Citizen power across the world

Posted on the 24th April 2017

Miriam Levin

While taking a year off to travel around the world with her family, Miriam Levin has been looking at new models of participatory democracy that puts decision-making power in the hands of the citizens.

 

When 40,000 people in Brazil emailed all the Congress party leaders on one day, they stopped a law granting amnesty for corruption being passed.

In Australia, 100 citizens of Geelong got to decide how their town would be democratically represented after their previous council was fired.

Across the world, people are finding ways of making their collective voices loud enough to be heard, and movements which are experimenting with new forms of participative democracy are mushrooming.

Since August 2016 I have been on sabbatical from the Department for Communities and Local Government, where I have been Mobilisation Manager for Community Rights and Neighbourhood Planning. For one year I am traveling the world from Japan to Mexico with my family. As we travel I am meeting organisations who are tackling the growing frustration with representative democracy in positive and radical ways.

Each of them can provide useful pointers for the UK, but two in particular stand out: Nossas in Brazil and newDemocracy Foundation in Australia.

Nossas

‘Nossas’ means ‘ours’ in Portuguese. It was started in 2011 as a network for citizen action in Rio de Janeiro called Meu Rio (My Rio). It has since developed offshoots in cities across Brazil and the meta-network of all these is called Nossas. Each network works at a city level as they have found that this is the scale that people are willing to take action on, and the municipality is prepared to respond to their citizens.

Nossa Legislando
Nossa Legislando, courtesy of Nossas

What each of Nossas’ networks does is shine a light on the actions of their local government and politicians, and mobilise people to take rapid actions in response. This is a very recent phenomenon as Brazilian politics has historically taken place behind closed doors, rife with corruption and bribery, and people have felt powerless to influence what goes on. Through the networks, people are informed about what is happening politically, and are able to respond to and pressure their representatives as soon as issues come to light, using innovative online technologies that Nossas has developed. Nossas also trains people in how to make a difference in their community, works through the media and develops offline actions.

Nossas quadro, courtesy of Nossas
Nossas quadro, courtesy of Nossas

They’ve had some notable successes. For example: Meu Rio mobilised 15,000 people to pressure the municipal government to create Rio’s first police station for missing people, and Meu Recife in the north of Brazil mobilised citizens to stand with the residents of a neighbourhood whose houses were to be knocked down to make way for a prison; after several weeks of intense mobilisation, the residents were able to return to their houses. Nationally, Nossas coordinated a campaign when they found out that the central government was going to rush through a law granting amnesty to politicians for monies donated to them, such as by big business interests. Nossas’ campaign resulted in 40,000 emails sent to the all the party leaders in Congress  in 24 hours pressuring them to reject the legislation. The law was not passed.

As 38 Degrees in the UK and Avaaz globally show, campaigning networks are a vital way for ordinary people to take a small action that can lead collectively to a big change. It also demonstrates that in our hyper-connected world, citizen-led scrutiny means that politics behind closed doors is no longer acceptable or possible. In the UK, we have a notionally more transparent political system but the opportunities for influencing the decision-making directly are still rare.

newDemocracy Foundation in Australia offers an inspiring way that this can happen.

newDemocracy Foundation

The newDemocracy Foundation, based in Sydney Australia, is a ground-breaking organisation that aims to ‘do democracy differently’. It sets up Citizens’ Juries to enable ordinary people to get directly involved in political decision-making. They are made up of between 30-350 randomly selected people, who deliberate on a specific issue and provide a response or recommendation to the commissioning body – usually the local, state or national government. The Jury comes together for a minimum of 40 hours of professionally facilitated discussion to reach a consensus on the issue; they are given access to whatever experts and sources of information they choose, and give up their time in the knowledge that the commissioning body has committed to consider, and usually act, on their recommendation.

courtesy of newDemocracy

This process enables people to get far deeper into an issue than knee-jerk reactions. Generally, people are very sensible and, with enough information, can see several sides of any argument, rather than fracturing along party political or personal interest lines.

I was invited to observe a jury in action in the town of Geelong in Victoria, south east Australia. The state government had fired the entire local council of Geelong for incompetence several months previously and had asked nDF to set up a Citizens’ Jury of 100 people to answer the question:

“Our council was dismissed. How do we want to be democratically represented by a future council?”

The quality of discussion that I witnessed would put the name-calling performances sometimes seen in the House of Commons to shame. The Local Government Minister said in her response to the jury’s report:

“Some [Jurors] had fixed attitudes when they walked in, and then after listening, having the opportunity to debate and decide, they came up with the best model for their local area, rather than what individuals wanted.”

She has already committed to putting into action the Jury’s recommendations, including passing new legislation.

Citizens’ Juries in Australia have now been used to decide on issues large and small. From whether to use the South Australia desert for burying nuclear waste (2/3rds of the 350 jurors were against, so the idea was shelved by the state government) to a panel of 34 jurors reporting back to Penrith City Council about what services and infrastructure are needed in Penrith; and how these should be paid for. Elsewhere in the world, Ireland convened the Constitutional Convention of 99 people – 66 citizens drawn at random and 33 politicians –  tasked with overhauling aspects of the constitution. Amongst other changes, this resulted in their recommendation to legalise gay marriage which was subsequently ratified in a referendum – a huge step for a Catholic country. Iceland has used citizen deliberation most radically, even though the process was ultimately unsuccessful: 25 ordinary citizens were selected to re-write the entire constitution, using social media to make the process transparent and to gather ongoing feedback. Despite the new constitution being approved in a referendum, however, the parliament has not ratified it.

The opportunities for real participation in the decisions that affect our lives on a local or societal level are few and far between in the UK. Yes, I know we had a referendum, but in the words of David Van Reybrouk, author of ‘Against Elections’, “referendums very often reveal people’s gut reactions; deliberations reveal enlightened public opinion”.

The UK could up its game considerably by utilising the Citizens’ Jury methodology, as long as decision-makers commit to act on the recommendations made by the jurors. For citizens, there is huge value in participating in, or hearing the consensus reached by an informed group of our peers (not just those with the loudest voices). It would give politicians a more effective barometer to measure public opinion than inflammatory headlines, and if the results are acted upon, provide a pressure release valve on the growing frustrations people have with (un)representative democracy. We hear a lot about trust in elected officials being at an all-time low, but more important here is that politicians need to trust the process and trust their constituents.

Across the world, people are finding new ways to make their voices heard. As disenchantment with established systems of power is acted out in ways both positive and destructive, new methodologies and movements are offering alternatives.

Both Nossas and newDemocracy Foundation are creating informed and empowered citizens, networking and mobilising people to improve where they live, decide on controversial questions, or challenge corruption. Both are working with traditional centres of power, such as local or national governments, and opening channels so they can hear from citizens in new ways. Both demonstrate that people care deeply about particular issues, and will give up their time to help tackle them. The test for them both is whether people in power embrace or marginalise these new forms of collective citizen engagement.

In the UK too, people are neither apathetic nor unable to get to grips with the challenges facing the country, and will generally act in the best collective interest. What we need to do is find ways of harnessing this, by creating new channels where citizens can debate issues and directly inform political decision-making.

In order for this to happen, we need to know what issues people care about (Community Organisers’ door-knocking methodology is a very good place to start); politicians at all levels need to trust their constituents; and flexible, responsive systems outside the party political framework need to be in place which can be triggered as and when needed to bring people together to debate and decide on issues.

Travelling the world this year has given me great hope for the power of citizen-led movements for change. There is still much work to be done, but the people are finding their voice.

by Miriam Levin

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