Community Scoop

What do we want? Participatory democracy. When do we want it? Now (more than ever)!

Scott Millar Aug 2015_croppedScott Miller
Chief Executive
Volunteering New Zealand (VNZ)

Marchers filled streets across the world over the weekend, generating a sense of collective purpose and demonstrating the authenticity of physical engagement in a world of slacktivism.

While each of the estimated 3 million people in over 670 locations across the world had their own reasons for marching under the umbrella of challenges a newly appointed, democratically elected President will provide to humanity, I felt some nascent hope for participatory democracy.

But like Trump who tweeted ‘why didn’t these people vote?’ following the march, I also believe such a large-scale one-off effort was a little too late.

When 46% of eligible American voters either absconded or otherwise disengaged from their civic responsibility in November last year, I don’t lay blame with the principles of democracy.

Rather, I lay responsibility with our sense (and arrogance) of citizenship. We live in an otherwise distracted Western society, seduced by Netflix, Facebook and consumerism, content to believe that our responsibilities as citizens of a democratic society are discharged every few years exclusively through voting.

Not that this view is restricted to the divided States of America. At heart I like to think that we all know that voting is only one facet of citizenship and democracy. So when we marched over the weekend, we should have also been reflecting on the lost opportunities to engage and march before the election as a means of inviting others to the conversation, and bridging this burgeoning gap that has created such a large number of disengaged citizens.

So what?

Well, in New Zealand, while many of us will continue to name the issues that affect our society, few will turn everyday routines into democratic practices that give us more control of our future. This sense of constant hui and no doey becomes unsurprisingly disempowering.

Yet, in a participatory democracy, we need to move past just naming issues, and start framing the issues. Such a task is not easy, but who said democracy would be easy? The US think tank the Kettering Foundation suggest such framed decisions, made deliberatively can have considerable benefits for both citizens and democracy.

And even better, marches like the one on the weekend might start becoming volunteer magnets!

That is to say, to me, we can (and shall) go further when we make evident the connection between volunteering and participatory democracy. When we volunteer, we are voting every day for the kind of society we want to live in.

Volunteering therefore not only strengthens our sense of citizenship, but it commits us to continuing to work together, strengthening our diverse contributions, demonstrating accountability, and achieving greater visibility and recognition of our efforts.

So while the short-term success of the women’s march is compelling, it is my view that, of the 545 partner organisations listed on, success should be evaluated on how many people will volunteer their time and energy to become more engaged citizens, and encourage others towards collective learning that keep the fires burning long past Saturday 21 January 2017.

“The citizen can bring our political and governmental institutions back to life, make them responsive and accountable, and keep them honest. No one else can.” – John Gardner.

N.B. Key themes discussed in this blog are as a result of my time at the Kettering Foundation, USA.

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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