Pioneering an Ideas Lab for the future of participatory democracy

In 2022, Ashoka in collaboration with The Good Lobby launched its first Ideas Lab with the aim of transforming the field of participatory democracy. The process involved a group of 22 changemakers in this field who embarked on a collective thinking journey to: 

  1. Identify and assess the root causes behind the lack of participatory democracy in Europe;
  2. Tackle  the systemic barriers that hinder the participation of citizens in political decision-making; 
  3. Co-design solutions to create an enabling  ecosystem that gives  individuals and communities  a voice, and empowers them to  shape the systems that better serve their needs.

The challenges

Throughout the Ideas Lab, the cohort has collectively identified the following root causes preventing the flourishing of genuine participatory democracy.

1. Lack of self-efficacy and agency of citizens

When individuals lack confidence in their abilities to affect change, they become disengaged from civic activities and are less likely to solve problems or contribute to new solutions to societal issues. This can weaken the democratic process and reduce representation of diverse perspectives.

2. Limits of the existing political culture

The prevailing European political culture facilitates the concentration of power within the hands of a few individuals. Within the existing political framework, culture and mindset, there exists an implicit aversion to many forms of transformation. This resistance not only impedes the participation of citizens to exercise their rights  and  power across various domains, but also further a reluctance among those in positions of authority to share this power. As a result, the prevailing system fails to harness the collective wisdom of our society, thus hampering our ability to effectively confront the challenges we collectively face.

3. Political polarization

Political polarization affects all parts of our society. Polarization can lead to an uptick in political engagement from traditionally “apolitical” actors, while also further dividing narratives and policies of existing groups, exposing underlying fears, discontent, and a lack of trust in the existing system. This problem impedes the ability to generate productive public conversation, particularly in the digital domain, and the development of shared narratives. Overall, polarization makes it harder to accept opposing ideas, ecnourages the spread of false information, and raises levels of mistrust.

4. Underrepresentation and lack of inclusion

The lack of citizen participation results in a major underrepresentation of marginalized groups, as their frequently go ignored or unmet. Without active citizen participation, decision-making processes become distorted, prioritizing the interests of a small group of people rather than the diverse community as a whole. By not embracing diversity, minority communities are further marginalized and systemic injustices are maintained. 

Towards an emerging collective vision

After identifying these core challenges, participants adopted a forward-thinking approach to devise innovative solutions for each of them. As the identified challenges are interlinked and often overlap, a collective vision emerged towards the creation of a democratic ecosystem, which aims to empower individuals with the necessary tools and opportunities to actively engage and stimulate transformative progress. For this democratic ecosystem to emerge it is necessary to:

  1. Cultivate a sense of self-efficacy and agency by unleashing  individuals’s potential to make a difference and providing them with accessible pathways for active participation across various spheres of society, including democracy, politics, schools, and families. 
  2. Transform the existing political culture by fostering a system that encourages widespread citizen participation and promotes the inclusive exercise of political power to harness the collective wisdom of society and effectively address shared challenges. 
  3. Mitigate political polarization by promoting constructive public discourse, encouraging trust-building measures, and facilitating the development of shared narratives. This entails fostering an environment that embraces diverse viewpoints, discourages the dissemination of misinformation, and addressing underlying fears  and discontent.
  4. Promote representation and inclusion by leveraging unbiased decision-making processes and actively engaging marginalized groups, so their specific needs will receive due attention and consideration. 

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