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Democracy: making it real

Democracy: making it real

COUNCIL HAD SET UP a tent-like shelter and arranged the illustrations and drawings of five or six competing landscape designs inside.

Staff were in attendance to discuss the plans and to help people fill out the questionnaire. In this way, Manly Council hoped to get some idea of public preference for the landscaping of The Corso, Manly’s central walkway that takes the visitor from ferry wharf to surfing beach past cafes, surf shops, delis and some visually tacky stores. It was council’s exercise in public consultation.

Consultation, that is—not participation—for there is a difference and it is a substantial one.

Council should not be faulted in its attempt to discover what the citizens of the seaside suburb would like in their Corso, however their choice was circumscribed by the small number of options on show. Had council taken the path of participation they would not have presented those few designs first. Design ideas would have come after council asked the residents of the municipality: Do you want The Corso to be landscaped again? If so, what would you like to see included? Ideas could have been tried out for awhile before making those that worked, and that were wanted, permanent.

Placemaking is a participatory process led not by landscape architects or city planners but by someone well versed in its techniques. It is a democratic process because it experiments to find a solution acceptable to most rather than being a design-led approach. In placemaking, design follows experimentation and participation. The difference between consultation and participation may elude government and institutions, and in general they are strangers to placemaking, however all have a vital role to play in the local democratic process of planning and making public places interesting, vital and economically viable.

The consultation for the redesign of Manly’s Corso took place some years ago and the place has since been rebuilt as a reasonably pleasant venue with seating and a criss-cross tangle of overhead cables supporting lighting.

Why democracy?

My proposal that democracy in the form of public participatory processes play a part in urban planning is based on the notion that our cities are growing in population and that we have a generally well educate populace that could for the most part accept the responsibilities that come with designing public places and cooperate to produce something with local character and utility. It’s a process that would of course involve local government. To do this would be a vote by local government for trust—trust working both ways between citizens and council.

It would also be a recognition that there is in our society a growing desire to have greater say in what happens around where people live. At worse, this amounts to little more than the exclusivity of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) and at its best is a desire for greater local democracy, especially the direct kind found in public and civic meetings. Let me make it clear that NIMBYism does have a place where proposed developments are out of scale with a neighbourhood or would bring excessively significant social or environmental change of the detrimental kind. As usually encountered it is of the petty kind, however.

In Australia we are burdened with the bureaucracy, buck-passing, confusion and expense of three layers of government, but what all of these layers have in common is a managerial approach to their work rather than one of empowering motivated community groups and citizens, acting with the city rather than sectional interest at heart, and of adopting the structures that enable participation and a degree of collaborative influence and control with local government. One reason that local and other levels of governments have not gone down the pat of more direct democracy, as differentiated from the occasional elections every few years of representative democracy, is because democracy is an expensive, argumentative, time consuming and confusing process. This, however, is the cost of living in a free and democratic country and should be embraced rather than shunned by government.

Governments might believe that democracy effectively ended with the last election, that they were elected to get on with the business of governing and that messy democratic process gets in the way of this. They say they have been entrusted by electors to govern in the way a management hierarchy is hired to run a business. Government, however, is not business. Its traditions and social role are quite different—they are rooted in Western democracy, not profit making; in service, not self-aggrandisement.

The way of representative democracy is a ‘set and forget’ approach to government that alienates many people from the democratic process because they would prefer a deeper, more frequent immersion in democracy.

Government works by electing a political party then stepping back from the democratic processing and letting government implement its agenda, no matter that some of that agenda may be made up after an election and that governments are not immune from changing the agenda once elected, or that the agenda would bring significant collateral damage to sectors of society or business. Governments break promises.

Government also asks the public to trust them. This is a big ask for Australians frequently regaled by sad and sorry tales of government ineptitude, error, inveigle, misinformation, deceit, political self-serving, suppression of dissent and corruption (that’s a short list).

As somebody said—I forget who—government today is all too often an institution run by control freaks who fear that which they cannot control. And all too frequently when they cannot control something governments will enact laws criminalising some previously non-criminal activity—essentially, they make criminals of people doing what they have been doing lawfully. It might be inappropriate to quote Ayn Rand in an article on democracy, but I think she got it right when she said: “The only power of government is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking the law”.

This is a misuse of law and it’s no wonder that such laws are often observed by their being broken.

Managerial government is what digital culture, publishing and technology entrepreneur, Tim O’Reilly, calls ‘vending machine government’—you elect a managerial government, enter your demands and out they come as services in the same way that putting coins into a vending machine produces a chocolate bar. Government as service industry.

Despite its shortcomings, democracy is a core value of Western liberal societies, a tradition with a 2500 or more year lineage and a core of our self-identity in a world otherwise run by assorted petty despots, criminal gangs, national incompetencies and increasingly authoritarian pseudo-democratic dysfunctionaries. As a culture, democracy is one of our points of difference and we need to make it authentic, real and everyday. Doing this would make it less easily dismissed by government managerial elites with their cult of efficiency and by federal and state governments that wish the electorate would let them get on with it and leave them alone—until the next election, that is. This is part time representative democracy that is switched on at election time and is then switched off so the managerial elites can get on with the job—it’s democracy as light switch.

Expensive, argumentative and messy it might be, if democracy is to remain a core social and political value then the expense and hassle of dealing with it is a necessary one for any society with democratic aspirations.

The trouble with institutions

Local government—the multitude of councils that run the cities and suburbs of Australia—sometimes overlooks democratic process when dealing with community groups. In this clash of corporate culture and civil society, the managerial approach of government impinges on the messier, slower, participatory processes of voluntary citizen’s organisations and, in the worst cases, can threaten the autonomy and freedom of citizen groups.

But that works the other way, too. In a different approach to local governance some councils have set up precinct committees, groups of interested citizens representing smaller areas of a municipality. The product of these groupings has been a variable one. Some make a valuable contribution to the local government process while others become an irritant to councils and to other citizens with their plaintiff, oppositional and self-serving attitudes. Precinct committees are all too easily captured by small groups and individuals with agendas, and members of the committees may come to wield undue influence over councillors. Precinct committees have been a valuable experiment in democracy and one that has yielded learnings, however I think we can do better. Clearly, we need a process that is more publicly accountable in regard to how and in whose interests decisions are made and of the financial and organisational affiliations of precinct committee members. This should be public information available of council websites.

An unfortunate case of local government managerialism meddling in the internal affairs of a community group was the case of a community-managed food garden. In what amounted to council’s intervention in the community association’s affairs, council imposed conditions on the association that went way beyond any justified concern with the quality of land management. When the association did what council wanted but the results were not what council preferred, it was said by some involved that council raised the possibility of resuming the land for other uses, disenfranchising the community association. Suddenly, it started to look more like coercion that cooperation and council eventfully resumed control of the site. The association went on to start another garden in a different local government area and have run it successfully and with the cooperation of the council ever since, with might give some hint to where the trouble lay with the first garden.

Another case of managerialism involved the initiative of a community group that worked hard to launch an urban sustainability education and urban agriculture initiative, winning the support of local government which then assumed control of the project, significantly disenfranchising the community association. Council had what seemed like a good reason for doing this but could have formed a partnership arrangement with the association instead.

When corporate bodies deal with community associations, participatory and partnership processes can get short shrift.

Democracy at work

Management of more enlightened workplaces know that staff have a valuable contribution to make and consult them. For most employees, however, to enter the work-a-day world is to enter organisationally hierarchical structures that have a more in common with feudalism than democracy.

There was a move in the UK in the 1970s for workplace democracy and for staff participation in decision making. It reached its greatest extent among Lucas Aerospace workers, however it faded and, with the arrival of the Thatcher years, the idea of workplace democracy disappeared. At the time there was interest in Australia among segments of the progressive Left (as opposed to the long-established conservative parties of the Left), however little of a practical nature eventuated and the trade union movement failed to grasp an idea so new and, perhaps, so threatening to its normal process of representation. It was yet another example of the Left being so mired in its own past that it lacked the vision to run with a new idea. The Right would be unlikely to support such an idea as it too is firmly mired in the quagmire of its own past and socially divisive ideologies.

Ideas of democracy in the workplace seem unlikely to be revived in a time of increased part-time work and casualisation  in the workforce. Also working against it is employee churn in the workplace with people often moving on to new employment every few years. When you look at it in these terms, it’s no wonder that any feeling of allegiance or loyalty to employers has largely gone. For most workplaces, democracy remains an alien concept.

 What or community democracy?

Lack of participatory democracy in government and the workplace is reflected by a similar lack in the structure of community associations. They, too, often go the managerial way, adopting the structures of the past rather than working out, prototyping and adopting flatter, more egalitarian and participatory processes and federal structures to run their organisations.

So much is unfortunate because it is in community organisations that alternative democratic structures have the potential to be trailed and developed and it is here that citizens could be given a taste of participatory democracy. But the desire for this has to be either preexisting or encouraged by these organisations, and both of those things are frequently missing.

I’ve noticed a drift to managerialism within community organisations recently. It’s not new, just perhaps more pronounced now. Once, members would do their little bit to make some event happen. Now, however, I find that the work devolves to a small core—usually people who have made things happen in the past—and the rest will attend when this core organises it all for them. Service industry style, only unpaid and not all that different in operation to vending machine government.

As I said, this is not new and is likely how community associations have always worked, however the difference I detect suggests that this is what organisation members increasingly expect—it has become normalised. This works against the idea of self-help and self-organisation, and when those who contribute nothing find something they don’t like they are quick to let those busy making it happen know that they are displeased. Here’s an example. A colleague was setting up, voluntarily in the time she had available from her fulltime job, a website for an organisation seeking to recreate itself. Anyone familiar with website development knows that once a site is launched there follows a protracted period during which it is debugged, tweaked and improved. Yet, one member emailed a message of profound and accusatory dissatisfaction to the website developer. They seemed to expect a level of work that you would anticipate from someone working fulltime on the site. This, unreal expectations, is the downside of managerialism and anticipation of it is very much out of place in a voluntary organisation.

Next move

If we are to evolve into a more egalitarian society with greater opportunity for citizen participation then we need to instigate democratic structures in government, the workplace and the community organisation. Developing structures that work will involve trial and error, a divorce from hidebound ideologies and a sense of adventure that comes with participating in the working out and development of new ways of doing things.

The future of our society, of our culture, depends on doing this.




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