Tag: Lyn Carson

More on that democratic deficit.

Improving democracy through deliberation.

Yesterday, I introduced the essay by George Monbiot, Why Politics Fails.  He opened his essay with the sub-heading: Nothing will change until we confront the real sources of power.

His last paragraph read:

So I don’t blame people for giving up on politics. I haven’t given up yet, but I find it ever harder to explain why. When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political funding system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians of the three main parties stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?

And who would disagree with those closing sentiments!

Then just four days ago there was an item on Permaculture News that continued where Mr. Monbiot left off.  It was an interview by Marcia Gerwin of Professor Lyn Carson that sets out a positive approach to correcting the widely-acknowledged issue so well articulated by George Monbiot.

Professor Lyn Carson, is a Professor at the University of Sydney.  As Professor Carson’s website Active Democracy explains:

Hi, I’m Lyn Carson, welcome to my website. I hope to provide easy access to information which individuals, groups or organisations can use to enhance citizens’ involvement in the activities of local, state or federal government.

I’m currently a professor with the Business Programs Unit at the University of Sydney, Australia. I’m researching in the fascinating area of community engagement and deliberative democracy. I’m teaching ‘critical thinking’ which will have resonance for those familiar with public deliberation.

Democracy, for me, is active, interactive, deliberative and genuinely representative of the wider population. It’s as valid to speak of a democratic personality (Gould, 1988) as it is to speak of a democratic workplace or a democratic society. We can enact in microcosm what we imagine for the level of nation state. We need not restrict our thinking to systems of government—we can do democracy at any time, any place.

Like C. Douglas Lummis, I see democracy as the antithesis of centralised power:

…democracy is one of those beautiful, absolute clear principles… that poses a maddening, tantalizing puzzle to humankind and launches us on the historic project of seeking to realize it in our collective life (Lummis, 1982).

I note the words of Frances Moore Lappé (2006): “To save the democracy we thought we had, we must take it to where it’s never been.” One way of saving democracy—or causing a democratic breakout (Blaug, 1999)—is to involve citizens in political decision making.

I’ve written numerous articles on public participation in decision making—from setting up citizens’ juries to improving community consultation in your local council. Go to Publications if you’d like to download some of my written works. Your feedback is warmly encouraged after you have roamed around this site.

Here is that article that was published on Permaculture News.

Marcin Gerwin: There are many people who are disappointed in the way the democratic system works. They see politicians arguing and making decision in the interest of their political parties rather than the common good. What is wrong with modern democracy?

Lyn Carson: The difficulties that relate to modern democracy probably start with the use of that term. We have begun to believe that the system of

Professor Lyn Carson
Professor Lyn Carson

representative government that is pervasive in both the West and increasingly in other locations is actually a democracy. I think we do well to reflect on the origins of democracy, and how democracy was first conceived. We know it was a very different system. We also know that representative government was designed during periods of the French, the American and the English revolutions to perpetuate elites. It was certainly designed to ensure that those who had money, who had property — usually men in the early days — would have their power maintained. I think what we have are the remnants of that.

Democracy is a beautiful ideal in its true sense of people power or the ability for people to make decisions about their own destinies, about things that affect them. In locations where we’ve been able to replicate at least of some of the qualities of ancient Athens, which was the cradle of democracy, then I think we can say that democracy can take root and can actually deliver its promise. It may serve us better not to use the word, I would suggest, to describe what it is that we have, which is far from the notion of genuine democracy. If we call it representative government or even an oligarchy we might start to realise what it is that we have.

MG: I think politicians will not be happy to hear that. They like to present themselves as democrats and some of them don’t acknowledge that there is a problem with a political system.

LC: Scholars are increasingly using the term “democratic deficit” to describe what is happening in the world. There is a widening gap between the governed and those who are doing the governing. There is a crisis of trust, and a growing mistrust because of what is called short-termism — political parties, because of the system, have an eye on the next election and not on the long-term needs of either humans or the even bigger picture, the environment and planetary survival. What we try to create in deliberative democracy are circumstances where all of the voices are in the room, where we can create what we call a “miniature population” or “mini-public” that resembles the entire population so it can achieve what we call a descriptive representation.

At the moment we have representation in parliaments, but it’s not descriptive of the wider population. In Australian parliament there is an inordinate number of lawyers, policy advisers, unionists — usually male — and they don’t resemble the entire population. As deliberative democrats what we are trying to do is to tune into the wider population. We can’t ask the entire population constantly. We can certainly ask what their opinions are but we actually want their judgment, which can only be arrived through a process of very deep deliberation, through a lot of education, through a lot of sharing of information, experience and stories. We want to achieve a very different democratic space than anything that we see in parliaments.

MG: Do you think that mini-publics could be used for actual decision-making instead of public consultations only?

LC: In deliberative democracy we talk about three ideals. That’s the notion of inclusion, or representativeness — that’s the principle of the miniature population. The second ideal is deliberation — you need people to be able to really wrestle with the complexity of an issue, to be fully informed, to argue it out, to use reason, to use storytelling, including emotion. The third ideal is the notion of influence. It is incredibly important that it is attached to decision-making. The NewDemocracy Foundation, that I’m a director of, deals only with projects that have influence. We have continually proved that we can achieve representativeness and deliberation, but the most difficult to achieve is influence. And that’s because elected representatives don’t want to give up power. They believe that they have a mandate to govern and they are disinclined to do so.

But there have been some fantastic examples where elected representatives have done just that. We’ve had a premier of a state in Western Australia who promised to act on the decisions of mini-publics. As Minister for Planning and Infrastructure she stood by citizens’ recommendations. We’ve had a participatory budget in New South Wales with Canada Bay Council. The local government agreed to abide by its decisions. It was the only reason we agreed to be involved. So it is happening. It’s not happening enough, but it’s certainly possible. I would suggest that none of us should proceed with mini-publics anymore unless it has the imprimatur of the decision-maker. It’s a little wearisome to keep proving that we can do these robust processes and then have the decision-makers ignoring the recommendations.

MG: What does the participatory budgeting work like in Australia?

LC: In the case of Canada Bay people were randomly selected, we had a group of 40 who came together face to face over five weekends. They deliberated on the entire budget of the council, they listened to expert speakers, they spent many hours having discussions. They split into small working parties to consider different aspects of the budget and they worked hard to deliver their recommendations to council and it was considered in a council meeting.

MG: Five weekends is a lot of time. Did the citizens receive a compensation for being involved in participatory budgeting?

LC: They received compensation, but it was a very small amount, something like 50 dollars a day or a weekend. It’s not huge and people don’t actually need a lot of money. They don’t want the equivalent of their salary. It’s an honorarium, a way to say “we value your participation”.

MG: If it was possible to change the law, would you like to have the decisions made by mini-public binding just like those made in referendums?

LC: That’s certainly my dream and there’s no reason why it can’t be so. A couple of examples exist. In Denmark there was a Danish Board of Technology which routinely convened mini-publics and fed those recommendations into the parliament. The parliament had to say why it wasn’t going to abide by those recommendations. That’s in a way the closest we’ve come to it. There’s a law in Tuscany in Italy, it’s called the Tuscan Law 69 which had a trigger mechanism which said that if there was a controversial issue it had to go to a deliberative process and again the regional government had to say why it would not act on those recommendations.

If I had a dream it would be to say that we would routinely convene policy juries to consider issues like education, health, transport and so on. You wouldn’t want to do it for everything. The whole point is to use these processes when and where appropriate, otherwise you would be bogging down the decision-making process which is often working quite well just through the current mechanisms that we have. It’s only when controversy emerges or long-term decisions have to be made, or when politicians are reluctant to act.

MG: What about the referenda? Are they a good way of making decisions?

LC: I’m not a fan of referenda. The reason is that they lack the deliberative element. We’ve had many referenda in Australia. I think we’ve had 44 and 36 of them was unsuccessful. That’s because the issue tends to become very polarized unless it has bi-partisan support, from the two major parties. They are inevitably rejected by the population because it’s so easy to run a negative campaign. Australian governments provide a lot of information when there is a referendum. But this can be quite confusing and citizens need an opportunity to deliberate on them, as they do in Oregon with the Citizens Initiative Review, or to have serious discussions with other people. A referendum for me without that deliberative component is nothing more than an opinion poll. It’s absolutely destined to failure unless you have all the major parties supporting it.

The citizen-initiated referendum sounds good on the surface because there is a groundswell of support, but what I would like to see is the groundswell of support demanding a deliberative process and then letting that deliberative process make a decision instead of putting it to a referendum.

MG: For some people it may be hard to accept that only those who are chosen by lot are going to make a decision instead of everybody as in referenda.

LC: That’s going to vary from country to country. In Australia we have a great deal of faith in random selection because it’s fair. Everyone has an equal opportunity to be selected. We also have an independent Australian Electoral Commission that has earned public confidence and it could have oversight of such lotteries. As long as you have faith in the process there shouldn’t be a problem. The difficulty is that it is not a routine to do that, although in Australia it is quite a routine to do that through criminal juries — people are randomly selected to sit on those juries. So actually we understand that process and we have faith in it to make very binding decisions about whether or not someone is guilty or not guilty, whether they should go to jail for life. We actually give that power to citizens at the moment. If that process doesn’t exist in a country, then yes, it needs to become a routine in order for trust to develop.


Wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that many, if not all, that read that interview had heads nodding in agreement.

Back on Lyn Carson’s website you can find an interesting selection of her publications.  I, for one, will be browsing through them.

The democratic deficit.

The widespread failure of politics.

With the NaNoWriMo book completed, it’s back to normal in terms of postings on Learning from Dogs. Subscribers will also be receiving in 30 minutes time Chapter Sixteen with subsequent chapters coming out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next three weeks.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot

Next, I have long admired the writings of George Monbiot and today’s essay is a classic example of both his perception of the world around us and his clear and direct way of expressing same.  In these unsettling times we need observers, such as G. Monbiot, who will challenge what is happening in our societies and ask the questions we would all wish to ask. That George frequently reports for  the highly regarded Guardian newspaper is no surprise.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote to George asking for permission to republish his essay on Why Politics Fails.  I was delighted not only to receive that permission but also a general permission to republish his essays, with one condition.  That is that they appear in digital format only and not in print.  Could I ask anyone who is thinking of reposting from Learning from Dogs to respect and honour that condition.  Thank you.

Finally, there have been a number of new subscribers during the month of November when I have been distracted by the NaNoWriMo event. It felt a good time again to explain to my newer followers why this blog for most of the time isn’t about dogs; well not directly.

I use the qualities of dogs as metaphors for the qualities that, to a great extent, appear to have been overlooked by man in the last 100 years or so.  Many of the behaviours of dogs that were of critical importance to the species before domestication are still very much in evidence in the family pet dog. I’m speaking of behaviours like unconditional love, living in the present, respecting boundaries, faithfulness, loyalty, honesty and forgiveness.  A group of behaviours that one could define in a single word: integrity.

Dhalia - domesticated but still the wild dog shows through.
Dhalia – domesticated but still the wild dog shows through.

So, hope that makes sense.  My posts predominantly illustrate both what is wrong with our 21st C. society and examples of how we can correct our ways.

OK, to George Monbiot.


Why Politics Fails

November 11, 2013

Nothing will change until we confront the real sources of power.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 12th November 2013

It’s the reason for the collapse of democratic choice. It’s the source of our growing disillusionment with politics. It’s the great unmentionable. Corporate power. The media will scarcely whisper its name. It is howlingly absent from parliamentary debates. Until we name it and confront it, politics is a waste of time.

The political role of corporations is generally interpreted as that of lobbyists, seeking to influence government policy. In reality they belong on the inside. They are part of the nexus of power that creates policy. They face no significant resistance, from either government or opposition, as their interests have now been woven into the fabric of all three main parties.

Most of the scandals that leave people in despair about politics arise from this source. On Monday, for example, the Guardian revealed that the government’s subsidy system for gas-burning power stations is being designed by an executive from the company ESB, who has been seconded into the energy department(1). What does ESB do? Oh, it builds gas-burning power stations.

On the same day we learnt that a government minister, Nick Boles, has privately assured the gambling company Ladbrokes that it needn’t worry about attempts by local authorities to stop the spread of betting shops(2). His new law will prevent councils from taking action.

Last week we discovered that G4S’s contract to run immigration removal centres will be expanded, even though all further business with the state was supposed to be frozen while allegations of fraud are investigated(3). Every week we learn that systemic failures on the part of government contractors are no barrier to obtaining further work, that the promise of efficiency, improvements and value for money delivered by outsourcing and privatisation have failed to materialise(4,5,6). The monitoring which was meant to keep these companies honest is haphazard(7), the penalties almost non-existent(8), the rewards stupendous, dizzying, corrupting(9,10). Yet none of this deters the government. Since 2008, the outsourcing of public services has doubled, to £20bn. It is due to rise to £100bn by 2015(11). This policy becomes explicable only when you recognise where power really lies. The role of the self-hating state is to deliver itself to big business. In doing so it creates a tollbooth economy: a system of corporate turnpikes, operated by companies with effective monopolies.

It’s hardly surprising that the lobbying bill – now stalled by the Lords – offered almost no checks on the power of corporate lobbyists, while hogtying the charities who criticise them. But it’s not just that ministers are not discouraged from hobnobbing with corporate executives: they are now obliged to do so.

Thanks to an initiative by Lord Green, large companies have ministerial “buddies”, who have to meet them when the companies request it. There were 698 of these meetings during the first 18 months of the scheme, called by corporations these ministers are supposed be regulating(12). Lord Green, by the way, is currently a government trade minister. Before that he was chairman of HSBC, presiding over the bank while it laundered vast amounts of money stashed by Mexican drugs barons(13). Ministers, lobbyists – can you tell them apart?

That the words corporate power seldom feature in the corporate press is not altogether surprising. It’s more disturbing to see those parts of the media that are not owned by Rupert Murdoch or Lord Rothermere acting as if they are.

For example, for five days every week the BBC’s Today programme starts with a  business report in which only insiders are interviewed. They are treated with a deference otherwise reserved for God on Thought for the Day. There’s even a slot called Friday Boss, in which the programme’s usual rules of engagement are set aside and its reporters grovel before the corporate idol. Imagine the outcry if Today had a segment called Friday Trade Unionist or Friday Corporate Critic.

This, in my view, is a much graver breach of BBC guidelines than giving unchallenged airtime to one political party but not others, as the bosses are the people who possess real power: those, in other words, whom the BBC has the greatest duty to accost. Research conducted by the Cardiff school of journalism shows that business representatives now receive 11% of airtime on the BBC’s 6 o’clock news (this has risen from 7% in 2007), while trade unionists receive 0.6% (which has fallen from 1.4%)(14). Balance? Impartiality? The BBC puts a match to its principles every day.

And where, beyond the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, a few ageing Labour backbenchers, is the political resistance? After the article I wrote last week, about the grave threat the transatlantic trade and investment partnership presents to parliamentary sovereignty and democratic choice(15), several correspondents asked me what response there has been from the Labour party. It’s easy to answer: nothing.

Blair and Brown purged the party of any residue of opposition to corporations and the people who run them. That’s what New Labour was all about. Now opposition MPs stare mutely as their powers are given away to a system of offshore arbitration panels run by corporate lawyers.

Since Blair’s pogroms, parliament operates much as Congress in the United States does: the lefthand glove puppet argues with the righthand glove puppet, but neither side will turn around to face the corporate capital that controls almost all our politics. This is why the assertion that parliamentary democracy has been reduced to a self-important farce has resonated so widely over the past fortnight.

So I don’t blame people for giving up on politics. I haven’t given up yet, but I find it ever harder to explain why. When a state-corporate nexus of power has bypassed democracy and made a mockery of the voting process, when an unreformed political funding system ensures that parties can be bought and sold, when politicians of the three main parties stand and watch as public services are divvied up by a grubby cabal of privateers, what is left of this system that inspires us to participate?



1. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/10/gas-industry-employee-energy-policy

2. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/nov/10/planning-law-changes-help-bookmakers-minister

3. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/nov/08/g4s-expand-contract-freeze-government-work

4. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/05/privatisation-public-service-users-bill

5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9742685/Total-chaos-after-pet-dog-counted-on-translators-database.html

6. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/jul/22/disabled-benefits-claimants-test-atos

7. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/nov/07/government-outsourcing-problems-g4s-serco-a4e

8. http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2013/jul/17/ifg-government-outsourcing-privatisation-skills

9. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/09/financial-transparency-privatised-nhs

10. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/04/rail-privatisation-train-operators-profit

11. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/07/public-sector-outsourcing-shadow-state

12. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/jan/18/buddy-scheme-multinationals-access-ministers

13. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2012/jul/24/lord-green-hsbc-scandal

14. http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/our_work/breadth_opinion/content_analysis.pdf

15. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/04/us-trade-deal-full-frontal-assault-on-democracy


I’m staying with this theme tomorrow when I want to discuss a recent interview with Lyn Carson who is a professor with the Business Programs Unit at the University of Sydney.  The interview is on the subject of Improving Democracy Through Deliberation.