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"Hybrid democratic innovations can strengthen representative democracy"

Article 4 min. Corine Schouten

Is democracy still thriving in the Netherlands? With Parliament facing the prospect of yet another early election, polarization in political debates and a series of crises and affairs, this question is never far from the surface. Frank Hendriks, Professor of Comparative Governance at Tilburg Law School, certainly thinks there is plenty of room for improvement. His research is focused on hybrid democratic innovations that aim to supplement and trigger representative democracy, such as the combination of citizens’ assembly and referendum that has proved successful in breaking the logjam on thorny issues in Ireland. In his new book, Rethinking Democratic Innovation, he explores the opportunities and challenges.

Why write a book about democratic innovation?

“Every few years in the Netherlands, very specific types of democratic innovation suddenly become fashionable, as is currently the case with random citizens’ assemblies (burgerberaden). Expectations are often unrealistically high and that makes me feel uneasy. A random citizens’ assembly can be effective for certain issues and certain people but it’s definitely not a panacea. Combined forms of innovation can prove more effective: they’ve achieved some interesting results in Ireland, for example, but also more locally in Antwerp. By finding different ways to combine types of deliberation with types of voting, you can effectively engage with multiple audiences and touch on multiple democratic values.

The book is also inspired by the fruitless debate between those who have no time for these democratic innovations and those who see them as the ultimate answer. Broadly speaking, the critics believe that complex decisions are better left to professionals. The enthusiasts happily jump on any innovation bandwagon that passes by with little concern for sustained development and recalibration in the long term. There’s plenty of chaff among the wheat. But there’s also enough wheat that can be refined, which is what I wanted to explore in this book. Representative democracy is and remains important. Additional tools are useful and necessary as reinforcement, catalyst or correction.”

Frank Hendriks

People don’t feel heard or seen and politicians continue to miss important signals 

Professor of Comparative Governance Frank Hendriks

Our country seems to be increasingly difficult to govern. What state is democracy in the Netherlands really in?

“There’s no doubt that there are things wrong with our democracy, but it’s certainly not as unsettled as in some other countries. Trust in and support for democracy remains relatively high. However, I can see two stubborn problems. First of all, the lack of responsiveness of political democracy in particular, in the sense that people don’t feel heard or seen and politicians continue to miss important signals. Then there’s the ‘stop-and-go’ governing culture: if political agreement can be reached, the policy train hurtles forward even if society isn’t effectively on board – and in other areas where society’s crying out for action, there’s actually long-term stagnation.”

So how do we resolve that?

“In my view, it makes sense to tailor democratic innovation in the Netherlands to deal with the problems I mentioned and to be less carried away by the latest participatory fad. Aside from the focus on problems, there’s actually also a positive rationale for innovation. When new working methods and technologies emerge that appear to offer advantages, we can and should still benefit from them also when democracy is not on the verge of breakdown.”

Imperfectie en gedoe houd je altijd in een democratie. Dat hoort erbij, daar moeten we realistisch over zijn.

What instruments could help in the Netherlands?

“A corrective referendum could prove helpful in slowing down the tendency to hurtle forwards. There’s plenty of unsavory legislation and poor policy that could have benefited from an emergency brake. But referendums need to be made sufficiently deliberative, which is what we call deliberative referendums. Hybrids like that can prove very effective, as was the case in Ireland where a combination of citizens’ assembly and referendum, embedded within existing political democracy, resulted in breakthroughs on gay marriage and abortion. But that’s not the only way of effectively combining deliberation and voting. At city level, a development I discuss in my book is the emerge of participatory budgeting-new style, for instance in Antwerp, where citizens develop, discuss and select concrete propositions to improve the city, also involving the wider concerned public by means of audience voting.

There are a lot of other international developments – the prime focus of my book – that we can learn from. There’s no single best way of engaging the public in the democratic process. People have different styles and preferences when it comes to participating for the public good. Highly educated people often sit well with deliberative formats, whereas others may prefer to be presented with a clear choice in refined online voting. Ensuring that people’s varying perspectives and interests are properly heard and seen calls for different methods, often in combination.

But I should add this: imperfection, discontent and commotion will always be part of any democracy. It goes with the territory; we need to be realistic about that.”

A vital civil society is essential in order to correct power and keep it on its toes

Who should take care of this in the Netherlands?

“Ultimately, politicians, professionals and civil-society actors should take the necessary steps. I hope that the research we’re doing at Tilburg University provides effective knowledge and inspiration in the process. Through the REDRESS project (Revitalized Democracy for Resilient Societies), we’re working with university and civil-society partners on the Dutch National Research Agenda (Nationale Wetenschapsagenda). We certainly see room for improvement not only in democracy but also in the debate about democratic innovation.

A vital civil society is essential in order to correct power and keep it on its toes. Additional, hybrid innovations can help us to leverage the power of society to strengthen democratic governance.”

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Publication date: 15 September 2023