Modern democracy needs public participation

Trust is one of the principal requirements for a stable society (Markova and Gillespie 2008). In our Western society, trust is under pressure. Trust in politics is lower than ever, as is stated in the Dutch National Trust Monitor (Winkle 2009). Governments, scientific institutions, multinationals and banks invest in restoring consumer confidence. Trust cannot be restored easily, however. I claim that if organisations really want to achieve restoration of trust, they will have to enter into a relationship with the consumer, the citizen; a relationship that is based on respect, commitment and interest. Trust does not come overnight, but needs time. Receiving trust requires an outstretched hand, which requires trust to be given.

So, building trust is a mutual process. Receiving trust equals granting trust. For a government, this implies providing influence to citizens. In most Western democracies, influence is provided by the mechanism of elections every 4 or 5 years. But is this system of representative democracy in today’s society still valid? Since the implementation of the representative democracy in its present form, society has changed. One might argue whether today’s individualised, digitised and globalised society needs new democratic mechanisms (e.g. Raad voor het Openbaar Bestuur 2010). And how does the conception of trust fit within?

Apart from representative democracy, other possibilities for influencing governmental policy exist. A common format is the participation ladder model of Sherry R. Arnstein. He distinguishes influence on the degree of participation: informing, consultation, advising, co-production and delegated decision-making (Arnstein 1969). Formal participation is at the level of ‘consultation’. In this case, the government places itself above the public. More radical forms of participation such as co-production and delegated decision-making require a fundamentally different attitude from the government: an attitude of equality or even a serving, facilitating attitude. Thus, if the government is really interested in citizen confidence, it must grant trust to the public first, and for that, it must (at least partially) give up control.

The insight that today’s network society requires a different position of the government is not new. Many examples of citizen participation can be found (e.g. Van Berlo 2009). With the increased potential of the Internet and of social media, citizen participation got a new impetus in so-called e-participation, meaning citizen participation with the use of digital media to improve public services and the functioning of the community (Burgerlink 2010). The TNO E-participation monitor has recognised and analysed 540 e-participation initiatives in 2010 (Slot and Van der Plas 2010).

So, there are plenty of intentions and initiatives, at least within the Netherlands. But do they really work? Does e-participation actually lead to a changed relationship between citizens and government? Towards a greater mutual trust? To better policies and to better supported policy making? It is plausible that citizen participation is about the design of trust. In that case, e-participation may well be about witnessed presence. I used the YUTPA model (Nevejan 2009) to analyse some of the most promising e-participation projects of 2009. In fact, the analysed projects were nominated for the E-Participation Award 2009. Those nominees may be regarded as the pearls of e-participation in the Netherlands (Burgerlink 2010).

Maurice Berix