I was introduced to democratic governance through the 1993 Global Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  This was a time in which many countries were making a transition from totalitarian and/or authoritarian regimes to more democratic ones.  From 1990-1996 the number of “electoral democracies” increased from 76 to 118, and that trend continued in the decades that followed.  However, as early as these transitions began to happen, experts like Larry Diamond and others, and the very same 1993 UNDP Report, were cautiously warning that elections, new constitutions and toppling non-democratic regimes were but only one dimension of democratic governance.

The UNDP Report went further and made a link between democratic governance and human development by highlighting not only  how political power and institutions could shape human progress, but also by focusing on people’s participation as key to the design, implementation and evaluation of democratic public policies.   Many developing countries were in a transition mode and shared a common purpose to expand human development and to construct inclusive societies.    Similarly, linking citizens with government as co-creators of a new and supposedly better socio-political order, made lots of sense. Nonetheless, the UNDP Report clearly laid out key assumptions to manage expectations on democratic governance, human development and participation.  For example, it highlighted that while participation was a central issue of policy-making and democracy, collective action and civic engagement were not automatic processes, less so in societies that had been accustomed to authoritarian and totalitarian rule.  The Report argued that “…people have to have an impatient urge-to participate in the events and processes that shape their lives. And that impatience brings many dangers and opportunities. It can dissolve into anarchy, ethnic violence or social disintegration.” The Report also recognized that when participation is properly nurtured, it can also become a source of tremendous vitality and innovation to shape the course of democratic governance.

Clearly, democratic governance needed to construct and/or strengthen mechanisms that could manage, intermediate and organize changing societies. While the wave of transitions continued into the first decade and a half of the 21st Century, the era of democratic governance also brought a number of dilemmas for people, institutions and systems.  While civil society and their participation played a crucial role in building pressure for democratic governance, the impetus declined as the vestiges of the former non-democratic regimes disappeared and as political communities were being shaped and re-shaped.  Political parties and other established interest groups took center stage, and the more spontaneous people’s participation retreated.  Gradually but surely, general discontent ensued not so much against the symbols and/or ideals of democratic governance, but against concrete policy issues, such as people being denied the right to vote or to express their opinions; journalists and the media not being allowed to be critical of governments and their policies; opposition leaders not having the freedom to speak freely; alleged corruption being met with high levels of impunity; the growing influence of corporate interests and private funding of politics; and entrusted political power being monopolized by populist, semi-authoritarian and/or self-perpetuating imperial-like regimes.  More importantly, discontent ensues on a critical question about the role of democratic governance on inclusion and in promoting equality and/or reducing inequality.

In hindsight tumbling down authoritarian and/or totalitarian regimes seem easier than constructing viable and more pluralistic democratic governance regimes with capacities to deliver equitable and effective policies. However, the dilemmas and challenges of democratic governance go beyond the countries that made the transition over the last three decades.  Older democratic systems are also showing visible signs of fatigue in their capacity to govern democratically.  As such, the United States and the European Union countries are also experiencing new challenges and dilemmas.

The dilemmas for democratic governance, whether at the transition, consolidation, or post consolidation stage are many.  For example, state capacity, representation and intermediation, horizontal and vertical accountability, and incorporating marginalized sectors to name but a few.  Democratic institutions have to demonstrate their viability, including in sharing governance responsibility, in generating constructive opposition, and in guaranteeing rights to citizens.  This congruence of conditions has to grow, articulate and adapt to changing circumstances.

As societies became more democratic, the quality of interaction between the government and groups and individuals takes center stage as a key element of sustainability.  However is not about who monopolizes the interaction, but how the two sides operate alongside these interactions to influence the course of public policy.   As the report on the governability of democracies to the Trilateral Commission highlighted way before the wave of new democratic regimes ensued in the late 1980s and 1990s, democratic governance is not only about finding consensus and following the rules of the games, but most importantly perhaps about finding a higher collective purpose.   This is why, using as basis the experience of Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan, the Report makes the case in favor of democratic governance as a means, and not an end of in itself. Clearly under any authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, purposes (often grandiose, and irrelevant to the majority of society) can be packaged usually from the top, and if necessary coerced into society.  Moreover, in non-democratic regimes the purpose often reflects the wishes of a leader and their cronies and not the people.  In contrast, under democratic governance, the purpose needs to grow out from dialogue, collective action and consensus.

There is no blue print for strengthening democratic governance, and the 1993 UNDP Report and others highlighted that very clearly.   It is natural for democratic regimes to be threatened by a number of contextual factors varying significantly from country to country reflecting differences in size, history, location, culture and economic performance.  For example, no one foresaw in the early 1990s, how quickly societies would change and the demands they would impose (or not), to their democratically elected governments.  Similarly and as Manuel Castells points out, the virtual alternative and network space that have overtaken most societies over the last decade, have offered a platform for collective action and purpose outside the traditional institutional architecture.

Democratic governance as a system, without viable institutions that reflect people’s aspirations, can become atrophied.  As pointed out by the report on the governability of democracies to the Trilateral Commission, a key lesson from the past is that when democratic politics becomes more an arena for the assertion of conflicting and narrow interests than a process for the building and –re-building of common purposes, it leads to the delegitimation of authority and the loss of trust in leadership.  This is precisely why for democratic governance, whether at the global, national or sub-national levels, the prospect of re-connecting with citizens and people is a key challenge.  Any new strategy to rebuild bridges between governments and the governed cannot ignore the multifaceted and fast-paced context for democratic governance at all levels, and the challenges multi-level governance poses to policymaking. Ultimately, I think the crucial goal of democratic governance should be to continue to serve as means to promote societies with capacity to guide and organize their democratic institutions, in a way that people can have more and better opportunities to live according to their aspirations and values, and be involved in the decisions that affect them. How to do this is a different question altogether.  This dilemma points to the fact that the implications of rethinking democratic governance into a decade and a half of the 21st Century are profound. They challenge traditional concepts, old models, and ideological debates not only on the role of the state or the market, but also on the role of citizens.  Rather than going back to authoritarian and totalitarian aspirations, and/or believe that populist politicians have a magic wand to resolve complex challenges, it is time to actively seek answers to puzzling questions to help understand democratic governance and its complexities and move it forward.

People have changed, are changing and will continue to change.  So is and will collective action.  The digital age will continue to create a valid alternative to participation and to engage in policy issues.  Institutions are evolving, but not at the pace necessary to adapt to new realities.  In this context systems are being challenged to respond and to provide certainty.  These are today the main drivers of democratic governance.  I will try to shed some partial light into some of these complex issues in future articles.  I will focus both on key challenges and also on lessons and solutions.  I will bring learning from my applied and research work in democratic governance in over 40 countries, as well as inputs from my collaboration with many organizations, stakeholders, and students over the past two decades.  To say the least, it will be a modest contribution to the complex and multi-dimensional issue of democratic governance in the 21st Century.

Written by Gerardo Berthin

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Gerardo Berthin, a political scientist, who specializes in applied governance policy issues. This personal reflection is not intended to reflect the positions of organizations he is and/or has been affiliated with. All pictures unless otherwise noted are attributed to the author.

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