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Participatory democracy emphasizes the broad participation of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems. Etymological roots of democracy (Greek demos and kratos) imply that the people are in power and thus that all democracies are participatory. However, participatory democracy tends to advocate more involved forms of citizen participation and greater political representation than traditional representative democracy.

Participatory democracy strives to create opportunities for all members of a population to make meaningful contributions to decision-making, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to such opportunities. Since so much information must be gathered for the overall decision-making process to succeed, technology may provide important forces leading to the type of empowerment needed for participatory models, especially those technological tools that enable community narratives and correspond to the accretion of knowledge. Effectively increasing the scale of participation, and translating small but effective participation groups into small world networks, are areas currently being studied.[1] Other advocates have emphasized the importance of face to face meetings, warning that an overreliance on technology can be harmful.[2]

Some scholars argue for refocusing the term on community-based activity within the domain of civil society, based on the belief that a strong non-governmental public sphere is a precondition for the emergence of a strong liberal democracy.[3] These scholars tend to stress the value of separation between the realm of civil society and the formal political realm.[4] In 2011, considerable grassroots interest in participatory democracy was generated by the Occupy movement.


Participation is commonly defined as the act of taking part in some action. 'Political participation', hence, is largely assumed as an act of taking part in 'political' action. However, such definition often varies in political science due to the ambiguities surrounding what can be conceived as 'political' actions.[5] Within this general definition, the perception of political participation varies by differing modes, intensities, and qualities of participation.[5] From voting to directly influencing the implementation of public policies, the extent to which a political participation should be considered appropriate in political theory is, to this day, under debate. Participatory democracy is primarily concerned with ensuring that citizens are afforded an opportunity to participate or otherwise be involved in decision making on matters that affect their lives.[6]

Participatory democracy is not a novel concept and has existed under various political designs since the Athenian democracy. The theory of participatory democracy was developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and later promoted by J.S. Mill and G. D. H. Cole, who argued that political participation is indispensable for the realization of a just society.[7] Nevertheless, the sudden invigoration and popularity on this topic in the academic literature only began in mid-19th century. One conjecture is that the revival of political participation's significance was a natural progression from the growing assessment that representative models of democracy were in decline; increasingly inorganic relations between the elected elites and the public, diminishing electoral turnouts, and ceaseless political corruptions are often considered as the rationales behind its alleged crisis.[8] Another, as argued by David Plotke, is that the proponents of participatory democracy were originally the critics of 'minimal democracy', a theory popularly established by Joseph Schumpeter.[9] Plotke claims, "In the Cold War, nonCommunist left critics of minimal democracy tended to define their positions by reversing the [proponents of minimal democracy's] claims. [...] Given [an] unappetizing menu, critics of minimal democracy advocated a sharp and sustained increase in political participation."[9] Regardless of its origin, the recent resurgence of participatory democracy has led to various institutional reforms such as participatory budgeting, steadily challenging the traditionally predominant form of liberal democracy.[10]

The proponents of participatory democracy criticize liberal democracy and argue that representation is inherently deficient for truly democratic societies, leading to the fundamental debate on democratic ideology. Benjamin Barber, an advocate for 'individual democracy', has denounced liberal democracy because "it alienates human beings from each other and, more important, because the epistemological basis on which liberalism stands is itself fundamentally flawed."[11] Barber's notable significance is the return to the epistemological basis of politics and democracy, and in that vein, Joel Wolfe reinforces his hypothesis: "[...] strong democracy should be a form of government in which all people participate in decision-making and implementation. While recognizing that the complexity of modern society imposes limits on direct democracy, participation by all is imperative because it creates shared interests, a common will, and community action, all of which inevitably give legitimacy to politics."[12]

All modern constitutions and fundamental laws contain and declare the concept and principle of popular sovereignty, which essentially means that the people are the ultimate source of public power or government authority. The concept of popular sovereignty holds simply that in a society organized for political action, the will of the people as a whole is the only right standard of political action. It can be regarded as an important element in the system of the checks and balances, and representative democracy. Therefore, the people are implicitly entitled even to directly participate in the process of law making. This role of linking citizens and their government and legislators is closely related to the concept of legitimacy. The exercise of democratic control over the legislative system and the policy-making process can occur even when the public has only an elementary understanding of the national legislative institution and its membership. Civic education is a vital strategy for strengthening public participation and confidence in the legislative process.[13]


In 7th and 8th century Ancient Greece, the informal distributed power structure of the villages and minor towns began to be displaced with collectives of Oligarchs seizing power as the villages and towns coalesced into city states. This caused much hardship and discontent among the common people, with many having to sell their land due to debts, and even suffer from debt slavery. Around 600 BCE the Athenian leader Solon initiated some reforms to limit the power of Oligarchs and re-establish a partial form of participatory democracy with some decisions taken by a popular assembly composed of all free male citizens. About a century later, Solon's reforms were further enhanced for even more direct involvement of regular citizens by Cleisthenes.[14] Athenian democracy came to an end in 322 BC. When democracy was revived as a political system about 2000 years later, decisions were made by representatives rather than by the people themselves. A minor exception to this was the limited form of direct democracy which flourished in the Swiss Cantons from the later Middle Ages.

An ephemerous but notorious instance, taking place in the Modern Age, was the Paris Commune of 1871, which married the universal political engagement of participatory democracy with a correspondent collective ownership and management of the means of production, which, like participatory democracy itself, was a demand of the nascent organized left-wing. In the late 19th century, a small number of thinkers, including Karl Marx,[15] Friedrich Engels, Mikhail Bakunin[16]—all highly influenced, along with their International Working Men's Association, by the Commune–and Oscar Wilde[17] began advocating increased participatory democracy. It was in the 20th century that practical implementations of participatory democracy once again began to take place, albeit mostly on a small scale, attracting considerable academic attention in the 1980s.[18][2]

During the Spanish civil war, from 1936–1938, the parts of Spain controlled by anarchist members of the Spanish Republican faction was governed almost totally by participatory democracy. In 1938 the anarchists were displaced after betrayal by their former Republican allies in the Communist party and attacks from the Nationalist forces of General Franco. The writer George Orwell, who experienced participatory democracy in Spain with the anarchists before their defeat, discusses it in his book Homage to Catalonia, and says participatory democracy was a "strange and valuable" experience where one could breathe "the air of equality" and where normal human motives like snobbishness, greed, and fear of authority had ceased to exist.[2]

The mystic and philosopher Simone Weil, who had helped the Spanish anarchists as a combat soldier, would later promote participatory democracy in her political manifesto The Need for Roots.[19]

In the 1980s, the profile of participatory democracy within academia was raised by James S. Fishkin, the professor who introduced the deliberative opinion poll. Experiments in forms of participatory democracy that took place within a wider framework of representative democracy began in cities around the world, with an early adopter being Brazil's Porto Alegre. A World Bank study found that participatory democracy in these cities seemed to result in considerable improvement in the quality of life for residents.[2]

In the early-21st century, low-profile experiments in participatory democracy began to spread throughout South and North America, to China and across the European Union.[20][21] A partial example in the USA occurred with drawing up the plans to rebuild New Orleans after 2005's Hurricane Katrina, with thousands of ordinary citizens involved in drafting and approving the plan.[2]

In recent years, social media have led to changes in the conduct of participatory democracy. In the 2016 United States elections social media spread news and many politicians used social-media outlets like Twitter to attract voters. Social media has helped to organize movements to demand change. Mainly through hashtags, citizens join political conversations with differing view-points.[22] To promote public interest and involvement, local governments have started using social media to make decisions based on public feedback.[23] Though it requires much commitment, citizens have organized committees to highlight local needs and appoint budget delegates who work with the citizens and city agencies.[24] In the Russian Federation, President Vladimir Putin's annual Direct Line television Q&A sessions, wherein he answers a selection of the hundreds of thousands of questions which Russians submit via telephones or social media, provides a degree of participation for ordinary citizens[25] - an updated, more interactive version of fireside chats.

In 2011 participatory democracy became a notable feature of the Occupy movement, a movement largely started by a Tumblr post (titled "We Are the 99 Percent") protesting and claiming that a few individuals held all the power. Occupy camps around the world made decisions based on the outcome of working groups where every protester had their say, and by general assemblies where the decisions taken by working groups were effectively aggregated together. Their decision process attempted to combine equality, mass participation, and deliberation, but made for slow decision-making. By November 2011 the movement had been frequently criticized for not yet coalescing around clearly identifiable aims.[26][27][28][29]

Major Criticisms

Main advocates of participatory democracy view it as an appropriate political development considering the inherent democratic deficiency in representative models. Generally argued as an intermediary between direct and representative democracy, participatory democracy's alleged strengths lie in greater citizen involvement, popular control, and egalitarian and non-exploitative social relations.

The most prominent argument for participatory democracy is its function of greater democratization. Although the extent of how 'democratized' societies should be may rely on sociocultural and economic contexts, Pateman claims, "[...] the argument is about changes that will make our own social and political life more democratic, that will provide opportunities for individuals to participate in decision-making in their everyday lives as well as in the wider political system. It is about democratizing democracy."[10] In such a democratized society, individuals or groups can not only pursue, but also realistically achieve their interests, ultimately "[providing] the means to a more just and rewarding society, not a strategy for preserving the status quo."[7]

Another proposed advantage participatory democracy over other democratic models is its educative effect. Initially promoted by Rousseau, Mill, and Cole, greater political participation can in turn lead the public to seek or accomplish higher qualities of participation in terms of efficacy and depth: "the more individuals participate the better able they become to do so"[7][10] Pateman emphasizes this potential because it precisely counteracts the widely spread lack of faith in citizen capacity, especially in advanced societies with complex organizations.[10] In this vein, J. Wolfe asserts his confidence in the feasibility of participatory models even in large-member organizations, which would progressively diminish state intervention as the most crucial mode of political change.[7]

The negative criticisms of participatory democracy generally align with exclusive advocacy for 'minimal democracy'. While some critics, such as David Plotke, call for a conciliatory medium between participatory and representative models, others are skeptical of the overly leftist democratic ideology. Two general oppositions can be found within the literature, the prior is the disbelief in citizen capabilities, considering how greater responsibilities come as participation grows. Michels rejects the feasibility of participatory models and goes so far as to refute the educative benefits of participatory democracy by delineating the lack of motivations for extensive participation to begin development: "First, the self-interested, rational member has little incentive to participate because he lacks the skills and knowledge to be effective, making it cost effective to rely on officials' expertise."[7] In other words, the motivation, or even desire, for participation is a misconceived understanding of the general will in politics.[7] By analyzing that the aggregate citizenry is rather disinterested and leader-dependent, the mechanism for participatory democracy is argued to be inherently incompatible with advanced societies.

Other concerns largely rest on the feasibility of effectively managing massive political input into an equally meaningful, responsive output. Plotke condemns the ideological element of universal participation since any institutional adjustment to employ greater political participation can never exclude a representative element.[9] Consequently, neither direct nor participatory democracy can be truly themselves without having some type of representation to sustain realistically a stable political system. Such examination derives from the supposed impossibility of achieving equitably direct participation in large and populated regions. Plotke ultimately argues in favor of representation over participation and criticizes the misconception by participatory democrats of "representation [as] an unfortunate compromise between an ideal of direct democracy and messy realities."[9]

Models of Democracy

Representative democracy is not generally considered participatory since it tends to assume a lack of time, knowledge or will in individual citizens to contribute to policy making.[30]

Pateman[31] characterizes the participatory model as one where maximum input (participation) is required, and where output includes not only policies but also the development of the social and political capacities of each individual. The literature generally emphasizes this combination of influence on policy making, quality of deliberation, and citizen engagement based on what has been argued that a successful institution of citizen participation is one that (i) provides a channel of influence in policy making, (ii) engages citizens in a process of deliberation and public communication, which in return provides legitimacy to the institution, and (iii) is able to attract a constant or increasing number of participants.

Deliberative democracy differs from traditional democratic theory in that authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of a law's legitimacy. It adopts elements of both consensus decision-making and majority rule. When practiced by small groups, it is possible for decision-making to be both fully participatory and deliberative. But for large political entities, the democratic reform trilemma makes it difficult for any system of decision-making based on political equality to involve both deliberation and inclusive participation. With mass participation, deliberation becomes so unwieldy that it becomes difficult for each participant to contribute substantially to the discussion. James Fishkin argues that random sampling to get a small but representative sample of the general population can mitigate the trilemma, but notes that the resulting decision-making group is not open to mass participation.[32][33]

See also

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