Recent initiatives for fostering citizen participation in Europe, Australia, and Canada have attracted much attention, especially selection-based “mini-publics”—of which one form, citizens’ assemblies, has become increasingly popular. Yet new forms of participation have also emerged in other countries and regions around the world. Like the innovations in Western democracies, these are far from perfect, but they offer valuable insights for those concerned with widening the pathways to democratic participation within Western states. The European Democracy Hub ran a project on democratic innovations outside the West in order to explore these lessons. This article synthesizes findings from the project by categorizing distinctive types of citizen participation from examples around the world and teasing out their policy implications.
A Wider Lens on Democratic Innovation
With citizens’ frustration with and alienation from political elites becoming more widespread and severe around the world, as manifest in a rising number of significant antigovernment protests globally, the need for innovative channels of citizen participation has become more pressing. Despite the powerful global dynamics of democratic regression, many positive forms of such participation have taken shape in the last several years. Indeed, many analysts detect that a new ethos of citizen participation is defining efforts to push back against democratic decay.
Selection-based mini-publics are establishing an especially impressive track record as one form of citizen participation. These forums choose citizens by lot to deliberate on certain policy issues. In the West, this sortition template—now routinely implemented with highly sophisticated techniques of stratified selection to ensure representation from diverse sectors of society—is seen as the gold standard of participation, as it gives all citizens an equal chance to participate and ensures debates are highly structured around preset remits or elaborate formal institutional processes.
While the expansion of sortition initiatives is extremely positive for democratic renewal, the heavy focus on the growth of this particular participative template risks drawing attention away from other democratic innovations. Citizen assemblies are not unique to the West, but most have been clustered in a relatively small group of Western states. Deliberative participation also needs more variety in its forms.1 This makes it important to study promising kinds of citizen participation being tried around the world and ask whether Western countries might benefit from drawing on such alternative innovations.
A critical debate has gathered steam about the need to decolonize deliberation and to take participative forms developed outside the West more seriously. The decolonization approach argues that Western deliberative forms carry historical baggage and identities that limit their true democratic value. The European Democracy Hub’s project was premised on a similar sentiment, although it did not quite use the same framing or explicitly weigh in on the question of whether or not sortition assemblies are appropriate to all regions or cultures around the world. Rather, its focus was exploratory, bringing in local experts to report with their contextual knowledge on different kinds of innovations outside the Western world.
The project tried to take these critical debates a step further. Decolonization accounts focus overwhelmingly on critiquing Western forms and often end at the point of insisting that other ones need to be encouraged and examined. We started from the point where these accounts tend to finish. We took as given that Western innovations reflect interests and embedded identities from those places and that it is equally valid and interesting to examine efforts from all regions, and went straight into looking at other forms of democratic innovation outside the West.
The project made no a priori assumption that these alternative innovations are superior—the aim was to ask what they might contribute to Western debates about citizen participation, while also examining their limitations. Neither does it make any sweeping claims about major differences between regions: many countries are experimenting with the same kind of participation used in Western countries. But some approaches outside the West are different and they merit more sustained attention. The project therefore looked at how diverse countries and societies are seeking to bring citizens into policymaking in ways that might not fit the formats used in the West.
The project uncovers differences from existing Western approaches that can be grouped into three clusters: first, efforts to extend democratic participation within existing consultative processes; second, more open forms of participation that involve relatively large numbers of citizens; and third, attempts to connect citizen participation to other political actors.
Participation Through Consultation
First, many public authorities have focused on building participative components into public consultation mechanisms.
A large number of governments around the world offer consultative mechanisms that allow citizens and organized interests to have input into new legislative proposals. Most also have some form of online petition process through which citizens can call on governments to take action in specific areas of policy. Such forms of consultation and petitioning have expanded dramatically but do not involve democratic deliberation as such. While they offer citizens the chance to connect to public authorities and to place or raise a certain issue on the policy agenda, they do not provide democratically representative participation and decisionmaking in the same way as citizen assemblies and panels.
The project’s case studies show that many countries are striving to build deliberation and wider participation into public consultations, and that in some places this is preferred to creating many separate citizen assemblies. A leading form of such efforts is the attempt to move beyond standard to more participative online petitions.
In South Korea, authorities have created online petition platforms that facilitate iterative discussion between citizens as well as between them and policymakers. These platforms are also structured to help link different issues together so that citizens do not focus on their demands on one issue without understanding the implications for other policy issues. The aim is to encourage citizens to make constructive suggestions rather than simply lodge general demands for action. Some authorities have fashioned competitions to foment participation: for example, one municipal government actively sought ideas for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, in a move beyond the standard passive form of petitioning platforms.
In Georgia, local authorities have created participative bodies that involve citizens and deliberation within formal municipal processes, including by selecting “civil advisors” and through citizen monitoring of officials’ performance. In Nigeria, some authorities have pioneered a platform for citizens to monitor and give their opinions on local government projects as well as to engage in open debate on these with each other and representatives of local planning authorities.
In North Macedonia, the mCommunity initiative enables a two-way interaction between citizens and authorities. Authorities often take the initiative to invite citizens to participate in decisions and plans. Citizens can make their own suggestions rather than just reacting to official plans, officials then respond, and there is a back-and-forth. There is thus iterative participation with votes and online deliberation throughout the process.
Participatory planning processes in most Latin American countries involve online petitioning processes that feed into multi-round deliberation on local public-policy priorities. These processes have been fine-tuned through several iterations with an aim of building back-and-forth co-governance between citizens and officials.
Such innovations are not entirely absent from Western countries, but the non-Western case studies show examples of authorities pushing them harder and in a more systemic way. While not structured as rigorously as sortition, these forms of consultation-plus harness mechanisms already exist, are familiar to many citizens, and are tightly embedded within decisionmaking cycles. They have the advantage of convenience, speed, and modest costs. And several seem to have fostered better two-way conversations between citizens and policymakers, while the long lists of recommendations that many citizen assemblies tend to produce can easily disappear into institutional black holes.
The case studies reveal many kinds of what might be termed “open participation,” which differs from sortition-based participation. In Western states, controlled forms of sortition have been the core pillar of mini-public deliberation. This has been seen as essential to guarantee fair representation of different types of citizens. It also keeps the number of participants to a predetermined limit. The case studies show that elsewhere in the world a more open form of participation has gained more traction. This does not rest on authorities choosing citizens by lot but rather on setting up frameworks to facilitate a wider cross-section of actors to participate in public or community decisionmaking. This denotes a looser and wider concept of participation than that underpinning random-selection assemblies and panels.
Brazil has pioneered many such open forms that include stronger links between individual citizen participation and civil society organizations (CSOs), run over a fairly long time, and result in more continuous participative debates. The approach is seen in national public policy conferences. These are all multilayered in the sense of several rounds and types of forums filtering into a process in which citizens, CSOs, officials, and political parties jointly draft new policies. National dialogues offer another avenue for individual citizens to work with other actors through many more layers of deliberation than standard single-body citizen assemblies. These forms of open participation became widespread in the 2010s but have been curtailed by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro.
Similar processes have been a fixture of participation across the rest of Latin America too. They have been perfected over many years in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. While different countries adopt variations in open participation, their efforts have common features. They offer several cumulative rounds of participation through different levels of decisionmaking, and typically mix formally facilitated deliberation with more informal open citizen debate.
In India, Gram Sabhas—all-inclusive village parliaments—have gradually taken on more deliberative features and often manage sizeable budgets (which might explain why they are sometimes captured by vested interests). Social audits have also become popular; they involve a participative public hearing in which a large number of citizens have a fairly structured opportunity to evaluate local officials.
Nigeria’s Osun State has adopted a similar joint deliberation open forum, based on traditional village discussion forums. This has moved beyond its original status as a standard petitioning and information service to become a more participative debating forum for inclusive decisionmaking.
Proponents of sortition would undoubtedly point out that these forms of open participation cannot meet sortition’s standard of delivering truly representative samples of citizens. Yet these arguably have strengths relative to Western experiences with citizen assemblies, as they involve a larger number of citizens.
The case studies outline countries’ effort to develop more connected forms of participation. A perennial concern about mini-public deliberative forums in the West is that they are frequently disconnected from other channels of democratic participation, and often appear to be set up as an alternative to the latter (even if their supporters insist this is not the intention). The case studies suggest that other countries may have advanced further in connecting direct citizen participation to other democratic actors and other sites of accountability.
In Taiwan, participatory civic tech in the form of the Taiwan g0v initiative was integrally embedded within the 2014 Sunflower protest movement, and from that also inherently linked to the push for more governmental transparency. The worlds of hacking and of organizing protest fused to create more participatory online forums that involved large numbers of citizens in correcting government errors and monitoring budgets and campaign finance. Gradually, the renowned vTaiwan program has become more focused on fostering more systematic interaction between online citizenship and public-authority decisionmaking.
In South Korea, a randomly selected assembly on nuclear policy led to a formal direct-democratic vote that connected the process to the wider policy cycle and determined a key change in policy directly against the government’s preference.
The open forms of participation in Latin America outlined above typically become more structured in their latter stages, closer to final decisions being taken, and bring in selected delegates from local public policy conferences together with elected representatives and social partners in a process of nominally joint decisionmaking. In this way, hundreds of community-level deliberative dialogues feed into a single national process with multiple actors engaged on a particular reform topic.
In Nigeria, the authorities in Kaduna State have used the Open Government Partnership as a platform from which to build collective participation over local questions, connecting officials with CSOs and in turn with citizens.
In Malawi, very small citizen juries emerged and were organized on a bottom-up basis outside formal structures, and they then worked with local parliamentarians responsible for spending decisions under a development fund. Participatory local governance assessments have also been run that combine random selection of individual citizens and stakeholder groups, and use a mix of methods that includes iterative questioning and feedback and direct voting.
Some of the linkages are focused on political parties. In Ghana, much effort to enhance participation has been channeled through the local forums of parties. The specific circumstances of Ghana’s democratic development mean that the grassroots civic presence of the country’s two main parties has proved the most effective way of getting citizens politically engaged. In Nigeria, the Electoral Commission’s Option A4 initiative aimed to get citizens directly involved in parties’ selection of candidates as a way of fusing the political and civic spheres in a way that sacrificed the secrecy of votes but was more participative than standard open primaries. In Georgia, a small political party that does not seek state funding introduced a process that enables individuals to stand for election on its list on the basis of how many funds they have raised from donations. The party also entered citizens into a lottery if they voted (even if they voted for another party.)
The Green Human City in Skopje, North Macedonia, combines all these different levels and actors. It was set up by a coalition of CSOs to enable them to tap individual citizens and protest movements to fine-tune civil society’s proposals. Members of local authorities are included too and the ideas with the most support are then put to a vote in the local council. Crucially, the initiative has gotten citizens to stand for elections under a Green Human City party ticket. This initiative brings together multiple forms of participation, from standard digital petition to organized CSO involvement, protest movements, and elected representatives. It was driven initially by civil society in a country where public authorities were reluctant to explore new forms of participation.
In some countries, connections are most notable at the level of CSOs. This is the case in the many countries where governments are not especially supportive of formal citizen initiatives and where participative efforts emerge in a more bottom-up fashion independently of the authorities. This is the case, for example, in the Arab world, where fairly confrontational civil society activism is still needed to push for more democratic space. Here the approach has been to build participative deliberation into standard civil society campaigns. The case study of Lebanon demonstrates how CSOs have tried to incorporate the use of participatory spaces for ordinary citizens into their traditional advocacy tools. This is a far cry from the participatory processes run by public authorities in some Western democracies, but it is an approach that may offer some scope for participation where governments are less open to such innovation.
These innovations in non-Western countries should not be idealized. Many of them have struggled to gain traction or sometimes been hijacked by political interests. Champions of sortition assemblies would be right to note these innovations are usually not as methodologically robust as methods that select representatives of society by lot. These innovations have pros and cons, and sometimes sacrifice one democratic dimension (for example, equality of voice or the secrecy of a vote) in order to strengthen another (for example, more widespread input or greater deliberation). But, even if they are far from being panaceas, the very range of these participative forms makes them interesting and something to be factored into debates about democratic renewal in the West.
One thread running through these different pathways is a communitarian ethos. The different initiatives in various regions seek essentially to use citizen participation to bring together different sites of political action and often do this by developing already existing structures. They seem often to reflect and use rooted political identities. This is quite different to the way that sortition assemblies expressly focus on selecting individuals outside any mediated or community structures. Another key theme is that digital tools are not really creating new forms of participation on their own, but rather contribute toward making participatory processes more effective. This can be through expanding the reach of an initiative, improving the collection of input, or helping embed processes in government structures more easily.
Ultimately, the success of these innovations is hard to measure on any one fixed set of criteria. Success can mean different things in different places. Typically, changes in policy are the key hallmark of a successful process, but these innovations cannot change policy on their own. Some, like deliberative forums, can only be truly effective in influencing policymaking if repeated on a large scale, meaning their institutionalization is vital. In some cases, the mere fact of engaging in open discussion and planning can have repercussions for democratic engagement more generally. At the other end of the scale, any form of open consultation can be of particular value as a counter to democratic backsliding. For those striving for democratic innovation in Europe, a key element of success is to ask whether these examples are replicable in different contexts across the continent.
The cases presented in this article and in the project it stems from are part of a growing movement to try to reinvigorate democratic participation. Much more will need to be done in the coming years for democracies to effectively tackle the myriad challenges on the horizon. The range of different innovations suggests that several institutional mechanisms for finding answers are out there. The cases demonstrate that across the world, citizens and governments are turning to more democracy rather than less and seeking new ways of meeting this goal.
1 Ian O’Flynn, Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2022).
Ken Godfrey is the executive director of the European Partnership for Democracy.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
The “Exploring Worldwide Democratic Innovations” project was supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung.