I have thoroughly enjoyed exploring a recent European Commission(ed) poll regarding citizen engagement in participatory democracy. The survey proclaims to examine the “extent to which European citizens engage in participatory democracy, and the extent to which they believe that political decision-making can be influenced through their own actions and through those of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).”
In case you aren’t super interested in stats about participatory democracy and don’t want to read the whole thing, may I suggest the following points of interest (which will, in turn, be followed by ruminations upon one be interested – because that is what civil society people do…):
- An overwhelming majority of Europe’s citizens believe voting can influence politics. (Awesome! Agreed! Usually! So… why are voter turnouts falling?)
- True or false, citizens do not need NGOs, they have other ways of influencing politics? True! According to a majority of respondents in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus. (Unclear what the alternative is, mind you, though I have some guesses that can be neatly stacked into a briefcase). And of the total sample, 45% of the unemployed agree. (I totally didn’t see this one coming – – I thought the unemployed would be on our side.)
- Over 70% of respondents believe NGOs can influence decision-making, 20% participate in some kind of civil society organization, and 10% have personally expressed their views locally.
- Finally, Romania wins a high/low award, topping one indicator with 71% of folks believing NGOs influence European decision-making and, on the opposite extreme, base-line in another with only 4% of Romanians reporting participation in an NGO.
As an NGO person, I am particularly enamored of the last two points, which might be interpreted to state “NGOs are totally influential but I stay away from NGOs.” No worries! 71% of Romanians surveyed believe their personal vote in EU politics makes a difference. Meaning, perhaps, they consider themselves as important as the NGOs they don’t support and off they go to vote. Or at least 27% do.
So to re-interpret: ‘I can be influential in the EU, and so can NGOs, but I don’t vote, and I don’t support NGOs…’ While I might use this opportunity to launch into a discussion about what may be the real issue here – – citizens not understanding, believing, caring or being invited in any meaningful way into the processes of the European Union, I won’t. I’ll leave that to those trying to get elected and, instead, touch upon civil society v. participatory democracy.
Based on the survey’s structure, one might presume a variety of presumptions about links (lacking, extant or necessary) between civil society, influence and political decision-making; between participation in civil society and participatory democracy, etc…
Question – as an individual voter, when was the last time you asked an NGO for voting advice? Question 2 – as an individual voter who clearly doesn’t understand the importance of the EU (dear reader, I’m not talking about you of course), would you like us to nag you down a path toward participation in that venerable institution’s electoral processes? We are good at nagging. And happy to do it. Do let us know.
Civil society does offer a variety of tools to help us help you think about who to vote for. There are more liberal tools helping you understand how your personal politics align with political platforms and inform you where to vote. And there are tools more blatant in their encouragement to vote for particular candidates based on issues like their gun-friendliness or stance on same-sex marriage.
These civil society tools seek to influence you through information, which brings us to a second presumption – – that there is a link between participation in civil society and participatory democracy. The argument certainly has been made. Civil society tends to be relatively democratic by nature in its inherent drive to create/decentralize power. And I personally believe certain kinds of community-development-esque civil society can train people in more democratic processes and empower people to feel they have rights worth fighting for; something that can in turn influence their participation in local politics, potentially their individual electoral choices and the rhetoric of candidates.
So, perhaps, on an individual level, civil society can be influential in encouraging participation, which may lead into politics’ more electoral processes. But what about the belief that NGOs can influence national and European level decision-making? NGOs are sometimes at the table on committees, and asked for their opinion about various issues. Occasionally NGOs will even challenge rulings in court but the overwhelming opinion in civil society seems to be that this is lip service and NGO opinions are not taken too seriously.
Which leaves us with another alternative – – lobbying. Personally, I would be happy to see NGOs do more lobbying. There is, after all, an amazing ROI in political lobbying and donors do keep wanting more for their money. Further, if I’m not lobbying from my moral high ground in pursuit of social justice, then I leave myself prone to the active lobbying efforts of industry players. Their natural interest, no blame given, is seeking to preserve or further corporate profit through manipulation of the system, outside due process. Thus, they might be accused of corrupting the entire fabric of democracy and fundamentally working against citizen interests. But so it goes in post-democratic realities. I can ignore it, start a revolution, or get to lobbying, no?
I guess the question I miss in all this, and would like to hear folks answer, is not if civil society can influence political decision-making but if it should. Civil society should be a reflection of citizen interest. Civil society is political in that it plays with the polity and public perceptions while attempting to aggregate citizen will. Civil society can, and must, in my opinion, play a role in educating citizens about their democratic rights and responsibilities while watchdogging to ensure that those in the backrooms of power don’t forget how they got there.
I think decisions have to be left up to citizens or, at a minimum, representation must more honestly and clearly reflect citizen will (thank you Pirate Party and Liquid Democracy for working to crack this nut). Or if citizens insist on outsourcing decision making to us, then let’s do better than 20% participation – open your calendars and wallets and engage so we at least know what you want while giving us the resources to get it.