Participatory democracy at the weekend

Happy - and every right to be

Happy - and every right to be

I try and avoid weekend work engagements. I made an exception this morning for a good friend and delivered a keynote lecture to the General Assembly of an organisation called ‘RENA’ – Rete per l’Eccellenza Nazionale (website here). The organisation brings together a large number of young Italians in a loose network designed to discuss such themes confronting modern democracies as internet campaigning and voting. The theme of my speech was, predictably, about fleshing out the concept of participatory democracy. There was a lively question and answer session afterwards, with a lot of very perceptive questions, many of them related to what I call the ‘messiness’ of participatory democracy. You cannot quantify it, and you can only qualify it subjectively. Nevertheless, when participatory democracy – the involvement of the citizen through civil society organisations – is working, you know it. I was giving my speech as the votes in the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty were being counted. One of our most active Irish EESC members, Jillian van Turnhout, was at the count in Dublin and kindly agreed to text me through developments as they occurred. This gave my speech a tiny bit of excitement but not much suspense because it very rapidly became clear that the yes camp was going to win a large majority. Here was an example not only of direct democracy at work but also participatory democracy. As Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in his statement after the result, ‘I was genuinely impressed not just by the campaign of the political parties, but particularly, and I want to underline this, by the campaigns by civil society organisations.’ That’s participatory democracy for you.RENA PS A very clever young RENA participant has since written a summary record of my speech here.


  1. Pierpaolo

    Thanks a million and on behalf of all the people you addressed for your presentation. Most lively and inspiring.

  2. Alessandro

    Very inspiring indeed, Martin! Many thanks for the exception.

  3. Fabio

    Thanks a million Martin. I have a question that I was not able to ask during the plenary, i.e. what sort of mechanisms can we employ not to let diplomatic, technocratic and bureaucratic imperatives drive an organization like RENA away from the original and – far more noble – intentions? in other words, can you suggest the best way to come up with “radical” ideas and let democrats pursue their mission?

  4. Antonello

    Really enriching for all of us. Thank you for your time and for your thoughts!

  5. Christian

    When participatory democracy is working you see the results and also you feel it in your heart…that’s the take-home lesson that is going to influence my future research path on the subject and my every-day work as civil society advocate for the Laboratorio per la sussidiarietà ( Thank you so much for bending your no-weekend-work rule. We are looking forward to seeing you in Trento as keynote lecturer in one of the seminars organised within the National Interest Research Program on “Deliberative and Participatory Democracy” led by Prof. Arena.

  6. Vincenzo

    Mr. Westlake, your keynote lecture will guide us for long time. You transmitted also passion and enthusiasm. Thank you for having spent your time with us on Saturday.

  7. Daria

    Thank’s a lot for your thought-provoking lecture. It was an honour to hear your presentation.

  8. Martin

    It’s an excellent question, Fabio, and not an easy one to answer. Are all organisations condemned to succumb to the diplomatic, technocratic and bureaucratic imperatives to which you refer? I know there was never truly an ideal period in America’s young democracy, but I feel nevertheless that we need to rediscover the spirit that reigned in many early American communities whereby public service was seen as a moral imperative for all, rather than a career path for the more motivated. At the same time, you need to keep hierarchies as small and as flat as possible. (The trouble is, ever since I read Pareto I have become a little bit fatalistic about elites – in his sense of the term.) And always apply Occam’s Razor (entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity). Democracy is a culture and a spirit – or it should be. If you can keep the wonderful spirit you have in RENA alive, then your radical ideas will continue to bubble up!

  9. Fabio

    Indeed it’s an excellent answer Martin. Italian civil society is very strong on paper but in practice it is disentangled and susceptible to partisanship. The “catch” lies right there, namely convincing brilliant and talented individuals to transcend the perimeter of personal professional development and committ themselves to supporting the project for a better society.

    Keep an eye on RENA, please and thanks again!

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