#12 power
Michelle Ruesch / Oliver Märker

More Top-Down Participation, Please! Institutionalized empowerment through open participation

Power, political participation, digital society – these words instantly recall images of the Arab spring and Egyptian blogging. Of the recent protests in Istanbul organized via text messages and Twitter. Of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. Of hacktivism, of Campact and its promotion of offline political actions, and of websites like ipaidabribe.com for its fight against corruption.

Worldwide, electronic media are being used as tools for new forms of political participation. Much has been written and said about the empowering potential of the Internet and mobile phones. Media and social movement studies have done their jobs. [1] Studies have notably stressed the potential of the Internet as a space that not only facilitates fast and cost-efficient communication across geographic distances, but also enables the bypassing of traditional, state controlled media [2].

In the digital age, people are therefore no longer only the recipients of messages. Blogs and social networks have enabled them to become creators as well. Regarding the power of the media in political opinion making, communications scholars Nick Couldry and James Curran [3] see the increased autonomy of citizens in direct media production as "an emergent form of social power". With alternative news spreading, citizens can reshape social realities and put pressure on political elites. Moreover, digital media are also seen to help empower civil society by facilitating the coordination and organization of political action, be it on-site demonstrations or online flashmobs. [4] Put in a nutshell using the words of political scientist Lance Bennett: "The scale of protest on a global level seems impossible without the global communication and coordination capabilities of the Internet." [5]

This is not another article on the empowering potential of bottom-up digital political participation.

However, this is not another article on the empowering potential of bottom-up digital political participation. Quite the contrary: It instead seeks to stress the empowering potential of top-down digital political participation. Strikingly, the democratic institutionalization of (digital) political participation is rarely considered when we speak about power in the context of political participation. Wouldn't it be true empowerment though if the right of citizens to speak their minds were directly integrated into political and administrative decision-making processes?

Institutionalized political participation

Political participation, defined as any act that aims to influence politics in some way, can be initiated either by citizens, referred to as "bottom-up" participation, or by government, often referred to as "top-down" participation. [6] For many, the word "top-down" instantly evokes negative connotations, even though top-down participatory spaces are actually the foundation of democracy. These are the spaces of participation offered by the state and guaranteed by democratic constitutions. For a long time, top-down participation could be equated with formal democratic participation such as elections, referenda or party politics. Today, however, in states like Germany we can observe a new form of top-down political participation, namely government-initiated participation that goes beyond what is legally required and usually makes extensive use of digital media.

Like many other Western states, Germany has to cope with decreasing voter turnout and a lack of trust in political parties. At the same time, according to a recent study from 2012 [7], two-thirds of eligible voters would like to be more involved in political decisions. The case of "Stuttgart 21" served as a late wake-up call for many German municipalities. Plans to construct a new train station in the center of the city of Stuttgart resulted in a petition for a local referendum, which was rejected. Protests against the train station culminated in widespread demonstrations in 2010, forcing construction to be halted. Even though a referendum was finally held in 2011 and a slight majority voted in favor of the train station, the Stuttgart 21 case has since been cited by Chancellor Angela Merkel [8] and others as an example of the negative consequences of taking decisions without consulting with citizens early on. More and more municipalities and federal ministries in Germany have therefore started acknowledging that the conventional democratic model of participation in elections every few years is no longer sufficient. The Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, for example, published a manual for "good participation" in urban development projects. [9]

At the same time, these new forms of "semi-formal" top-down participation have taken advantage of the rapid expansion of access to the Internet in Germany. At the beginning of the 21st century, about one third of Germans used the Internet- Today more than 75 percent are online. [10] Conventional methods like roundtables have therefore been complemented by web-based participatory spaces. Since it facilitates interactive, transparent and low-threshold communication, the Internet is even increasingly used as the main channel of participation. A new form of participation aimed at garnering early feedback on urban planning projects, law amendments or budgetary decisions has therefore evolved in recent years. It is top-down, semi-formal open participation mainly conducted online which is often referred to as "e-participation". However, we prefer to refer to it as "open participation" as this form of participation is not distinguished by the medium, the Internet, but rather its openness and voluntary character. [11]

Open participation processes are usually initiated in a "top-down" manner.

Open participation processes are usually initiated in a "top-down" manner: municipalities, ministries or other types of governmental institutions voluntarily create participatory spaces for citizens to use. These spaces are online platforms, often supported by offline events, in which citizens, politicians and administrative staff can engage in dialogue. They are not direct democratic instruments, as their goal is to engage in qualitative dialogue and develop solutions together rather than to ask citizens to vote for or against a policy that has already been developed behind closed doors.

One of the most widely tested new forms of government-initiated participation in Germany is the participatory budgeting process, which opens the budget planning process to citizen proposals. Citizens discuss their ideas and prioritize them. Unlike participatory budgeting in other countries, there is no concrete budget. Instead citizens can usually make proposals regarding the whole budget, including ideas on how to reduce expenses. Moreover, given that participants are usually not representative, citizens are valued as "consultants" rather than decision-makers. [12]

What's so great about top-down participation?

Semi-formal top-down participation processes have one major thing in common, regardless of the topic they address: Governmental institutions voluntarily open up a space for dialogue and thereby obligate themselves to take citizens' concerns and ideas into account.

As a consequence, government-initiated participation offers the potential for institutionalized empowerment beyond elections. It grants the possibility of integrating participation into political and administrative decision-making processes.

Firstly, the institutionalization of participation benefits citizens by giving them an official platform on which they can voice their opinions. Complaints, feedback and ideas can be addressed directly to the relevant political and administrative bodies. Rather than sending one-way messages, communication can become a dialogue. In the case of the new Schönefeld Airport in Berlin, residents would have liked to have had more participation instead of just shouting out one-way messages at protests. [13] While bottom-up demonstrations do not ensure that the message expressed ever reaches the addressee, top-down participation presumes a certain level of willingness to listen and receive messages on the part of the government. The right to be heard is institutionalized. Secondly, as the case of Stuttgart 21 showed, top-down participation is also beneficial to governments. Getting to know the people's needs, fears and ideas can help an administration make decisions about policies, budget plans or laws that satisfy citizens.

Bottom-up participation will surely always be an important mobilizer of democratic change. Nevertheless, the provision of spaces of open participation by governments can aid in the institutionalization of citizens' involvement in political decision-making. Had Stuttgart offered an open space of participation early in the train station construction process, maybe protests would never have escalated the way they did.

So is top-down participation the next step in the process of democratization? It could be, but only under certain conditions. Most importantly, top-down open participation requires a genuine willingness to abandon the old principle of doing business behind closed doors. This is not an easy undertaking; it requires time and endurance. Serious open participation also requires creating state institutions that ensure the relevance of the results by evaluating them and considering them in political decisions. We have formulated ten conditions that we consider necessary for the genuine institutionalization of open political participation [14]:

  1. There needs to be some scope for decision-making. Top-down participation only makes sense when the results of the participation can influence decisions.
  2. The government must genuinely aim to integrate the results into decision-making processes.
  3. The limits of participation must be communicated clearly. Citizens must be informed if final decision-making power rests with a political body, for example.
  4. The subject matter, rules and procedures need to be transparent.
  5. Citizens need to be aware that they have the opportunity to participate.
  6. Access to participation must be easy, the channels of participation chosen according to the citizens’ media habits. Using the Internet should not be a goal in itself.
  7. The participatory space should be “neutral ground”. A moderator can help ensure this.
  8. The set-up must be interactive. Providing information is only a prerequisite for participation.
  9. Participation must be possible without providing real names or personal data.
  10. Citizens must receive continuous feedback regarding how results are handled and the implementation process.

If citizens do not see the participatory space as legitimate, top-down participation is doomed to failure.

There is still a lot to do in Germany. Not only does open participation require willingness on the part of the government to give citizens a say in political decisions and to relinquish a certain degree of control over decisions; it also requires old bureaucratic structures be abandoned in favor of more open political and administrative decision-making processes. At the same time, it necessitates a level of trust in the government on the part of citizens. If citizens do not see the participatory space as legitimate or are not willing to engage in some kind of dialogue, top-down participation is doomed to failure. The reshaping of political culture will take time and requires a learning process on all fronts. Cases like the Brazilian pioneering city Porto Alleger's participatory budgeting process can serve as role models for the democratization of political institutions.

Since institutionalizing participation is already extremely difficult in democratic countries such as Germany, how could it work in illiberal regimes where bottom-up participation is even more important? There is, of course, still a long way to go. At some point though, these regimes might also realize that smarter governments are the ones that listen to their citizens. They might decide to save themselves a lot of discontent, violence and bad press for the sake of better and more widely supported decisions.


[1] See, for example, Cammaerts, B. & Carpentier, N. (2007). Reclaiming the Media: Communication Rights and Democratic Media Roles. Intellect Books.

[2] See, for example, Bennett, L., (2003) "New Media Power: TheInternet and Global Activism" from Couldry, N. and Curran, J., Contesting Media Power: Alternative Media in the Networked World   pp.17-38, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

[3] Couldry, N. & Curran, J. (2003). Contesting Media Power: Alternative Media in a Networked World. Rowman & Littlefield.

[4] Downing, John D.H. (2001). Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements. Sage Publications.

[5] Bennett, L., (2003) "New Media Power: TheInternet and Global Activism" from Couldry, N. and Curran, J., Contesting Media Power: Alternative Media in the Networked World   pp.17-38, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

[6] Albrecht, S., Kohlrausch, N., Kubicek, H., Lippa, B., Märker, O., Trénel, M., Vorwerk, V., Westholm, H. & Wiedwald, C. (Eds.) (2008). eParticipation –  Electronic Participation of Citizens and the Business Community in eGovernment. Study by Zebralog and ifib on Behalf of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Division IT 1, Bremen.

[7] Infratest dimap (2012). Was Bürger können: Ergebnisse einer Repräsentativstudie von Infratest dimap. Im Auftrag der Herbert-Quandt-Stiftung und der Stiftung Zukunft Berlin.

[8] DAPD Nachrichtenagentur (2011, June 6). Merkel will mehr Bürgerbeteiligung.

[9] Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development (2012). Handbuch für eine gute Bürgerbeteiligung.

[10] Initiative D21 (2013). Anteil der Internetnutzer in Deutschland von 2001 bis 2013. Statistika.

[11] Ruesch, M. A., Basedow, S. & Korte, J. (2012). From E to O: Towards Open Participation as a Guiding Principle of Open Government. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 7452, pp. 254 - 263

[12] Schröter, N. (2013). 6th Status Report: Participatory Budgeting in Germany, Buergerhaushalt.org. Engagement Global/Service Agency Communities in One World and Federal Agency of Civic Education. 

[13] Von Törne, L. (2012, February 7). Bürger wollen sich stärker einbringen. Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin.

[14] Also see Zebralog’s Guidelines for Good Participation on http://www.zebralog.com/guidelines