-A culture change from old to new power-

Citizens and public officials meet halfway

by Stephen Boucher, Founder, Dreamocracy

Abstract: In Western European countries, citizens have come to expect to be involved, while civil servants are seeing the value of tapping into people’s knowledge and ideas. A clear division of labor is yet to emerge between citizens and government. Nevertheless, there is no going back.

“Politicians are elected to show leadership, to define a direction and strategy and lead the people to follow them”. This is what I heard from many officials and colleagues when I organized the EU-wide Deliberative Poll in 2007, arguably the first pan-European participatory democracy experiment, following a very top-down debate across Europe on a draft constitutional treaty. 15 years on, it would have seemed impossible for EU officials not to include a measure of citizen debates and consultation, on- and offline, as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe. And citizens would not have seen as credible a process conducted solely within closed circles of experts, as the 2005 constitutional treaty once was drafted.

Have we therefore become “bilingual” in old and new power, as Jeremy Heimans, founder of the petition platform Avaaz put it in his book New Power: How Powers Works in Our Hyperconnected World—And how to make it work for you. Combining old power with new power forms and values is not easy. Old power is what we’re used to. It’s our top-down institutions, rigid chains of command and the culture of information retention that goes with it. It’s how power was structured for millennia.

Now, that way of deciding and managing society is combined with more collaborative modes of functioning, a “new” form of power that is more fluid, more collaborative. We see it everywhere. It’s the “deliberative wave” of mini-public formats documented by the OECD. It’s also the participatory budgets that have spread across cities worldwide. And it’s the crowdsourcing culture that’s behind innovation hackathons, public challenges, and other on- or offline consultations. And politicians have seen the potential to renew their platform and approach, from Cinque Stelle to Podemos, from The Alternative to La France Insoumise. Yet,

This culture of co-everything (co-defining issues, co-creating solutions, co-implementing them) has become an accepted norm for many. So, certainly we have come to mix the two. On the other hand, we struggle to juggle the two fluidly, like a truly bilingual person switching effortlessly from one idiom to another. The French citizen convention on climate doesn’t yield the desired result? The recommendations are largely ignored and citizens are – understandably so – skeptical of such exercises. A given party in office in a city is kicked out? Its successor brands its predecessor’s participatory budget as “a gadget”. Hopes are raised in election campaigns thanks to highly collaborative modes of thinking and campaigning? Those hopes are dashed when the party, once in government, reverts to infighting and old ways of centralizing information and power.

Many thus predict a gloomy future for participation and mobilization. Surely, such words and the hope of fostering greater collective intelligence and creativity is naïve and ill-suited to the threats presented by the onslaught of Russia, China and other authoritarians on democracy! Evidently, people are growing wary of “participatory washing”, also goes the argument.

I argue that the appeal of participation, the promise that it entails of sharing power, generates a new culture that sets the standards for the future. Like the ratchet effect documented in public administration, we can see how at each step forward, people expect more, not less. Each participatory budget that reaches a larger share of a city’s budget sets a precedent. Each citizen convention that yields results defines the benchmark against which other consultations are measured. Each online crowdsourcing platform that delivers new solutions exemplifies how much we can do together.

From Barcelona to Berlin to Brussels, from Taiwan to Stratford to London to Paris, the culture of new power is being disseminated and becoming the norm. That culture is worth nurturing. It’s central to the desire for freedom that our fellow Ukrainians are bravely defending. There is no going back. So we must keep going forward.