Reviving the Democratic Tree

Enhancing Participation and Accountability of Our Leaders

We are told our political systems are wavering, with citizens’ trust in democratic institutions being eroded. Globalisation processes have been dealt with by our political elites in a way that apparently dissatisfies the many, leading to a worsening detachment of our leaders from the citizenry. The latter,in turn, feels the political machine has become too centralised, occupied by insular elites perceived as distant from ordinary people. Citizens are increasingly disengaged not only with their representatives, but also with democratic participation itself, as traditional democratic instruments (i.e., elections and referenda) seemingly fail to deliver any real change.

In order to rejuvenate our cherished democratic tree, we devised an overarching mechanism made up of two complementary tools to be incorporated within our systems’ institutional architecture. It has been designed bearing in mind the bidirectionality of the representation process: on the one hand, representatives (elected politicians) act on behalf of the represented (the electorate) within the Parliament, through a direct act of representation; on the other hand, the represented must be able to hold their representatives accountable – yet, accountability seems elusive and out of reach to the broader public. Such tools therefore address both issues: local assemblies should tackle disengagement and enhance citizens’ participation, whereas a national civic committee should allow for higher transparency, responsiveness, and accountability on the part of political elites. Definitively, we believe that most of the discontent citizens express has a common critic, disaffection for modern institutions and how they don’t feel represented, related to the professionalisation of politics. Let us delve deeper into the proposal.

Solution: Participation – local assemblies

The first gear of the mechanism consists of Local Assemblies, informal institutions that gather local community members. Bolstering citizens’ participation is the necessary starting point of any conceivable democratic project; for democratic citizenship is first and foremost an involved and participative type thereof. Only when citizens take commitment and participate, can a political system be truly democratic. When we take it into a more communal and local framework, we want to get the institution closer to citizens, making it more deliverable and transformative.

In such assemblies, active discussions arise over issues directly affecting the community; subsequently, organisation and implementation of a certain range of initiatives are debated and communicated directly to local-, regional- and state-level authorities. This should help strengthen the bonds between citizens and politicians, both at governmental and local levels, in order for people to feel they have a say in public questions.

Local assemblies differ from more traditional citizens assemblies insofar as they will be digitised: they will essentially operate as online platforms, thus ensuring greater accessibility and effectively combating discriminations. Clearly, local communities must be provided with widespread online access both in urban and rural areas (the accent on inclusiveness is crucial – the more diverse and inclusive a democracy, the stronger it will be). Discussions can thus continue virtually uninterrupted, while holding physical debates (as is the case with citizens assemblies) is much more difficult; furthermore, this could help phasing out at least some layers of bureaucracy. Success has already been witnessed on a limited scale: in Iceland, citizens assemblies were involved in drafting the new constitution. As a matter of fact, the country is 2nd on the democracy index and witnessed an exceptional voter turnout of 81 percent at the latest parliamentary election.

Solution: Accountability – a national civic committee

The representation crisis faced by our democracies also has much to do with accountability and responsiveness. This builds on the aforementioned disengagement of the public: as citizens grow generally disaffected by politics, it becomes harder to hold representatives accountable – thus fuelling a vicious cycle that definitely needs to be broken. As a matter of fact, enhancing the system’s transparency, responsiveness, and accountability can restore people’s trust in democratic institutions.

We suggest instituting a National Civic Committee: an intermediate body to flank legislative assemblies. Its primary task should be that of providing reports, opinions, and recommendations to the national parliament – even without being explicitly asked to do so by the latter. The committee should function as an independent body constantly monitoring the work of the legislative: it is “civic” inasmuch as it is made up of common citizens instead of public officials (its members being chosen out of a lottery mechanism, in jury style, within the basin of national residents). This clearly implies that said recommendations cannot be legally binding for the parliament, who retains the legislative power it was elected to wield.

Nevertheless, ignoring such recommendations would prove politically untenable for MPs or the government (at least in principle), due to the high visibility the media should give to the committee’s work. A lively, genuine media sector is vital to heighten transparency and openness along the whole deliberative process. As a matter of fact, everything produced by the committee will be made publicly available; moreover, its meetings and activities will be live-streamed and Q&A sessions will be held via web – through the same digital infrastructure that is to be devised for local assemblies. We have seen a similar model in the live-streamed European Parliament sessions, which we consider an effective tool to achieve accountability, inclusiveness, and transparency.