By Professor Gerry Stoker, Politics & International Relations and Director of the Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation & Governance.
From March 11-13 I was attending the inaugural Improving Public Administration conference in Brasilia as a guest of the Brazilian government. A complex range of topics were explored but my panel was focused on an innovation in governance practise that the Brazilians are famous for: public or what they call social participation. In the developing democratic practice of Brazil the strong social movement influence over many of its political actors has installed a commitment to widespread public consultation and engagement. The internationally famous example of democratic innovation that the Brazilians are known for is participatory budgeting or PB. Many academics from Europe and North America have lauded the success of this innovation, including Southampton’s former PAIR professor Graham Smith.
What was noteworthy about the conference was that the Brazilians seem to have a more critical attitude towards their progress than many of their admirers. PB and other democratic innovations in Brazil appear to run into a number of problems that once revealed have a familiar and plausible ring to those such as myself more used to researching in the so-called established democracies. The Brazilian concerns include that participation was dominated by and engaging to only a limited number of citizens in Brazil. There was concern about consultation fatigue. The issue of citizen apathy and its complex causes was raised. As was a fear that corruption in political decision-making and a general lack of buy-in by elected representatives into processes of social participation limited the impact of public engagement. There was a concern about powerful media forces distorting the process of political debate.
My contribution to the debate was to focus on research work that has provided a framework to audit the quality of public engagement. The framework- called C.L.E.A.R – goes on to offer solutions or remedies that might help. The framework was developed with colleagues Vivien Lowndes and Lawrence Pratchett and put into practice in the Council of Europe. Some elements of Australian governments have also used the framework and C.L.E.A.R was brought to the attention of the Brazilians by the Mark Evans Director of ANZSOG, Institute of Government at Canberra University. In my presentation I also discussed my recent research undertaken with the Hansard Society and Colin Hay at Sheffield and in particular its concern with understanding that people’s willingness to participate in politics is not fixed but can be significantly changed by the kind of politics on offer.
If the political system is set to become more open and accessible many citizens are willing to show more interest, especially younger citizens (see the BA blog). The work on how to trigger a wider engagement was of interest to many of the Brazilians who attended the conference.
There is so much to admire in Brazil. It has experienced sustained economic growth and the federal government looks set to deliver on its promise of getting all sections of the Brazilian population out of absolute poverty and runs an approval rating that would be the envy of most other governments around the world. But the most laudable quality that I experienced from Brazilians – in addition to their wonderful hospitality- was a real sense of wanting to keep on challenging themselves and improving. That orientation, rather than copying specific democratic innovations they have developed, may be the biggest lesson to be drawn from Brazil.