Democracy in its many forms

This post is as a result of a single line in the suggested corrections for my thesis:  “The candidate should provide a brief overview and/or explanation of what form of democracy is being referred to as there appears to be a conflation of normative forms of democracy”. 

It’s a fair cop – while the question of democratic deficit is central to my interest in digital civic space my thesis ended up being rather seduced by the informal aspects of this and I became less interested in types of formal democratic participation.  One weakness of my work is that I am a theorist only in so far as I can translate, or at least connect, theory into practice and so the question of what form of democracy I wanted to advocate was not really touched on.  Keeping this in proportion – the final update to the thesis will be about 300 words but this post will hopefully meander me towards the right ones.

I’ve been reading around the subject but the book I have mostly been leaning on is “Models of Democracy” by David Held (Held, 2006) which provides an excellent overview of what is says on the tin – models of democracy – I have referenced page numbers throughout this as it’s such a huge pain to find these if you do want to formally reference stuff later.  Wish I’d been as good as doing that at the start of my thesis.

In considering democratic models I think I have been constrained by the fact that I put the democratic model out of scope of experimentation – my theoretical contribution is more in the area of how we can better intersect informal and formal participation – however this doesn’t mean I don’t have a view on what needs to change.  For those of you who don’t want to listen to the rambling thought process this post really makes two points:

  • In the context of the fieldwork for my thesis I limited myself to the constraints of our current liberal representative democracy
  • Looking to the future we need to reconsider our whole system of government in the context of the emergent network society and in the conclusion of this piece I start to suggest what the qualities of a ‘network democracy’ model might be

For anyone reading past this point – brace yourselves – its a long one.

What do we mean by democracy?

As a starting point I am using Held’s definition of democracy:

 “Democracy means a form of government in which, in contradistinction to monarchies and aristocracies, the people rule.  Democracy entails a political community in which there is some form of political equality among the people.  ‘Rule by the people ‘ may appear to be an unambiguous concept, but appearances are deceptive.” (P.1)

Our current representative democracy holds, at least in law, the importance of an individual’s right to equality and self-efficacy to as a central tenant.  However we are also seeing pressure on this mode of decision-making.  These pressures come from a number of different directions; fundamental shifts in the way the media functions, disruptive effects of technology on the process of government and management of government, the weakening of the political party system and somewhere within this is the fact that in a networked society we increasingly expect to be connected or networked with others.

Democracy/Politics/Bureaucracy/Civic Society all interact within the system of government and as Held says “We do not have the option of ‘no politics’.” (P.259) which I think really means we need the whole system.

Participation:  Use it or lose it

In reading around this question of democratic models I realized how ingrained the idea of equality is in my thinking about the whole arena of politics and democracy and equality is something which needs the right conditions to flourish.  While I have focused a great deal on the question of participation, political equality is as much about the ability as the right to participate in decision making and it is with this in mind that I then looked at the potential models of democracy going forward.

I was struck by the way in which Athenian democracy – the earliest form – drew citizenship and participation tightly together. Citizenship is participation in the ancient world.  With that came a strong link between democracy and civil society:

  “Athenian democracy was marked by a general commitment to the principle of civic virtue:  dedication to the republican city-state and the subordination of the private life to public affairs and the common good.” (p.14)

However Athenian democracy was designed with a small city state in mind (around 4500 citizens – though people actually people of course) and as Held says “The classical Athenian model, which developed in a tightly knit community, cannot be adapted to ‘stretch’ across space and time.” (P.272).  In relating it to more modern forms Athenian democracy was highly participatory and while based on representation tried to enforce the distribution of that representation so that power was distributed throughout the citizen body and not concentrated over time.  I am struck by the constant state of renewal – or the constant learning curve – that would be involved in this kind of environment.

Either way, this is an expensive overhead and one which as we consider the needs of our larger and more complex context probably unmanageable. Weber and Schumpeter both suggested, for example, that there is a high price to pay for living in a complex and industrial modern society – it makes democracy at best the means of choosing decision makers and curbing excess.  Held summarizes Schumpeter by saying:  “If democracy us an institutional arrangement to generate and legitimate leadership, then it has at best a most tenuous relation to the classical meaning of democracy:  ‘rule by the people’” (P.143).  Schumpeter is both a champion of and a challenger to the practicality of democracy.  His 5 conditions for a working democracy are both clear cut and almost impossibly idealistic:

  1. “The caliber of the politicians must be high

  2. Competition between rival leaders (and parties_ must take place within a relatively restricted range of political questions, bounded by consensus on the overall direction of national policy, on what constitutes a reasonable parliamentary programme and on general constitutional matters.

  3. A well-trained and independent bureaucracy of ‘good-standing and tradition’ must exist to aid politicians on all aspects of policy formulation and administration

  4. There mist be ‘democratic self-control’, ie broad agreement about the undesirability of, for instance, voters and politicians confusing their respective roles, excessive criticism of governments on all issues, and unpredictable and violent behavior

  5. There must be a culture capable of tolerating differences of opinions” (P.151)


On the one hand Schumpeter gives a powerful blueprint for a practical democratic system, on the other this is still the politics of the elite with limited participation from the citizen. In looking at other models I am drawn to more inclusive formats and combinations of deliberative and participatory democracy to supplement the representative and therefore ‘curb excess’ through direct engagement.  Deliberation can overcome private views in the absence of entrenched positions and has the potential to widen rather than limit debate – because of this it can flush out factional issues.  However there are real issues with respect to knowledge and ability within this system – Held for example recognizes the fact that it can entrench elite positions and there needs also to be kept a distinction between the ability to reason and the process of deliberation which is designed to engage as well as work through issues.

 “The issue for deliberative democrats is whether a concern with reflective preferences is necessarily elitist, in a sense which would have please Plato, or whether it can lead to new innovative ideas about how democracy might function and work.” (P.  232)

Any form of participatory democracy (including deliberative) on the other hand does rely on the ability of citizens to participate fully in the process and have access to the decision-making arena.  Young’s model of representation for example includes some fairly simple steps needed to ensure that democracy is open to effective representation from diverse social groups.  She suggests the availability of public funds, an obligation to demonstrate that each group has actively listened and adjusted to other positions and the granting of veto rights to groups directly affected by policy (for example for women with respect to legislation affected reproductive rights).  Her most challenging suggestion is to ensure that public dialogue needs to include forms of reasoning beyond the argumentative mode (pp 244).  She is arguing for the need for public debate to be formed of a range of participation methods that balance out issues of access and efficacy for minority groups.  For more on this see Young, 2000, Inclusion and Democracy.

There is a lot of cultural ‘baggage’ associated with the development of other forms of public argument but it’s an intriguing idea to put before technical architects.  It also requires active civic education – we need people with the right range of skills.  There is also the question as to whether or not deliberative democracy is simply a ways of supporting representative democracy as opposed to a new mode of democratic process in its own right (pp255).

Power:  Are we free to participate?

Before we get too drawn into this line of argument there also has to be a balancing of the concepts of equality and liberty.  Rousseau, for example, sees independence as being self-serving but liberty as an act of participation in the general will and establishment of equality for all.  Clearly there are tensions in the parallel pursuit of liberty and equality:

 “The claims of liberty and political equality are, furthermore, inconsistent with the maintenance of authority order and stability.  When individuals are free to do as they like and demand equal rights irrespective of their capacities and contributions the result in the short run will be the creation of an attractively diverse society.  However, in the long run the effect is an indulgence of desire and a permissiveness that erodes respect for political and moral authority.”  (p.25)

Freedom is also subject to conditions; Wollstonecraft (like Rousseau) argues that there can be no liberty without freedom from poverty, Marx suggests that there is not freedom if the first freedom is that of capital (P.108).  Specifically Marx claims that by formally treating everyone the same way we ignore the inequalities of property (P.103).  Freedom is linked directly to the individual’s economic circumstances as well as their legal condition and this believe can be traced back to the utilitarian thinking in the 19th Century.

The highly participatory nature of Athenian democracy was simplified by the fact that only citizens participated.  The questions raised by universal emancipation did not arise as all citizens had sufficient capacity to participate.

It can be argued that the question of how to overcome inequalities of circumstances is at the heart of the divisions between left and right wing thinking as much debates about interventionist vs small state models of government.  These are political questions and any system of democracy operates against a context of political behaviours.  Thinkers from Plato onwards are seeking a balance in the contrast between minority groups, mob rule and the limited thinking of self-interest and Machiavelli, the founder of political science, first defined politics as “the struggle to win, utilize and contain power.” (P.41).   I don’t have space here to enter into a discussion about the shifts in the operation of political power and the party political system but clearly these need to be considered when we look at the democratic model which arguably designed to constrain them.

I would argue that one of the concepts missing from this debate is a discussion of the impact of scale.  The 20th century saw the world becoming smaller.  Technology has transformed travel and communications to such an extent that we needed to address global as well as national concerns in a far more immediate way.  Our economies become based on mass production and we entered into a default position of growth.  Held references this with respect to the post-WWII boom and political shifts of a newly reconfigured global stage and the growth of big state thinking:

 “This welfare of ‘social democratic’ or ‘reformist’ conception of politics had its origins in some of the ideas and principles of developmental democracy (see ch.3 pp91-3 above).  But its clearest expression in the actual politics and policies of the expanding, Keynesian, interventionist state in the years following World War II.  The rapid economic growth of those years helped to finance a programme of seemingly ever greater social welfare.  But with the downturn in world economic activity in the mid-1970s the welfare state began to lose its attractiveness and came under attack from both the left (for having made few, if any, real inroads into the world of the privileged and powerful) and the right (for being too costly and a threat to individual liberty).” (P.186)

When talking about power however we have to talk about the fact that significant power is now rested within the corporate governance of large, multinational corporations and the big democratic question of the 21st Century may be the need to reconcile this with the democratic accountability of the nation state.  A democratic society would require democratic principles to be manifest throughout.

 “….. if democracy is to prevail, the key groups and associations of the economy will have to be rearticulated with political institutions so that they become part of the democratic process – adopting within their very modus operandi a structure of rules, principles and practices compatible with democracy.” (P.285)

Bureaucracy:  Who runs this thing anyway?

Talking of power…..bureaucracy can be described as the third pillar of a system of government and throughout Held’s book a distinction is drawn between doing and controlling government and it is fair to say he does not have a hugely positive view of bureaucracy with respect to its participatory qualities.  Throughout the Held book bureaucracy is seen as the opposite of civic society “Models of democracy that depend on the assumption that ‘state’ could ever replace ‘civic society’ or vice versa must be treated with the utmost caution.”(P.274).  Further to this he sees the civil service as a new elite (p133).  We are past the point, I think, where we can  question whether we need a professional bureaucracy to support our government however we have to consider this to be subject to the transformational pressures that are being seen on politics and further to that the pressures of management and practice which are transforming our economy.  If we are seeing politics, democracy, bureaucracy and civic society in a system of government then we must consider change on all fronts rather than a more linear view of bureaucracy changing solely in response to political change.  One of the things which was striking on my fieldwork was the difference in attitudes between members and officers and this is also something we have seen in the networked councilor programme.  My view is that we are never going to shift democratic behavior without considering this as whole system change and looking at the surrounding support infrastructure as well – which is why I am so glad that NHS Citizen is taking this whole system approach.

Size matter:  The role of civil society

The final element of this system is civil society.  Again, I am not going to discuss this at length here as the reason for this blogpost in the first place is the fact that I have already written a lot about it.  However, I think it’s worth thinking briefly about how local and national contexts differ with respect to appropriate democratic models.  Held talks about regional and global issues but I think we also need to consider what happens at the local or hyperlocal level.  There is a disconnection between law/democracy and geography at the moment – globalism makes bold claims with respect to global culture which is not easily substantiated.  Cosmopolitism democracy, for example, is impossible without citizens feelings connected to their representatives (see EU!).  I think we need to consider whether or not we need to apply different democratic models based on scale and also context – one size does not fit all.

Groping towards 300 words

So – where does that leave me with respect to my 300 words?  Within the context of my thesis I will be arguing that I have taken our liberal representative democracy as being a fixed point within the experimentation process and as such I have not developed a more sophisticated model of democracy within the work (you can if you like shout ‘cop out’ at this point!).  However in the conclusion I will be developing this point more thoroughly.

If we consider democracy, politics, bureaucracy and civil society as each being part of a system of government then we have to consider change as affecting each part of this system.  This is a system which I believe now exists within the nascent network society and as a result we need to start to apply the principles of the network society to the design of our system of government.  I am trying to describe a model of democracy with the following qualities:

  • The system of representation is based around networks of citizens and reflects both place and topic.  By embedding the idea of networks within the representative process we can move towards what Coleman describes as ‘direct representation’ with citizens feeling directly connected to their representatives
  • Different democratic decision making models can be applied throughout the system.  I am advocating a democratic model which offers the opportunity for more direct democracy within the hyperlocal context, for example, but embeds participatory and deliberative approaches for more complex situations
  • The bureaucracy needed to support this system of government would be designed to support agile decision making and be responsive to persistent feedback
  • This model would apply within other structures and not simply our formal democratic institutions

There are other cultural and social drivers which I also believe need to be accommodated in our democratic model, for example a desire for greater levels of openness and access to information (these are both qualities I have suggested as being design elements of digital civic space).  I am tentatively thinking about this system as being one of ‘network democracy’.

One of the issues which make a new model necessary, and which I believe is not yet addressed adequately in the literature, is the question of scale.  We have created a democratic hierarchy based on the fact that our representatives cannot have a meaningful relationship with the full range of people that they representative but I think this is no longer a good assumption. In a more digital and networked world public opinion is both more granular and more ‘knowable’ and if we get the balance between surveillance and participation right then this is a huge democratic asset and one which should be a driver of democratic change.  The public, not unreasonably, want their representatives to listen to them and not to the national newspapers.  Scale is important because what works for 4500 people does not necessarily work for 45000 and we should build in the flexibility needed to enable meaningful participation in both contexts.

Much of this rests in the need to develop trust throughout the whole of any system of democracy.  There is a great deal of trust involved in the surrendering of your interests to the common good – in many ways democracy is a way to ensure that this trust is balanced.  This is a view that can be traced back to Hobbes’ who asked what conditions are need to be in place to make this trust possible. However I am not sure that the rationality that he expects people to bring to this choice really expresses the personal nature of trust.  This is where the need to feel connected to our representatives comes from I think – in the network society we seek to connect to individuals not institutions.

I think that this is a model of democracy which could be both tested and developed from the ground up – it is not a top down system of government but instead could be experimented with in hyperlocal and local contexts.  It’s also closely linked to the thinking going on within NHS Citizen,

I continue to think like an action researcher and in conclusion I suggest we need to move forward in small and manageable steps – perhaps by considering not perfect democracy but enough democracy – a minimum viable product if you like.  In a complex world its realistic to aspire to making many experiences, government, corporate and civil,  slightly more democratic rather than simply focusing on making parliament much more democratic.


PS  For those of you who like this stuff Held very helpfully outlines a dozen different models of democracy and I include them below with his definitions (and page references):

  1. Classical democracy:  “Citizens should enjoy political equality in order to be free to rule and be ruled in turn” (P.27)
  2. Protective republicanism:  “Political Participation is an essential condition of personal liberty; if citizens do not rule themselves, they will be dominated by others”. (P.44)
  3. Developmental republicanism: “Citizens must enjoy political and economic equality in order that nobody can be master of another and all can enjoy equal freedom and development in the process of self-determination for the common good.” (P.48)
  4. Protective democracy:  “ Citizens require protection from the governors, as well as from each other, to ensure that those who govern pursue policies that are commensurate with citizens interests as whole. (P.78)
  5. Developmental democracy:  “Participation in political life is necessary not only for potation of individual interests, but also for the creation on an informed, committed and developing citizenry.  Political involvement is essential to the ‘highest and harmonious’ expansion of individual capacities”. (P.92)
  6. Direct democracy and the end of politics:  “The ‘free development of all’ can only be achieved with the ‘free development of each’.  Freedom requires the end of exploitation and ultimately complete political and economic equality;  only equality can secure the conditions for the realization of the potentiality of all human beings so that ‘each can give’ according to his or her ability and ‘receive what they need’.” (P.120)
  7. Competitive elitist democracy:  “Method for the selection of a skilled and imaginative political elite capable of making necessary legislative and administrative decisions.  An obstacle to the excesses of political leadership.”(P.157)
  8. Pluralism:  “Secures government by minorities and, hence, political liberty.  Crucial obstacle to the development of excessively powerful factions and an unresponsive state.” (P.173)
  9. Legal democracy:  “The majority principle is an effective and desirable way of protecting individuals form arbitrary government and of maintaining liberty.  However, for political life, like economic life, to be a matter of individual freedom and initiative, majority rule must be circumscribed by the rule of law.  Only under these conditions can the majority principle function wisely and effectively.” (P.207)
  10. Participatory democracy:  “An equal right to liberty and self-development can only be achieved in a ‘participatory society’, a society which fosters a sense of political efficacy, nurtures a concern for collective problems and contributes to the formation of a knowledgeable citizenry capable of taking a sustained interest in the governing process.” (P.215)
  11. Deliberative democracy:  “The terms and conditions of political association proceed through the free and reasoned assent of its citizens.  The ‘mutual justifiability’ of political decisions is the legitimate basis for seeking solutions to collective problems”. (P.253)
  12. Democratic Autonomy:  “Persons should enjoy equal rights, and, accordingly, equal obligations in the specification of the political framework which generates and limits the opportunities available to them;  that is, they should be free and equal in the processes of deliberations, so long as they do not deploy this framework to negate the rights of others”. (P.282)
  13. Cosmopolitan democracy:  “In a world of intensifying regional and global relations, with marked overlapping ‘communities of fate’, the principle of autonomy requires entrenchment in regional and global networks as well as in national and local polities.” (P.308)




  1. Pingback: Democracy in its many forms – Curiouscatherine’s Blog | Public Sector Blogs |

  2. Nick Booth

    February 23, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    I’m going to gob off for a moment – mostly in ignorance. The small steps I wholeheartedly endorse and my experience that growing democracy often stems from individual politicians. public servants and “residents” growing a touch more confident to do things that are a little riskier and involved more people and more relationships and less process and less diktat.

    The thing I just want to question stems from “There is a great deal of trust involved in the surrendering of your interests to the common good – in many ways democracy is a way to ensure that this trust is balanced.”

    I thing democracy can do this – every so often we can question and challenge those who we’ve trusted and delegated responsibility to. i wonder though if democracy is the only form of politics that can do this. Could we also still trust within a more autocratic system – where t5ust can be maintained as long as the systems avoids any significant economic shocks. So perhaps the trust is born partly out of finding continuing valid ways to avoid extremes in inequality?

  3. Stefa

    February 24, 2014 at 12:44 am

    I think your point about scale is an important one, the more so in that is works in more than one direction. The scale of the relevant group clearly matters as does the ration of represented to representatives. But the scale of the decision, and in particular how self-contained it is, should also be an important factor in identifying optimal democratic structures. Both types of scale matter in finding the optimum balance of direct and indirect participation.

  4. tomsprints

    February 24, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Your piece has emphasised in my mind the very imperfect UK model of democracy. It was spotlighted very recently by news of the extent to which the Queen, Prince Charles and their self-interests can veto proposed legislation.

    There are those (usually those with acquired privilege) who tend to sneer at democracy as being a kind of universal egalitarianism. My own view, fwiw, is that we have many examples to show how flawed the UK model is:

    – the right to vote, but usually only for a set of candidates with whom we have little in common and who purport to do our bidding with no mandate from us. The ballot is a matter of lifetime rote or of voting for the least-worst candidate (ie a vote against the others rather than a true vote for someone/something).

    – the above-mentioned ability of a hereditary monarchy to veto legislation and not have to reveal the reasoning for that veto.

    – the reality that we the ordinary people have extremely limited rights to be consulted about things that directly affect us. This includes the “right” to have our views completely ignored when we do express them.

    – long term adherence, in England at least, to a frst past the post system of voting that virtually guarantees the paradox that should there be a large choice of candidates on the ballot paper, the winner is sure to have an overall minority of votes cast.

    I could go on, but i can be easily stopped by the question “OK, what do you propose instead?” Was that maybe the question in the back of your assessor’s minds too?


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