When democratic innovations let the people decide

An evaluation of co-governance experiments

Julien Talpin


Can the people govern? Are the people sufficiently competent and responsible to make wise collective decisions shaping public policies? In what circumstances can individuals effectively share a part of the political power of which they are supposed to be the legitimate holders? Co-governance innovations across the globe try precisely to offer institutional answers to these crucial questions that have animated democratic theory debates for centuries. While deliberative and participatory experiments have mushroomed in the last two decades, in both Western democracies and in the global South (for good reviews see Fung and Wright 2003; Smith 2005, 2009), only a few of them grant a direct decisionmaking power to lay citizens. The most prominent of these co-governance innovations will be presented and analyzed here. In a co-governance institution, citizens and public authorities share political power. They can be defined, following Smith (2005: 56-7), by three main features, distinguishing them from other deliberative and participatory innovations: (1) they are granted part of the decision-making authority, (2) they also have a degree of agenda setting power, and, therefore, a form of autonomy from the politicians who created them, and finally (3) they are ongoing forms of engagement, meeting regularly over months or even years, rather than snapshot events, like deliberative polls, citizens’ juries or consensus conferences (Fishkin et al. 2002; Smith and Wales 2000; Goodin and Niemeyer 2003; Sintomer 2007). Co-governance innovations also differ from direct legislation, in the sense that power is shared between citizens and elected officials, and require an institutionalized and iterated public deliberation before taking the decision.

The aim of this chapter is first of all to present some of the most successful cases of co-governance, namely participatory budgeting, with the paradigmatic example of Porto Alegre, the Citizens’ Assembly, and especially the one that took place in the Canadian state of British Columbia in 2004, and finally specific forms of community organizing, such as the community policing of the city of Chicago and decentralized planning in Kerala, India. How does co-governance work in practice? Why did they appear in these specific contexts? Do these experiences have anything in common? After having presented the empirical cases, I will answer these questions by tackling four of the most salient issues concerning co-governance innovations that will form the last four sections of this chapter. First of all, what is the public of co-governance innovations? Is it the ‘usual suspects’ from the articulate middle class or can people from the working class be integrated into the process too? The different institutions reviewed offer alternative solutions to these crucial dilemmas, from random selection to community mobilization. In any case, it appears that the direct decisionmaking power of co-governance institutions makes them more attractive for poorer people than other participatory arenas. Thus, our second consideration: if subaltern publics participate, are they capable of making sensible decisions about politics? Are co-governance institutions opening the door to amateurism and the expression of private interests in the public sphere? We will review the different ways in which empowered democratic innovations solve these issues, from offering formal lectures to citizens, to the more diffuse learning made possible by repeated participation.1 This learning process nevertheless tears engaged citizens away from the general population, the former becoming increasingly expert and specialized and, therefore, cut off from the needs of the grass roots. Finally, do co-governance practices also have a redistributive impact towards the most needy in society? We will observe that the inclusion of modest and non-professional actors in the decision-making process can have a decisive impact on public policies, different actors promoting alternative needs and taking different decisions.

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