participatory democracy in the mainstream

Francesca Polletta has a really nice essay in Contemporary Sociology in which she reviews several new-ish books about participatory democracy and how its practiced in different organizational settings. One of the books she takes up in the essay is by our co-blogger Katherine Chen and another is by former guest blogger, Daniel Kreiss.  In her essay Polletta makes the point that participatory democracy as a mechanism for collective governance has gone mainstream. A variety of actors now use participatory democracy in their organizational forms, from online activism to political campaigns to for-profit business. Although the practices used to implement participatory democratic processes vary across settings, they all embrace the principle that “decisions [should be] made by the people affected by them.” It is typically associated with nonhierarchical leadership and collective deliberation.

The essay is well worth reading. One of the issues that comes up whenever we talk about participatory democracy is its sustainability as a governance mechanism. Can an organization grow and maintain its participatory processes? The political theorist Roberto Michels thought that the answer was no.  He argued that as radical political organizations grew in scale and scope they faced internal pressures toward bureaucratization and oligarchy. The inevitable outcome of the oligarchization process was that once radical organizations became captured by careerists with a more conservative agenda.  Organizational scholars have assumed that these internal pressures are overpowering.

Although Polletta doesn’t address Michel’s hypothesis directly in her essay, she suggests that some organizations are learning to deal with these internal pressures. Experience and learning from others has helped organizations develop better processes and ways of dealing with pressures to bureaucratize.

Activists have learned to do participatory democracy more effectively over the last few decades. Even neophytes have access to handbooks and workshops on what “modified consensus” is or when it is appropriate to “stand aside.” Not having to reinvent the form has made it easier to practice. The loose collaborative styles that are typical of online networks and projects have affected how participatory democracy is done offline as well as online. And briefs for participation from the world of for-profit management have made participatory democracy seem appealingly consistent with the “bottom line.”

Of course, one of the ways they maintain participation seems to be that they decouple decision-making and implementation from input and feedback.

I am struck by the barriers to participation in the projects I have described. Sometimes those barriers were unintentional and undesired: for example, global justice activists’ use of a meeting style that was off-putting to those outside the loop. In other cases, however, the barriers to participation were deliberate. Obama’s senior online strategists were open about the fact that they wanted supporters to participate in raising money, not in making decisions about the campaign. Burning Man board members knew that Larry Harvey could override their consensus decision if he chose to. Burning Man volunteers knew that they could launch and manage an initiative only if it was approved by senior staff. Empowerment organizers knew that they could not really have teenagers deciding what projects they wanted to do.

One pathway to sustainable participatory democracy is allowing participation in the input and output of the organization, but without necessarily having participation in the final decision-making. This allows the organization to operate close-to-the-ground while also maintaining some hierarchy and control.


Written by brayden king

January 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm

One Response

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  1. I always thought Orwell’s Animal Farm was a great commentary on the evolution of participative democracy in organizations– from a guiding principle to a veneer for power-holders to deprive constituents of decision rights while gladly seeking their resources. Decoupling might be a pretty word for that, but perhaps it can be more appropriately read as “All [constituents] are equal, but some [constituents] are more equal than others.”



    January 21, 2013 at 12:10 am

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