Democracy redefined: from government-centric to citizen-centred

Over the last five decades institutions have taken on the primary role in democracy, relegating citizens to second place. This needs to be reversed, says Cormac Russell

We, the citizens, are at the heart of our democracy. We can contribute more than through voting or paying taxes. In order to rekindle democracies around the globe this article is the first of many to come. The series of blogs will give insights, spark discussions and inspire communities and governments to do what they should do best: increase the quality of people’s lives.

In a democracy, effective central and local government(s) function as an extension of civic life and protectors of it. When a government begins to replace civic life (doing things to/for citizens that they can do themselves, or with each other) it shifts from a democratic to a technocratic way of governing.

Technocratic governing relegates citizens to second place as clients and consumers of government services, and positions ‘experts’ and ‘officials’ in a superior position in relation to the people they serve. Over time five unintended consequences of this arrangement become evident:

  1. People who need support become defined as a problem to be fixed, not as people with assets and resources that are critical to addressing their challenges.
  2. A significant portion of resources intended to support those who require services and income supplements, goes to paid professionals; not low income people.
  3. Active citizenship begins to retreat in the face of ever growing professionalism and expertise. People become increasingly dependent on institutional services to do what previously was done in community life.
  4. Low income communities begin to internalise a map that defines them as hopeless places (when they are not). The people who live there come to believe that the only way things will get better is if someone with resources and expertise from outside come in ‘top-down’ to make it better.
  5. Citizens begin to believe that a good life is not to be found in interdependent relationships at the centre of community, but in dependable services and programmes at the edge of their communities.

These consequences join together to erode the social and political fabric of everyday life and democracy. This adds up to a creeping crisis that few have named and even fewer are aware of: disconnection and loneliness

Today, the most pressing challenge facing government is to reverse the trend of the last fifty years which has turned active citizens into satisfied or dissatisfied clients or tax payers. Reversing the trend towards people acting as citizens in a democracy and the primary producers of a sustainable future, is at the heart of the democratic challenge. While this is a perennial task, the urgency of rebooting local government could not be greater.

Now more than ever we need to reboot local government and help agencies so that they can re-orientate themselves towards their primary function: to support citizenship and community building. The current assumption that services and programmes will be sufficient in addressing our biggest challenges in decades is ubiquitous at almost every level of society. Placing the provision of services and programmes in a more proportionate role alongside support for citizenship and community building is critical to the future of local democracy

What the evidence tells us:
Epidemiology (the scientific study of what determines human wellbeing) for example is clear that the primary determinants of our wellbeing are:

  1. Personal agency
  2. Associational life
  3. Economic status
  4. Environmental conditions

In short our community assets primarily determine the extent to which we are well and how quickly we recover when unwell. Of course institutions have a role to play in supporting our wellbeing but it is not a primary one. Institutions are not the primary producers of our health, wellbeing, wisdom, prosperity, justice or democracy. Communities are.

Over the last five decades however, in the areas of health and wellbeing, education, local economics, environment, justice and public safety, the primary role of community assets has been relegated to second place, non-relevant.

Institutions have taken the place of citizens as the primary inventors of the solutions to social and political problems, but sometimes forget that they are the instigators of so called problems. Accordingly, health, which is primarily a social and political matter, has come to be thought of as a medical one, and technocratic solutions have come to be considered more desirable and trustworthy than the tacit knowledge of citizens and communities.

Indeed across a wide range of issues, from gang crime to dementia, the dominant assumption is that where a social problem exists, generating a solution is the primary responsibility of one institution or other (and more recently of a cluster of institutions working in concert). Yet the evidence clearly shows that this sequence is not only out of whack with what science tells us, it is also counter-productive when it comes to deepening and rekindling democracy.

Instead of empowering citizens and communities, it is increasing dependency on institutions (instutionalisation) and decreasing interdependency in community life. Ultimately, it defines democracy as government-centric, instead of citizen-centered.

It is time to reboot democracy. Our initiative: Democracy Redefined’ will stand shoulder to shoulder with savvy leaders and collaborate with them to ensure the authentic and effective shift from government-centric top-down approaches to more citizen-centred bottom-up approaches.

In the final analysis, there are things best done by families and communities and government does well to create a dome of protection around these. There are also things that are best done with citizens in the lead, but with support from outside agencies and the marketplace and government does well to ensure those partnerships are well governed and benefit communities most.

And finally there are things that governments and people with specialised expertise are best placed to do, and government does well to support those specialists to do that work effectively and transparently.

Our role at Nurture Development and The Future Starts Now is to support the current and future authentic leaders that will bring back a citizen-centred democracy. We like to speak about rekindling democracy, as it has the word ‘kind’ in it and that means child in Dutch. So see this movement as the rebirth of democracy!

  • This article was first published here.



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