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Home / Resources / News / Democracy is a verb not a noun

Democracy is a verb not a noun

We often discuss the reform of public services and reform of democracy separately, as if reform could take place in one area without affecting the other. As well as “providing services”, public service organisations are also bound by a duty to “be democratic”. People often confuse this with associating the “being democratic” with specific structures (like committees) or processess (scrutiny).

Others see public services as just another service, however it is run. The former risks dividing up the “what people decide” and “what people deliver” into separate functions. The latter risks services being provided without necessarily being democratic or accountable.

The “Open House – Creating democratic organisations for the 21st century” event organised by @hublaunchpad & @globalnet21 reminded me of how we at European Alternatives pivoted from a network into a cooperative – a midnight visualisation of how we would organise democratically in a different way, using the analogy with how a flower grows.

I asked myself, if only local public services, businesses and civil society could come up with new forms of democratic organisation in such an emergent way!

Then I remembered the @borderstocross workshops we helped organise – less about democratic organisations and more how civic initiatives organise democratically across public service, market & community boundaries. In terms of how these collaborations create better democracy, I would categorise them in the following way:

  • Community groups demanding that public services be more democratic, such as People Talk, which uses citizens’ jurys to start dialogue with public services andTenever where decisions are only made when there is 100% consensus – making every opinion important.
  • Community groups demanding that businesses be more democratic, such asSave Greek Water, raising awareness on the dangers of the announced privatization of water services and build resistance to stop or SOM Energia, an energy cooperative which combats oligopolies.
  • Community groups enacting more democratic ways of working, such as the theCitizens Academy creating a school for citizenship to Teatro Valle, reclaiming Rome’s oldest theatre from privatization and transforming it into a shared space governed by and for the community.
  • Public services being more democratic in their interactions with community groups, such as the Tuscan laboratory or CittA@ttiva allowing a group of young civil servants, specialized in social mediation to act freely and to show their accountability by their deeds. A researcher from the workshops commented that this was about “getting more empathetic, and less bureaucratic”.
  • Public services being more democratic with businesses, such as the Overijssel O:0 Partnership, which bridges the gap between community based enterprise and private investors.
  • Businesses being more democratic in their interactions with community groups, such as Malmo community owned care, building grassroots organizations’ capacity to run their own “business” where the revenue is reinvested in the local community.

What struck me is that public services and businesses try to be more democratic in how they interact with community groups, while community groups try to be more democratic in how they organise themselves.

What happens when public services & businesses are so weak that there is a vacuum of service provision. Does this create a vacuum of democracy?

In a rural area of Sweden, the lack of public & private provision of care led to villagers creating their own home car system democratically run and owned by its members. The opposite took place in Peel en Maas, a Dutch council which decided that everything that can be done by society itself must not be done by them, but by society itself.

In some cases, the problem isn’t that public services don’t exist, but where a mutual understanding between different actors hasn’t been built and so unplanned conflict can arise…with the unintended consequence of communities creating new forms of democracy without institutions!

The story of Occupato Teatro Valle embodies this, a public theatre occupied by artists and performers to save it. Instead of just protesting, it created “citizen shares” so people could invest in the theatre and have a vote from that share to have a say in the running of the theatre.

Rather than deciding to devolve everything down to communities without any support or not listening to local citizens on how they want public services to be run, why not bring together public services, businesses & civil society to develop shared principles on how they want their local areas to be run democratically & collaboratively?

What better way than to turn these principles into something tangible…like a local currency?