Community Scoop

What does it take to make democracy work as it should?

Scott Miller, Chief Executive 
Volunteering New ZealandScott Millar Aug 2015_cropped

Turkmenistan, Belgium, New Zealand, Canada. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, everyday people like you and I, citizens, are frustrated with how democracy currently works, and how we think it should work in our countries.

Last week I was privileged to attend a week-long residential in the US with people from 50 other countries through the Kettering Foundation. To most people, here in New Zealand and abroad, democracy is considered an activity we exercise once every three years, through electoral voting.

Yet democracy is more than simply voting in elections, it is also about civic participation. But as we all know, we, citizens, are playing an increasingly narrow role in public life. We may feel shut out of politics, have sidelined ourselves, or both. We may see ourselves as unable to make a difference because we believe we don’t have the necessary resources. We find it difficult to make sound decisions, reacting hastily, or only in self-interest – without considering the broader perspectives. Of course there are many other reasons why democracy isn’t working as it should, but in the interests of your time and attention, let’s keep going.

So what can we do to see democracy operating as it should? Work. Hard work, unfortunately.

The Kettering approach suggests it is democratic ‘practices’ that give citizens a stronger hand in shaping their future. Such practices include deliberative dialogue. By deliberating together, people in a community hammer out the concerns that really matter to them. They learn what they can agree on (while still disagreeing in other ways). It is the kind of talk people do when they are responsible for making decisions and choices – or giving guidance to others who will make those decisions that will not only affect them but will affect others.

At Volunteering New Zealand we also believe that volunteering is a form of dialogue that citizens use to build the capacity of people, amplify voice and participation. In our recently published Summary of the UN’s State of the World’s Volunteerism Report we note that volunteers are acting as champions of change worldwide – opening doors for people to take part in decisions that affect their lives and urging those in power to listen and respond to their needs. Because, for a democracy to be strong and resilient, citizens (and volunteers) have to be producers, not just consumers.

And yes, this work, either through deliberative dialogue or volunteering is prone to setbacks and delays. It is done incrementally and seldom produces big headlines or wins awards. Still, it is empowering because it puts more control in the hands of people: as citizens and as volunteers. Or as someone once said, just trying to make a difference can be the difference.

For more information on the work of the Kettering Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan nongovernmental research foundation, refer


This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices

ComVoices  actively promotes the value that community sector organisations and their people, both paid and unpaid, add to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing through information, and political advocacy and dialogue.

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