Meaningful engagement with citizens

In the midst of political shifts and uncertainty, there is a new wave of politics bubbling under the surface. This new story is redefining what meaningful citizen participation means for governments. We spoke to Jon Alexander, co-founder at the New Citizenship Project and Trustee of the Food Ethics Council, to find out more about this emerging trend.

Anna: What positive changes can we see in today’s politics?

Jon: It might not be immediately obvious, but amid the current political turmoil, change and opportunity are emerging. The idea that the only role people should play in politics is to choose between options that a privileged few have set once every few years is falling apart. . We are seeing a shift beyond purely representative politics, or even direct democracy,. To replace it, we are seeing the rise of participatory democracy, where people are involved throughout the process. To use a food metaphor, it’s like we get the chance to shape the a la carte, not just choose between the three options on the set menu.

Could you give us an example of participatory democracy?

This new wave of politics is taking form across the globe, but one of the best examples of participatory democracy has happened in the city of Madrid, Spain.

The city council created a platform called Decide Madrid using the open source software CONSUL, which has a broad range of capabilities, from budgeting to idea harvesting to enabling citizens to arrange meet-ups. The platform was used to gather ideas on how Madrid should respond to Climate Change, and to then convene in person the voices behind those ideas, in order for them to put together a plan. As the plan got increasing support, it was eventually put to referendum across the whole city and got adopted as ‘Madrid 100% Sostenible’ (Madrid’s 100% Sustainable Plan) and has become one of the most ambitious sustainability plans of any city in Europe.

To go a step further, the council not only funded a team to coordinate the platform, but also to champion it across the world, providing free consultancy to other cities.

What does that say about the relationship between citizens and governments?

It shows the opportunity of governments to take on the role of facilitators, enablers, conveners, rather than having to decide everything alone. The success of these initiatives also shows the untapped potential, creative power, and willingness of citizens to participate in shaping the environment in which they live in.

Sadly, Decide Madrid has come to a halt due to a change in the governing party. At a time when the world we are living in doesn’t make great sense, there is a backlash against this rising tide of open, participatory processes. There is a surge in far right, strong man approaches that says ‘No we can fix this, we will do it for you’. I see these as the last kicks of a way that’s falling apart. But I don’t naively pretend the backlash isn’t happening – it is, in Spain, in USA, here in the UK as well.

Is there hope for moving past this backlash?

The short answer is yes. For every Madrid, there is a Reykjavik, where the Better Reykjavik platform is going from strength to strength. For every Trump, there is an Audrey Tang. Tang is the Digital Minister in Taiwan. If you don’t know her story, you should. During Taiwan’s 2012 elections, the incoming government strongly used this narrative of “Don’t worry little people, economics is complicated we’ll look after it. You just carry on.” In response, a group of hackers formed something called the gov zero (g0v) movement and “forked” (created replica versions of) government websites. On these alternative pages, they had open budgets, invited people to understand what was going on, scrapped government data and published it… This work culminated in the Sunflower Revolution a year or so on. In the aftermath of a mass protest movement characterised by citizens holding sunflowers outside government buildings, some of the lead hackers became part of the next government, including Tang. They are now working with POLIS – a tool where participatory democracy meets AI – to help build consensus around various issues, from Uber to Taiwan’s environmental strategy.

Why don’t we see more conversations and citizen participation in politics at a national level?

Big changes in a system are very unlikely to come from the core of that system. They tend to emerge at the edges. And the city-level – as opposed to the national – often has the perfect balance of ‘enough space but enough frustration’. The case of The Million Pound Mayor in Oklahoma City, USA is a good example of that. As for the UK, we are a great example of arguably the most centralised state in the modern west. The amount of decision-making for the whole country that happens in Whitehall is astonishing. Even London has far less control over its municipal budgets than say Tokyo or New York. If we start from the basis that Britons want to be citizens not just consumers, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds should be competing not just for better links to London, but to become nodes of national governance in their own right.

Some academics argue that the age of the nation-state is at an end. Parallel to that is the argument that the greatest chance for Europe is the proliferation of great mid-size cities across the continent. I still have hopes for a balanced middle ground.

What does this mean for us in the UK, and particularly in the food and farming sector?

The fact that food is such a crucial part of life, and such a shared experience of life means that many great examples of meaningful participation comes from the food sector. The call for a National Food Strategy in the UK, and its active engagement with citizens, is a sign that this is the direction of travel. More broadly, the Labour manifesto has a commitment to citizen’s convention to redefine the parameters of democracy, while the Liberal Democrats have something broadly similar.

What does the future hold?

We’re in for a pretty rocky ride. The thing that gives me most hope in the UK in particular is a conversation that has just begun around the idea of a Community Power Act. Something like that would dramatically reset the balance of power between central government and local communities – not just local government but also communities directly.

Ultimately, I believe that positive change happens due to a combination of new ways of thinking, small everyday things that cue us differently, and one or two big symbolic ideas that embody the change and make it really visible and tangible– and the idea of a Community Power Act is the biggest and most symbolic idea I’ve heard for some time.