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Participative democracy: letting a thousand flowers bloom?

Participative democracy: letting a thousand flowers bloom?

The campaign led by Ségolène Royal has been like nothing else. She confounds her party, as she gives the impression of improvising. What she has understood is that politics has changed. Indeed, expectation, doubt and hope cross people’s minds across France as we close in on election day.

Expectation, because for once a party actively listened to their needs, their experiences, their ideas, rather than opinion polls or spin doctors. We know politics is complex, that’s because people’s lives are so rather than treat it with the simplicity and superficiality typified by populism, the participative campaign explored that complexity.

Doubt, because never had a political party focused so much to involving people in shaping its manifesto. Doubt for citizens who are so used to hollow promises, populist narratives and divisive proposals. Doubt for the activists themselves who were so used to monologue narrative, repetition led, TV-driven campaigning. Doubt for party officials who may feel they have given their voice away to the people they represent. Doubt for the leadership as participative debates are neither deferential nor sound bite friendly.

Hope, because the PS dropped its guard, learning one of the key lessons following the rejection of the EU referendum. The party, riding on the wave of successive regional, senatorial and European election victories, played the participative card as the main tool for reform both in regional government and in the party itself. They introduced an internal referendum to enable all party members to vote on key issues, the first of which secured a majority for the European Constitution. However, the wider left electorate – left outside of the party debate – voted against the treaty. So the PS took the risk to “fail again, fail better” by organising primaries to decide who would represent them in the most important election of all in a context of visible division. Campaigning from the grassroots, Ségolène addressed participation and leadership in ways that connect more readily to people’s daily lives.

A collaborative story…the spotlight's on you

From the start, she acknowledged she wasn’t the expert on everything, that politics had been reduced to a spectator sport with the elitism that pervaded it. She called for them to be the authors of her project, the actors of her campaign – their collective wisdom towards a common endeavour.

An open-source toolkit…inform, inspire and involve

To nourish this collective wisdom, the ideas put forward needed to be translated into proposals to shape her manifesto. Each of these were then reviewed and synthesized to inform Ségolène during both the primaries and the official campaign.

Initially carried out by Désirs d'Avenir – the participative network campaigning for Royal – there came a tipping point where the critical mass of participants was invited to contribute to the “participative synthesis”. This “long tail” strategy encouraged collaboration between the contributors and co-production in the policy making process between the participants and the campaign team.

Devolving participation, scaling up proposals

Since Désirs d’Avenir became the platform for the Socialist Party’s presidential campaign, many of these contributors were also empowered to facilitate the 6000 participative debates organised by the Party, which brought together over 600 000 participants.

The participative campaign in France showed that daring more democracy was critical to transforming the Socialist Party and disrupting the monopoly of the debate from the experts and the media. If Ségolène does become President, it will have a unique opportunity and an even greater responsibility to inspire a transformation of not only the French political culture, but the wider civic fabric of society.

What can we learn from participative campaigning?

Get informed...about what people think about how our country should be governed through participative debates and also inform people about what the party thinks and the diversity of opinions within the party through exercises like internal referendums or primaries

Get inspired...about what ideas and experiences people share at these participative debates and also inspire people about what values and proposals the party believe will help transform the everyday social and democratic fabric of society

Get involved...where people are - campaigning in the workplace, facilitating debates in neighbourhoods and on the web

We need to drop our guard and develop much more participative ways of involving the collective wisdom of activists and citizens. If don’t look beyond the “the ultra-moderniser cheerleader model”, there will be no one left to cheer. If we don’t answer the following question, will there be anyone left to cheer with us? “I suppose I always had this illusion that my membership brought some influence. But when you realise that you cannot influence what happens, and you’re just supporting something you find insupportable … what do you do?”.



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