Citizens and governance
THE development of democracy involves a movement from government to governance. ‘Governance’ to me is about inclusivity, where the government regards itself as but one stakeholder in the decision-making process. Last year, the Commonwealth Foundation established its citizens and governance programme to find answers to some key questions about governance.
What does ‘governance’ mean and what does it look like in practice? Precisely, how does it differ from government? What skills, knowledge and other capacities are needed for ‘good governance’ among citizens, civil society organisations, and in government institutions at all levels?
What actions, policies and practices are needed to facilitate among citizens and civil society organisations the capacities needed for effective participation in governance and among institutions of government the capacities needed for government to become governance?
What processes, systems and structures does ‘good governance’ require? How does civil society participation in governance help in meeting people’s basic needs and the reduction of poverty, marginalisation and discrimination; the health and strength of civil society; and the legitimacy and effectiveness of democratic institutions and processes?
I believe that we can answer these questions, but will do so only if we start by admitting that we live in an uncertain world. The problem is that while we make that admission about certain aspects of our world and lives, I fear that we do not do so about democracy, about the distribution of powers and responsibilities among the main societal actors, and about the skills and capacities that people and their associations and organisations need if society is to be truly civil and if democracy is to be truly participatory. Worse still, I think complacency abounds.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a commonly held view that the event somehow proved that the combination of democracy and free market forces works, and that other politico-economic systems had failed. This view has an arrogant certainty about it. It is the wrong starting point. Our staring point must be, instead, at least to admit to a degree of uncertainty about whether democracy is working as well as it should. It’s time we put it under the microscope and ask whether people’s basic needs are being met? Do people associate with one another for the common good? Are people connected with and included in the processes of governance?
We might at the same time ask: How certain are we that democracy is best served by being rooted in partisan contestation, and adversarial politics? I am not.
Presently, and in the past, we find two situations where such democracy struggles: where a government has a huge majority in Parliament, thus tempting it or causing it to become autocratic in its nature and operations; and, at the other extreme, where it has such a small majority, or where fragile coalitions need to be formed, that decision-making is difficult or where a small number, even a single person holds the crucial balance of power, even though they stand for a cause or issue that the majority of the population does not share or indeed which endangers the stability of society. Are these situations to be regarded as inevitable and an acceptable price to pay for all the benefits societies gain from democracy? I hope not.
Among democratic societies one can find examples of political activities being closely linked, overtly or covertly, to violence, conflict and crime, as its adversarial nature overspills undefined boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable political behaviour. Some feel that this is an unfortunate but acceptable price to pay for all the benefits societies gain from democracy. I do not agree.
There is a very great challenge here. Citizens are saying that while democracy is right, it isn’t all right. And they are saying, ‘Don’t just expect us to vote, tell us what we have to do, or even go through token "consultations" with us from time to time...’ They are saying: ‘Before and after we vote, include us and our civil society organisations in the decision-making process; treat us not as mere voters or mere beneficiaries but as people who have much to contribute.’
Developing participatory democracy demands promoting certain cultures and practices. It also asks for effectively addressing certain issues and facing the emerging challenges. For example, when we talk about citizen participation in governance, we are also talking about culture clashes. Where governments are concerned, there are actually two cultures operating. There is first an official culture – the culture of institutions, in particular of official bureaucracy. Superimposed on that culture is a political culture, and there is a clash. I’m not going into details of both. Let me just elaborate on the official culture.
What characterises the official culture? It is hierarchical, secretive, orientated to responding from the top down, exclusive, and its aim is to reduce things to simple essentials. ‘Please give the minister no more than one paragraph on this subject. Even if the subject is critical. One paragraph please.’ I call this a culture of emasculation.
Compare that to the culture of civil society and indeed the citizens and their actions as organised groups at the village level. For a start, the culture is non-hierarchical. Second, it is open. Third, the culture is one of responding from the bottom up, inclusive and rather than reducing things to their essential paragraph, seeks to widen things, open up the subject to discussion and above all, be creative and inventive about it. Now when we are talking about participation in governance, we are talking about bringing these two cultures together. And several questions or objectives arise. My conclusion is that we need to work on the ‘other side’ as well because if we do not change its culture, it will endeavour to change our culture.
The second question when we talk about a participative meeting of these cultures is what are we aiming to do. Are we aiming to occupy their space – the other sides’ space – and therefore face the danger of our culture and ideas being emasculated? Or are we aiming to bring them into our space where the same may occur but with luck we might affect their culture and cause it to be more akin to ours? Or are we aiming to meet and participate in some neutral, in between space? I do not know the answer to the question, but I think we need to be aware of that.
Second, the business of participation in governance is a long haul. There are cases where people talk of having worked 16 years on a particular project on participation and having gotten nowhere, except in some minor respects. Governance, whatever it means, is a popular issue – I daresay, fashion – among governments, donors and institutions. When that fashion ends, as fashions tend to, are we still prepared to say, ‘No, for us this is not a fashion. This is a human right, a human need. We must go on with it.’
My third point – the bigger picture. We must not get stuck at the local level. Often when the word governance is mentioned, the word local precedes it. There is a bigger picture. Although the difficulties of securing governance at the local level through the panchayat raj institutions, through the many comparable institutions that exist around the world, requires a great amount of energy and a long struggle to achieve results, there are other more important challenges to governance. For example, what about citizen participation at the state, the region or the national level? Should we not be setting our sights now about participation there? For example, and I put it here merely as an idea, there are many Commonwealth countries and in many states in those countries there are bicameral systems of government – the Upper House and the Lower House. One of the few exceptions, of course, being Britain, my own country where we have the curiously named House of Lords – a non-elected second house.
Should we not be setting our sights to actually look at that bicameral system and say, ‘Well, if we have two houses, why should one house not be based on representative democracy, and why should the other house not be based on participative democracy? Why should the other house not be called the house of civil society in which NGOs, the media, academicians, trade unionists and a few businessmen as well are involved. Why should we not have that? And never mind if it is based on voting, election and other democratic notions, which as we know from our system often produce the worst candidates rather than the best. Why do we not start lobbying for a true second house in which the civil society can debate and discuss the same issues as the lower house is proposing?
I could go on about this at many levels. Many international bodies where governance should be preached and practised are non-elected as they are paraelites of the world – whether it is the International Monetary Fund, the World Economic Forum or other bodies. These represent great challenges of process and representation.
Just as a strong civil society is an essential bedrock of a society that works, so too is a healthy and vibrant democracy. Citizens feel that while they value and want democracy, it is not as vibrant as it should be. In terms of their participation they want it to be much more than putting pieces of paper in ballot boxes every few years on election day. In fact, many have grown skeptical of politics. Some, indeed, feel threatened by it, or are fearful of it.
Many feel that the political processes and institutions that are at the heart of democracy, as we know it, are no longer working as they should. Many see no point in voting. Many are disillusioned by, disenchanted about, and disconnected from the democratic process. These feelings go well beyond those of uncertainty about democracy: they feel that it is broken and that we must fix it. We must in particular make democracy more participatory.
The challenge for all of us is nothing less than to reshape and renew democratic processes and institutions that we have left unserviced for far too long. We have all walked a long journey wearing the shoes of democracy. It is about time we all realised that they are in need of repair! Let me put it in another way: rapid and sometimes fantastic change has occurred in almost every aspect of our lives over the past decades – in communication, technology, the ways we work and the ways we live. But the processes and institutions of democracy today have hardly changed at all. It is high time they did. It is high time the Commonwealth nations do away with the colonial hangover and Westminster model of democracy and, instead, experiment with new and traditional models that could ensure more public participation.