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Delivering Democracy:  Embracing boldness and experimentation

by Evelyn Mantoiu / European Partnership for Democracy

Since 2021, the European Democracy Hub (EDH) has been exploring different examples of democratic innovations through the Exploring Worldwide Democratic Innovations Project. In the framework of the project, we saw over 35 examples of democratic innovations, from ten countries and three different regions, over a total of twelve case studies. These case studies provide a real basis for understanding how different democratic innovations can be applied and serve as a source of inspiration for making better use of democratic innovations within Europe.

In Barcelona, we met with democratic innovators to learn more about practical challenges of implementing democratic innovations through a roundtable discussion with a mix of stakeholders, combining CSOs with expertise in the field, policymakers, academics and democratic innovators. It was striking to see how often innovations shy away from directly impacting politics and democratic processes. There are lots of innovations about bettering government and making services more accessible, all of which are welcomed, but few innovations truly venture into the realm of bringing politics and decision-making closer to citizens.

This is the case for European innovations more broadly, where the focus is on so-called low hanging fruit, rather than on initiatives that break away from the common thread when it comes to politics and how to regularly engage citizens in decision-making. There is space for boldness, but perhaps that is not encouraged enough. Europe can still learn from other regions on how to successfully design and implement democratic innovations, and take more decisive actions. For example, our project highlights some successful experimentation with participative and multi-level decision-making which have taken place in Latin America, while in Asia, Taiwan and South Korea are making great use of civic tech.

This brings us to another reflection point which came across in our discussion about the importance of embracing failure and giving space to learn from our mistakes. There was a clear sense across the room that perhaps we have invested a lot of resources and efforts into compiling examples of “best practices” when it comes to democratic innovations, but have given less attention to experimentation. We set high standards for these innovations, but perhaps we do not experiment enough with them. The standards to which we hold these innovations to and our own inability as a community to come together to discuss and embrace our failures hurts the practice of innovation as we feel more restraint in what we can do for fear of failure, or for lack of funding for more out-of-the box ideas. There was also the sense that we should aim to actively make use of the best practices we collected and apply them more consciously, bultinding alliances between democratic innovators and policymakers. Looking at policymakers, and to a certain extent politicians, as possible enablers of democratic innovations can lead to successful long-term initiatives.

Following from this, there is also the issue of trust and accountability between decision-makers and the citizens invited to take part or make use of the various democratic innovations created. For example, citizen assemblies have already been used in a number of European countries to gauge citizen’s opinions on different policy issues, but with governments having a mixed track record on the follow-up on some of the issues discussed, they have not given citizens sufficient trust in the effectiveness of such assemblies and mini-publics. For the success of these initiatives, mutual trust needs to be established between the different stakeholders – for politicians and policymakers that citizens will input and actively engage with these initiatives, and for citizens – that their participation is meaningful and has the potential to lead to change. However, here the issue of experimentation rises again, for these innovations to become part of democratic practice they have to be given the space to be applied, and reapplied, with each iteration becoming better than the previous one.

These are just some of the points we discussed at our event in Barcelona, and we will continue to reflect upon these lessons and see what are the next steps for democratic innovations in Europe and how we can bring these into mainstream democratic practice. There is a real window of opportunity to reinvent democratic practices and involve citizens in decision-making beyond the ballot box. Embracing boldness and experimentation will bring us one step close to achieving this.

Evelyn Mantoiu works as a reasearch and data officer for the European Partnership for Democracy, investigating European democracy support policies.

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