests ad hoc as particular issues arise, you always have access to a standing voice of concern.

Second, they provide a forum for public voices that is more open and accessible then the closed bureaucracy: instead of having to fight to make your voice heard by an entity with little interest in listening to one person, you have a group ready to listen to you.

Third, they raise up a new set of leaders and experts independent of the powerful bureaucracy: the powerful no longer have a monopoly on expertise and the public now has teachers ready to shed light on their concerns.

Finally, they have the capacity to become not just counterbalances but full-scale alternatives to corporate and state power, such as is the case when consumer groups move from a product boycott to launching their own product, when trade unions become worker cooperatives, and social service client associations begin to cooperatively address their own communal needs.

iii. Deepening Democracy

Once you broaden your institutional imagination to include the variety of participatory institutions — passive input tools, active input tools, and participatory counterbalances to organized power — you start to see opportunities everywhere to deepen democracy.  

Let’s say, for example, a major city has an agency that oversees and regulates nursing homes. Technocrats with minimal institutional imagination might question any attempts to increase democratic participation in the agency’s decisionmaking, arguing that only the public health PhDs appointed to manage the agency have the expertise to do so. Some might be opposed to participation, but still be interested in ‘agency responsiveness,’ and therefore set up various surveys, investigations and listening sessions to ensure that their constituents’ needs are addressed.

However, without disrupting the agency’s ability to make use of its managers’ expertise, the government can begin to layer on passive input tools, setting up notice and comment periods for major decisions, as well as mechanisms for petitioning to change policies or summon an official to meet with a certain group.  They could then layer on active input tools, such as hosting routine forums for nursing home constituents — the elderly, their families, and their caretakers — to set the vision for elder care in the city.  Finally, they could establish an independent participatory organization — with representatives of those same constituent groups — to oversee the agency and engages the public in agency decisions.

Now, with these participatory institutions established, if a citizen has a concern or idea, they need not bang on the door of the agency or organize an ad hoc protest: they can give comments, petition the agency, summon an official, speak at a visioning forum, speak with the newly-minted Nursing Home League, or perhaps even apply to be on the League’s leadership committee. This is what deep democracy looks like: not the mob rule that critics of direct democracy fear, but multiple avenues to have citizens’ voices heard and citizens’ ideas realized.

During the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, the project of building up participatory institutions — of deepening democracy — was taken up with great enthusiasm. The direct election of Senators, the primary, the initiative, the referendum, the social center, and the majority of federated organizations in American history were all created in that era to distribute more power to more people in more ways.  Today, as most of political life focuses on technical policy proposals and culture war flash points, this democratizing project has withered. We must revive it.