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Citizen Agency in Democratic Reform: Towards Substantive and Sustainable Democratic Innovation

Civil Society
Democracy
Democratisation
Political Participation
Normative Theory
Political Engagement
Carolyn Hendriks
Australian National University
Albert Dzur
Bowling Green State University
Carolyn Hendriks
Australian National University
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Abstract

Innovative forms of public engagement such as deliberative polls, citizens' juries, and participatory budgeting forums, have generated enthusiasm among many scholars and practitioners about their potential to renew democratic politics at a time of deep and widespread citizen distrust of mainstream political parties and office holders. Yet, there is also considerable skepticism about their vulnerability to cooptation by large-scale economic forces and neoliberal governance tendencies. Some critics argue, too, that public engagement efforts can actually corrode democratic politics by constraining citizen agency to the narrow norms and practices of deliberative forums. Taking the arguments of both advocates and critics under consideration, we seek to broaden the current debate on democratic innovation, to construct a framework for examining and evaluating a wider range of current practices in which citizen agency plays an important role. Of particular importance are less structured sites and opportunities for reform -- including some that may not even be called “political” or “democratic” by participants -- which place citizens in important social problem-solving roles. In this paper we develop a typology of common types of non-forum based democratic innovation, including, for example, those stressing “public work” and “everyday maker” forms of citizen agency; those encouraging and resourcing civil society actors to be champions and facilitators of public deliberation within their networks; those building deliberative capacity through schools; those working via civic capacity building elected representatives and other officials; among many other types. With our typology in place, we draw on a number of empirical examples to ask: What motivations drive democratic reform efforts in which citizen agency plays an important role? How substantive and sustainable are they? What, if anything, are innovators doing to resist counter-democratic economic and neoliberal pressures?