Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

Over at the Power2010 blog, Andrea Cornwall, one of the UK’s leading researchers on international experiences of democracy, paints a compelling picture of Brazil’s vibrant culture of public forums:

“Picture these scenes. A bus, a mode of transport used only by the poor, rolls through the countryside in northeast Brazil. We are surrounded by sugar cane plantations, scenes of some of the most brutal exploitation and inspiring activism in this region. The man in front of me reaches into his bag and pulls out a book. I glance over his shoulder at what he is reading. It is a highly technical account of the obligations of his government to involve the public, a handbook on what the Brazilians call controle social.

He is probably, I think, one of the many thousands of ordinary citizens who serve as conselheiros – members of the participatory sectoral councils that the Brazilian government created in the 1990s as a way of channelling good ideas, concerns and desires for improvement into the way public services are run…”

“…Picture this last scene, from the Brazilian national health conference. I am standing in a huge queue for lunch. The woman in front turns to ask why I – so obviously a foreigner – am there. She’s travelled two days by bus from a remote rural area in the north of the country to be here: nothing, she said, would have kept her away. She effuses “it’s marvellous, the whole of Brazil is here”.

My eyes scan the room and linger on the sign that reads “Here, it is permitted to dream”. By giving people permission to dream, space to debate, chances to learn, opportunities to contribute to righting deep-rooted wrongs, Brazil is creating a nation of informed, politically engaged citizens.”

As Cornwall’s Brazilian experiences demonstrate, democracy can and should mean citizens doing much more than simply selecting our leaders from a very short list. By giving citizens the opportunity to take part in making and implementing government policy, we can ensure that the state really delivers the things people most value, rebuild the disintegrating trust between the people and the government and help build the capacity of all citizens to play an active part in political decision making.

The Brazilian example also offers a powerful rebuttal to those who say that the public cannot be trusted with direct access to political power. By providing deliberative spaces where people can come together to learn, to exchange ideas and to take collective decisions, Brazil has helped its citizens make considered, wise and sensible decisions.

Cornwall goes on to discuss one of the most high profile deliberative and democratic projects in the UK today – Power2010. Power2010 is offering people across the UK the chance to vote on a shortlist of reforms that was chosen by a representative panel of British Citizens in our own deliberative event.

“Power 2010 offers UK citizens opportunities to vote for the solution they feel is most needed to correct our glaring democratic deficit. It’s a difficult choice. Much is wrong with our political system and our society. Electoral reform seems a priority – but unless citizens are politically engaged, they won’t bother to vote under proportional representation any more than they do at the moment.

A written constitution would be excellent – but who is going to write it, and how are they going to ensure that citizens or the state pays any attention to what is in it? Stronger local government – all very well, but what are the prospects for this translating into local democracy? A precondition for most of these solutions, if they are to really bring about the kind of change that our moribund political society needs, is an active, informed, engaged citizenry

My vote goes for public consultation through a deliberative process.

New Labour has given public consultation a bad name, despite a wealth of really innovative experiments in deepening democracy through public engagement. It has come to stand for something that’s fake, that’s boring, that’s for ‘usual suspects’ rather than the ordinary person – and even that’s it about giving the extreme left or the extreme right airspace.

But from what I’ve seen in Brazil, ordinary people have a lot of good sense to bring to discussions about how government can work best to do what it is there to do. They don’t always agree; lively debate is what keeps democracy vibrant, and by listening to very different views, people shift their own opinions.

Most of all, democratic spaces are places where people learn what it means to be a citizen. The word ‘democracy’ has for centuries been associated with the idea that the people have the right to have a say about what their government does for them. Let’s make that word have some meaning again. Otherwise, for all the reforms to the architecture of elections and governance, we will not be able to get the government we deserve.”

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