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New Frontiers for Citizen Empowerment: A Leadership Imperative for the Future of Democracy in Europe

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Blog based on OGP CEO Sanjay Pradhan’s opening remarks at the European Open Government Leaders’ Forum in Milan, Italy on February 5, 2018

I would like to suggest that the subject of the European Open Government Leaders’ Forum – participation – is of vital significance to the legitimacy and future of democracy in Europe.  Let me explain.

  • Despite recent signs of slow economic recovery, many European countries have been facing significant challenges in the context of globalization, including sluggish wages and rising inequality, ageing populations and youth unemployment, refugee crises and backlash against immigration.

  • As a result, ordinary citizens have been feeling left behind or worse off – fueling a sense of injustice, erosion of cultural identity, insecurity about loss of jobs, and threat from migration and terrorism, spurred also by rising xenophobia.

  • Citizens have not only felt left behind but also powerless, without a meaningful voice or control of government, which they perceive to be captured by elites unresponsive to their needs.

  • In fact, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that citizen trust in government – which was already at all-time low – continues to plummet in Western democracies – while China emerges as the most trusted government in the world!  This is a profound challenge for Europe.

  • Anti-establishment movements in Europe and North America have stoked this underlying distrust to call for the wholesale rejection of the system.  While voters in some countries kept radical forces out of office, in other countries populist and even authoritarian leaders have risen to power.  

So this crisis of trust threatens the very foundation of democracy.

So in this context, we need new frontiers of participation to ensure that citizens feel a genuine sense of empowerment to shape public policies which are responsive to their concerns.  For this, business-as-usual needs to change.  The problem of trust has surfaced in countries that are quite open and have traditional consultation mechanisms.  People don’t just want to have their say during elections every few years, or only engage traditional consultation processes which can be hijacked by special interest groups or choreographed by government officials to arrive at pre-determined conclusions.

In an age of technological advancement and hyper-connectivity, the expectations surrounding democratic participation are also changing.  Citizens today want to have spontaneous, creative ways to proactively shape policies on issues they care about, feel that their voices have genuinely been heard, and see visible impact.

To this end, let me suggest three new frontiers of participation that some OGP countries are undertaking which show the hopeful way forward.

First, direct citizen engagement to shape policies which affect their lives:

  • In Estonia, citizens engaged online and offline through the People’s Assembly or Rahvakogu platform to crowd-source, prioritize and vote on proposals to amend the country’s electoral and political party laws, and crowdsource solutions to overhaul the country’s pension system through the public petition system.

  • Paris and Madrid have introduced participatory budgeting, so citizens set priorities and fund projects that meet their needs.

  • In Italy, OpenCoesione disclosed the details of 1 million projects and 100 billion in EU funding to empower citizens, journalists, civil society as well as thousands of students to serve as citizen monitors to oversee local projects that they care about.

Second, deliberative participation, such as Canada’s Open Dialogues, where citizens engage in deeper dialogues on complex policies, debate tradeoffs, make compromises, and use facts to shape decisions that affect them.

  • The UK’s Brexit Citizen Assembly brought together a cross-section of representative citizenry who voted very differently on Brexit, facilitated deep and reflective discussion, concluding with recommendations for the Brexit negotiations presented to government and parliament.

Third, inclusion in participation.  While fostering participation, it is also vital to ensure inclusion of vulnerable groups – youth, elderly, women, minorities – that are easily excluded in participatory processes.

  • Finland, for instance, is systematically involving the young, elderly and vulnerable groups in policymaking.

  • One important frontier that I would recommend for European Leaders to focus upon is the inclusion of marginalized youth groups and migrants in participatory processes to mitigate their risks of radicalization; my earlier work at the World Bank showed that youth radicalization is fueled by the exclusion and grievances.

  • In Germany’s first OGP action plan, the federal government has launched a competition to encourage, reward and disseminate local activities to integrate immigrants.

These innovations are inspiring – but they are too few and far between.  As a gathering of European leaders, we call on you to join forces to scale up these innovations within the EU and beyond to address the collective challenges of declining citizen trust in government. Citizens want to be more involved in the decisions that are made in Brussels, across EU member countries, and beyond. OGP provides a very useful platform for the EU to advance genuine citizen empowerment – 22 of 28 EU countries are OGP members, OGP provides an international laboratory of experiences on citizen participation that the EU can leverage, and OGP offers a ready platform of government-civil society partnership which is particularly conducive to advance participation.

In sum, business as usual needs to change. There is too much at stake: declining citizen trust and the specter of populism threatens the very foundation of democracy. We call upon European Leaders, the EU, OGP and other key partners like the OECD to join forces to scale up reforms for genuine citizen empowerment and active citizenship, so they serve as a countervailing force to the troubling trends, and deliver on the precious promise that government truly empowers and serves its citizens.