Direct participation in governance has experienced a resurgence in the past decade. Rather than assuming their elected leaders will represent their interests, people begin to practice democracy by taking direct control over their own affairs. This government by the people rather than by experts or the social elites who are often successful in elections reshapes what democracy means. In this resurgence democracy comes to mean decision-making about one’s own affairs.
One trace of this resurgence is found in the Direct Democracy Festivals that have taken place each year since 2010 in Greece and other locations. These festivals provide a platform for an exchange of experiences, strategies, and knowledge about direct participation in democratic practice among those with experience in direct democracy, and allows locals without experience to learn a great deal very quickly.
The first festival took place on the Greek Aegean Coast and featured public discussions ranging from local self-organized institutions to horizontal governance practices and autonomous workers organizations. The 2016 festival was held in the capital of the Basque region in Spain, and included discussions of differences between elections and citizen initiatives, and the uses and risks of social media and other digital tools for expanding direct democracy. The 2017 Direct Democracy Festival featured presentations on establishing and strengthening the commons, on social movements taking power back from authoritarian governments, strategies and concepts useful in local settings, documentary films, theater, and musical performances.
Tied to the 2017 Direct Democracy Festival in Greece was a conference of participants in various direct democracy social movements and organizations at the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology. For example, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) is one organization that has been promoting direct democracy through their Committee on Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy, and Human Rights. The conference featured a speaker discussing the efforts to implement direct local governance across the entire Poitou-Charentes region of France, among many other similar global efforts. UCLG networks many local governments to establish local accountability for policies, and it has been successful in strengthening resistance in many locales to economic and political policies that benefit only a small minority of national, state or provincial, and local populations.
Participatory governance often is adopted when those who are systematically blocked from decision-making by government practices take matters into their own hands: the unemployed, undocumented immigrants, young people, and other groups. Participatory budgeting has been one of the most successful practices in the spread of participatory governance. Beginning in the 1990s, participatory budgeting has come to be widely used in over 100 cities in Brazil, and by 2015 it has also spread globally to over 1,000 locations. The sites where this practice has proven effective range from cities of over 1,000,000, such as Porto Alegre, Brazil, where it was first used in 1989 on a large scale, to entire regions and states: the Dominican Republic now uses participatory budgeting for all local governments.
One of the most important impacts of direct participation in governance decision-making is the training of young people in citizenship practices. Some practices have focused on participation by youth, and New York City’s expansion of participatory budgeting from 4 council districts to over 30 in 2015-6 invites any person over age 14 to get involved. Since passive populations have proven vulnerable to persuasion by elected leaders who have only narrow interests at heart, training younger generations how to become actively involved in determining their lives is an important countermeasure to centralized, elite government.
One disadvantage of participatory budgeting in some locales has been the limitation of the practice to discretionary funds of elected officials, as in Chicago and New York City. This does little to transform overall unemployment rates based on economic policies, or the inhumane conditions of many immigrants who are blocked from access to basic needs and safe living and working conditions in many cases.
Yet direct participation in democracy decision-making has wide appeal, and practiced in areas ranging well beyond budgets to such issues as access to basic services, gender equality, environmental protection, and poverty reduction. Studies have been completed of successes and obstacles in these areas in over 50 cities worldwide, and the results provide a rich resource for those who wish to take control of their lives into their own hands.
The risk that elected officials take in promoting participatory governance is that those who elected them may grow accustomed to being directly involved in governing their own affairs. While the claim by elected officials to represent the interests of all still has traction in some circles, as more lose faith in electoral systems the experience of self-determination may prove useful in the future. Direct democracy festivals and the work of the UCLG offer those interested in direct participation in democracy much to consider and more to do.