The scope and nature of democratic innovation

A democratic innovation may be defined for present purposes as the successful implementation of a new idea that is intended to change the structures or processes of democratic government and politics in order to improve them. It is difficult to go beyond this vague and empty formulation because democracy itself is an essentially contested concept, and hence there is argument about what helps or hinders its improvement. Similarly, the term ‘innovation’ is difficult to capture in a concise manner. Innovation in public sector management has had its own dedicated journal since 1995 and was still discussing the meaning of the term six years later.1 However, some of the general characteristics of the concept can be picked out to distinguish it from related terms such as reform, invention, modification and change.

Innovations are a special subset of changes that involve deliberate action to introduce new ways of doing things. They involve attempts to introduce methods and practices that are more than renovation, minor modification or reform of an existing system: ‘To innovate is not to reform’, said Edmund Burke (1991), implying that innovation is a more radical change implying a qualitatively greater potential effect than simply tinkering around with reforms. Innovation implies a discontinuity or a qualitative break with the existing state of affairs. Fitting better springs to the hansom cab was not an innovation, but the horseless carriage was; Montesquieu’s tripartite separation of powers was an innovation, but widening the franchise to include more property owners was not. Nevertheless, political innovations are a matter of degree, ranging from small but discontinuous changes, to large and potentially revolutionary ones. Consequently, the exact dividing line between reform and innovation, notwithstanding Burke, is not readily seen or drawn.

Innovations are more than ideas and theories; they are ideas in action. In the natural sciences, it is one thing to develop the idea of perpetual motion, but quite another to build a working machine. In the social sciences it is one thing to argue the theory that all people are born equal, but quite another to create institutions and practices that actually promote equality. Innovations depend on ideas that can be implemented; good innovations depend on good ideas that can be implemented successfully.

Many innovations start as low-risk, small-scale experiments in communities and neighbourhoods. Pilot testing of this kind has many advantages as a first step, especially if costs are low and effects can be closely monitored over time. The small scale of some innovations, however, is not important because if they are successful they may spread across political systems and rise to higher levels of regional and national government - perhaps even to international and transnational institutions. Community policing in Chicago, participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre and the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly are three notable examples of innovations that have spread from localized beginnings. The number of generalized, high- impact innovations, however, is comparatively small. In keeping with the times, many of the most successful ones are focused on face-to-face operations within local communities and neighbourhoods.

It is often difficult to say whether an innovation has the effect of preserving the existing order by making it more effective and efficient, or whether it has succeeded in changing or even transforming the system to create something very different and ultimately better. That is, whether an innovation preserves, improves, transforms or subverts democracy is often a matter of opinion. This follows from the essentially contested nature of democracy, and makes innovations and their consequences controversial. Radical revolutionaries may dismiss most innovations as nothing more than tinkering with the system or, worse, as deliberate mystification designed to fool the general public. Pragmatists and realists who have ‘accommodated to the world’ may regard them as genuine progress. Perhaps the best we can do is leave the value judgements aside, while trying to assess whether a given innovation has succeeded in achieving at least some of its goals.

Lastly, democratic innovation is not a straightforward process. It has been said (Kline and Rosenberg 1986) that scientific and technological innovation is typically complex, unpredictable and disorderly, and its effects often hard to measure. Yet, scientific and technological matters are sometimes relatively simple and straightforward compared with social and political processes (Bernstein, et al. 2000). If so, democratic innovation is even more complex, unpredictable and disorderly. There are the complexities of government and political life to take into account as well as questions of values and judgements. The balance between costs and benefits can be difficult to strike, especially when effects are difficult to monitor and measure, and where some of the effects are unexpected and may appear only in the long run.

Having said all this, democratic innovation is of growing practical importance in contemporary government and politics. It has all sorts of difficulties and problems as a new field of study in political science, but it cannot be left aside for this reason. Rather, the best course of action is to try to map the field and identify its major features as the first step in developing a manageable research agenda.

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