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Practising representation – are you doing enough?

Practising representation – are you doing enough?

In the last blog post in the evolve democracy series, I described key elements of the system of representative democracy in Australia and introduced the term ‘practising representation’. The practice of asking, listening, and considering input between elections. 

Around the world, representative governments, elected officials and political parties are experimenting with ways to practice representation. Some are even using direct, liquid, participatory, and deliberative democracy methods, demonstrating how representative democracy can evolve. This post provides an overview of these methods and how they enrich representative democracy. 

The following post in this series will explore whether these practices increase representation and how to institutionalise them to enable representative government. 

How representative governments are practising representation 

Referendums and Plebiscites 

A referendum or plebiscite is when a representative government asks citizens to decide on an issue directly through a vote.  

A referendum is needed to change the constitution in Australia. An absolute majority in both houses of Federal Parliament and a ‘double majority‘ – a national majority (across all states and territories) and a majority of yes votes from voters in at least four out of the six states – is required to pass a referendum. Australia has had forty-four referendums, only eight passed  

The Australian Government can also hold plebiscites on matters that do not affect the constitution. These votes are non-binding, meaning the government does not have to act on the outcome. Australia has had three national plebiscites, the last about the national anthem in 1977. 

State Governments can also run plebiscites in Australia. Most states have run at least one in the last thirty years. 

Plebiscites and referendums cannot be initiated by citizens in Australia, unlike other representative democracies like Switzerland

Referendum and plebiscites enable direct democracy within representative democracy. 

Consultation

During a consultation, governments invite feedback on draft policies and plans. They publish policy or planning documents on government websites and exhibit them in customer service areas of the department’s offices and public places like libraries. Consultation is usually open for around 30 days. Here is an example of a consultation on an Australian Government website. 

Governments may invite feedback to a specific set of questions or submissions in the form of letters or emails. Some people making submissions sometimes also provide documents, images and videos to support their submission. 

Government departments usually manage consultation processes, review submissions and prepare a ‘briefing note’ for their Minister. These notes explain the issues, brief the Minister on options and offer them recommendations to consider. 

Sometimes consultation is required by law. Some laws also state how the government must inform the public about the consultation and where to exhibit documents, the consultation period, and whether submissions must be published. For example, any document prepared under the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act (2016) must be exhibited for four weeks; and Local Governments in NSW must consult the community about their Community Strategic Plan before submitting them to State Government. Some laws in Australia also require developers of infrastructure projects to consult the community about their plans before submitting them to a government department for approval.  

Government departments also consult when it is not legally required because it: 

  • Increases the transparency of the decision-making processes and can help to build trust. 
  • Helps them understand the impact of their plans and policies on people, businesses, industries, and communities. 
  • Can help people understand and prepare for proposed changes. 
  • Can help people understand the rationale for change, options available, and the related issues and interests to consider. 

Stakeholder and Community Engagement 

Engagement is a broad term used to describe any activity that enables two-way communication between government and community (community engagement) or government and the people or groups impacted by their decisions (stakeholder engagement). For example, consultation is a form of engagement. 

Governments engage communities or stakeholders to invite participation in their processes and input in their decisions before or after consultation. 

Engagement enables participation in representative democracy and can help representative governments to:  

  • Ensure their understanding of issues, options, and impacts. 
  • Gather input into draft plans, policies, programs, 
  • Test services with the people who use them. 
  • Crowdsource and prioritise ideas. 
  • Co-design solutions to complex challenges. 
  • Build working relationships with stakeholders to implement new requirements, reduce impacts, and maximise benefits. 

Stakeholder and community engagement is not legally required, but it is good practice. All levels of government across Australia and New Zealand practice engagement, and it is a lot more common than when I first started working with governments twenty years ago. 

Most Local Governments and State and Federal Government departments now have a space on their website to promote and host public consultation and community engagement activities. Often these spaces are called: ‘Have Your Say’, ‘Get Involved’, ‘Join the Conversation’. These online portals offer a range of tools to learn about projects, participate online or virtually, or register for project updates and face-to-face engagement activities. 

The methods and technologies now available for governments to engage communities and stakeholders are vast. I write about these a lot and run a peer-to-peer learning event so government staff can help each other build their understanding of this market and the tools available. So, check out the EngageTech Spectrum and keep an eye on this blog for more information. 

I will profile two engagement methods – participatory budgeting and citizen juries – in this blog because they offer representative governments an opportunity to share responsibility for complex or controversial decisions.   

Participatory budgeting 

In a participatory budgeting process, governments engage the community to help them allocate funds. Participatory budgeting is most popular with local governments worldwide, particularly in Portugal, France, the Czech Republic and Brazil. Most of the time, government use participatory budgeting to invite the community to propose projects and decide which ones to fund. However, some governments have also used it to present options and ask the community whether they should fund significant projects like infrastructure. 

A few Australian State Governments have used participatory budgeting. The most prominent is Victoria’s Pick My Project, which invited anyone in Victoria to pitch their project and encouraged them to demonstrate the support of their local government and community so they could show how the project met a need and would be delivered. People pitching projects then campaigned to the rest of the population to vote for their project. By asking voters to allocate funding, the Government distributed responsibility for the difficult decision. The process also encouraged civic innovation and shared responsibility for the delivery of outcomes.        

Citizen assemblies and juries 

A citizen’s assembly or jury is a randomly selected group of people formed to represent a cross-section of the community – a ‘mini-public’. 

Representative governments establish citizens juries and assemblies to seek their advice about managing a complex issue. An independent facilitator is appointed to move the group through a structured deliberative process so that participants consider the question, seek information and expert advice, and discuss different perspectives about it before working together on recommendations. Sometimes governments also give authority to these groups to make decisions. 

Citizen juries and assemblies have been around for over 50 years, but they have become more common in the last decade. This report by the OECD describes 289 examples of deliberative processes delivered by 282 representative governments.     

In Australia, several local governments and some state governments have run citizen juries. Australian citizen juries have considered planning issues, housing options, infrastructure needs and funding models, water pricing, obesity policy, whether South Australia should consider nuclear waste options, and governance issues. The newDemocracy Foundation have managed most of these processes. 

Citizen juries and assemblies enable deliberative democracy within representative democracy.  

How some elected officials are practising representation 

Responsive engagement  

Most elected officials have a team of staff who help them respond to issues raised by people who contact them seeking representation. 

Proactive engagement

Some elected officials also proactively practise representation, inviting participation in parliamentary processes and asking their constituents what they think about issues parliament discusses. For example, my local Federal Member of Parliament (MP) sends out surveys to people who have signed up for their newsletter; and the representative of Indi in Victoria, Australia, runs an open office in parliament house so that members of their community can participate in the behind-the-scenes proceedings. 

In New York City, some Councillors even run their own participatory budgeting processes, allocating a percentage of the budgets they receive to community-led projects in their neighbourhoods.

How political parties are practising representation  

Engage2 design and facilitate the democratic process, so I do not write or speak about politicians or political parties. However, given the topic of this blog, I think it might be helpful to include some examples of political parties creatively practising representation. Including them in this post is not an endorsement.

Podemos  

Before running for election, the Podemos party established a citizen’s assembly to develop a list of candidates and political and organising principles of the party and resolutions it would adopt. 

In the 2014 European Parliamentary election, Podemos received 8% of the vote, electing five candidates into the European Parliament. Then, in 2015, the party received 21% of votes in the Spanish general election, winning 69 out of 150 seats in the Spanish Parliament. 

By the end of its first year as a political party, Podemos had 170,000 members making it the second-largest political party in Spain. 

Barcelona en Comu 

Barcelona en Comu do not refer to themselves as a political party, preferring to call themselves a ‘citizen municipalist platform’. 

Before nominating a candidate for election, the group crowdsourced a Code of Ethics for representatives and ran a consultation process with Barcelona’s residents to validate their Manifesto. 

In 2015 a member of the Barcelona en Comu party Ada Colau was elected Mayor of Barcelona based on their commitment to this Manifesto and Code of Ethics. In 2019, the people of Barcelona re-elected Mayor Colau. 

The Pirate Party

The Pirate Party is a type of political party and a name adopted by parties with common policies across the world. Around the globe, Pirate Parties use crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, open-source software to enable member participation in the development of party policies and operations. 

The first pirate party started in Sweden in January 2006, followed by the pirate party in the United States in June 2006. Now, Pirate Party candidates have run in elections in Austria, Finland, Czech Republic, United Kingdom, Germany, Iceland, Estonia, Greece, France, Croatia, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Israel, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg and Australia. 

The Iceland, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Luxembourg pirate parties have had candidates elected into national parliaments. In 2016, the Iceland Pirate Party won 14.48% of the vote and 10 out of 63 seats. Then in 2017, the Pirate Party of the Czech Republic won 10.78% and 22 out of 200 seats. 

Sweden, Germany, and the Czech Republic also elected Pirate Party candidates into the European Parliament, and the current Mayor of Prague is a representative of the Pirate Party. 

The Flux Party 

The Flux Party is a technology platform and collective that offers Australian’s who want to practice representation the opportunity to: 

  • run for election with their support; and  
  • vote on every bill that goes through parliament if a party member is elected.  

Candidates of the Flux Party run for election on the promise that every vote they make in parliament will represent the wishes of party members.

The Flux technology enables liquid democracy so that each party member can vote on the issues parliament discuss. Members can either vote or pass on their vote to someone else or get a credit to use on another issue. 

Flux Party candidates have run in Australian Federal and State elections, but no candidates have been elected to date.  

Does practising representation increase representation? 

The methods described in this blog enrich representative democracy because they create opportunities for people to participate in democratic process, but they can only increase representation if:  

  1. Elected representatives listen to, consider, and act upon input and feedback gathered. 
  2. The people who participate in these processes are representative. 

The following blog in the Evolve Democracy Series will examine the methods described in this blog and whether they increase representation. Through it, I will share examples and what I have learned about institutionalising representation and how engagement and technology are evolving representative democracy. 

What can you do now?

Participate! Contact an elected official or government organisation working on something that interests you and ask them how you can participate. 

Share your thoughts. Which of the methods in this post excite you most, and why? 

Stay in touch. This blog is the third in my 2021 evolve democracy series. Over the next few weeks, I will share more about the evolution of representative democracy and how you can participate. You can subscribe to this blog and my newsletter here. 

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