Participatory Democracy in 6 Steps

24 Septiembre 2008
Article

Participatory Democracy in 6 Steps.

Step 1: Identify the symptoms that must be overcome

There must be an initial predisposition: something concrete that unites citizens and civic associations, and which opens paths for further convergence. Participation must be generated from the start – even if there are very few participants. Aim at building trust that can later be expanded. You need to ‘recharge your batteries’ as you go along, to avoid starting with a lot of people and a lot of energy, but later running the batteries down with a bad atmosphere. The first thing is to establish what seems to be the main problem, and for whom it is a problem. It should not worry us if, as we go along, we discover that the problems are more complicated than we first thought.

Step 2. Make a ‘plan of action’ with a catalyst committee (a group of committed volunteers)

It is important to be aware of the value of each contribution, but also its limits. Local authorities cannot be expected to know everything, or to take a lead just because they had it written in their electoral manifesto – but they can be expected to contribute financial means, as this is taxpayers’ money. Social leaders cannot be expected to be the most representative, but they can be very active groups or individuals who come to collaborate. The citizens cannot be expected to produce a perfect situational analysis, but they provide the experiences that make it possible to understand the roots of the problem. Municipal technical staff cannot be expected to offer immediate solutions or to provide all the answers, but they can help provide methodologies.

Step 3. Structure and organise the demands, based on the most acutely felt and structurally important issues

The demands of an entire community cannot be easily summarised, but nor are they so individualised that no common interest can be found. The initial catalyst committee, or the local workshops, should create a ‘social map’ of the neighbourhood and the city. We are not only interested in which sectors have different economic interests, but also what cultural positions they occupy in relation to the problem in question.

Step 4. Devolve this information, its issues and proposals, to the widest possible spread of people involved

As we are not going to be able to resolve all the problems, start with the ones where there is the widest consensus as to their capacity to block the process – or to give it power. Here, it is appropriate to coordinate efforts, and go beyond who took this or that position. Then we prioritise some paths of action that have the potential to be the most collective, or the most creative, and try to accumulate consensuses with the widest stakeholder alliance possible, creating a model of the city that overcomes narrow sectoral interests. You can’t expect everyone to agree, but the principled positions can be articulated into proposals that unblock the problems.

Step 5. Bring everything that has been raised back down to earth, in the form of specific projects

This can also be done in a participatory way, adjusting each process to specific needs and coming up with a core concept that has the capacity to attract a good number of those affected by the problem, and to inspire them to put it into practice in their lives. It is also necessary to establish what resources are available, whether they are economic (where money can be obtained), information (available spaces, media resources), or human (the time each professional or volunteer can devote to the process). This is important to ensure everything has credibility and viability, beyond well-intentioned volunteerism.

Step 6. Ensure participation in the execution and monitoring stages of the process

This means committees following the process to provide control, and support for the adjustments that will undoubtedly need to be made. No plan or project, however well conceived, will be completely adjusted to reality at the start. The project timetables are not there to be rigidly adhered to; we have them so that we know, and can justify, why we are deviating from them at a given moment. In this way, a continuous evaluation can take place, with a view to monitoring and making corrections to the process in response to the unexpected circumstances that will, no doubt, emerge. Participatory democracy must constantly adjust itself to the ever-changing realities that life throws up.

From Tomás Rodríguez Villasante, ‘The Challenge of Participatory Democracy in European Cities’