25. Oct. 2006

The Design determines the quality

Some criteria to determine
the design and the quality of Direct Democracy

From Andreas Gross (ADD, St-Ursanne, Switzerland)


Andreas Gross defends the hypothesis that in many countries the question is not anymore if the representative democratic system should be enlarged with some direct democratic elements but how to do this. In order to be able to answer this question Gross suggests the development of at least some elements of a theory and the profile of direct democracy to establish a set of requirements, what the design of Direct Democracy has to realise. Gross concludes by defending the point that the quality of Direct Democracy essentially depends from its design. As a consequence you may see that the failure of some direct democratic decision making processes can be explained by a bad design of its elements, for example a user unfriendliness or a bad designed interface between the bodies of representative democracy and the direct democratic processes.

1. The pedagogical design

One of the main intentions of those who fought for the introduction of direct democratic elements in contemporary democracy has been pedagogical.

The main actors of the Democratic Movement in the Swiss Cantons of the late 1860ís and the reformers of the Progressive Movement in the US-states of the west-coast in the early 20th Century or those persons who are engaged in the Democracy Initiative in the Province of South-Tyrol in the northern part of Italy in the 1990ís and the first decade of the 21st century: All fought and still fight for Direct Democracy in order to better educate the people, to bring more deliberations into public politics, to get decisions which are based on better informed decision makers and all saw this as a contribution to a society which learned more and better in the interest of all.1

In the sense of the historical and contemporary will of the founding actors of Direct Democracy a criteria to judge the quality of Direct Democracy would be the impact it had in order to increase the potentials for learning processes within a given society.

In this text I would like to show what this and other criteria to evaluate the quality of Direct Democracy means for the setting of the provisions for the Initiative-process, in other words for the design of Direct Democracy.

The importance of the Design of Direct Democracy and the setting of the provisions the political actors have to follow for the outcome and its quality have been generally underestimated. I think the questions how to address the usefulness of Direct Democracy are less if they favour conservative or progressive politics or if the citizens favour more or less change2, but if it is able to contribute to better informed citizens, if it empowers citizen to increase their self-determination and if it reduces their feeling of alienation and powerlessness. If Direct Democracy should produce such achievements its Design is essential.

There are different designs of Direct Democracy in the US-States and in Switzerland and there different mutual strengths and disadvantages have to be included in research which tries to investigate the usefulness of Direct Democracy as such. When John G. Matsusaka tries to establish «whether the initiative makes policy responsive to the will of the majority or increases the influence of narrow special interests» as he does in his last book3, it is a pity that he does not include the consideration of different existing designs of Direct Democracy which have different consequences for his central research interest.

This is another way to express the usefulness of the hypothesis, that today the question is not anymore, if there are any direct-democratic elements or not, but what kind of Direct Democracy there is and how it is designed.4 Thatís why I think more considerations should be invested in the way the provisions for the use of the direct democratic are set. This text would like to be a contribution to this common effort and investment.

In doing so I try to overcome the dilemma which might be illustrated by a paraphrase of Pierre Rosanvallon, who stated recently, that representative democracy imposed itself as a principle, at the same time as the way how it functions became more and more fragile. Concerning Direct Democracy one may say, that it started to function in a fragile way at the moment when its principles have not yet been recognised generally.5

2. The main products of direct democratic processes

In order to be able to develop an optimal design for the Direct Democratic processes we have to agree first on what this design should produce if it functions well. I would like to propose five major effects the design should optimize:

•   A maximum of communicative and deliberative exchanges and interactions between individual citizens, collective actors and organisations.

•    The more such communicative processes are produced in many different ways and directions and repetitions with in the same and changing groups of individuals the more collective learning processes might be initiated, stimulated and substantially indeapened.

•    Direct Democracy should open the political processes to all possible actors and issues: Nothing should be overlooked by anybody, nobody should not be heard.

•    By achieving an optimal deliberation and a real double openness the polity gets a maximum of legitimacy.

•    By really enabling most of the concerned people to be part of the decision making process Direct Democracy may produce more identification with the democratic polity and a kind of positive "democratic patriotism".

The design of the direct democratic provisions is different following the level (communal, municipal, regional, provincial, national, trans-national) and the historic as well cultural context of the polity in which it is supposed to be constituted. Each level has specific requirements, conditions and dangers which have to be respected in the design.6

3. The context factors of direct democratic provisions

The effectiveness of the design is of course influenced by context factors, which should not be forgotten. I donít think as many others that the size of the community in which Direct Democracy should be implemented, is decisive. The better people are educated, informed and able to judge political developments the more direct democracy will be productive. And when men and women are ignorant, noncomunicative, closed and illiterate than even a small village is too big to be organised in a direct democratic way.

Of course it helps the effectiveness of Direct Democracy too, when people are well educated as well as well informed in and by a pluralistic and discursive public sphere; as well as when the social and economic opportunities are well distributed and accessible to everybody and when there is a culture of empathy, solidarity and equity. And the fairer democracy functions, the better the human rights and minorities are protected and the more decentralised the political powers are organised the easier it will be to implement and use direct democratic rights.

But these social, economic and political context elements will never be as perfect as they should and could be. Many of the initiatives and propositions all over the world have been launched exactly to improve these context factors of live and democracy. With Amartya Sen one may say, that direct democracy is the way to get a better life; the better the conditions of life are the easier it will be to further improve it, but a good life is not the condition to get democracy or to be a good democrat. It helps to make a democratic being easier, but without democracy itís more difficult to improve anything Ė you just donít have any rights to do so.7

4. The communicative imperative in the Direct Democracy Design

If Sen defines Democracy as "Government by discussion"8, the soul of Direct Democracy is to make deliberation as general and intense as possible. It should be the main outcome of the direct democratic design9 as well as the main purpose in the making and the basic criteria in evaluation the set the provisions, which govern the direct democratic system.

How this essence should be understood and what consequences it has for essential design elements of Direct Democracy I would like to exemplify in four core elements of every direct democratic design which are on the same time essential for the communicative potential of the whole process: The way the necessary signatures have to be gathered, how high the requirements should be set which a citizen initiative has to realise in order to qualify for the ballot, the question if there should be any special majority requirements for validating the result of a vote and how the interface between the direct (citizen based) and indirect (parliamentary based) part of Democracy is organised. These for elements are not only decisive for the deliberative potentials for the Direct Democracy in work, but also for its openness, itís inclusiveness and for the integrative potentials it may realise.

5. How many signatures should be necessary to ask for a peopleís vote?

The essential innovation of Direct Democracy is not that there are referendums and peopleís votes. The essential difference is that in a Direct Democracy a small part of all the citizen have the right to bring any law decided in the Parliament (Citizen Referendum) or any proposition for a constitutional or legal change (Citizen Initiative or Proposition) to a referendum (peopleís vote), to a decision of all citizens.

This is it, what transforms the character of politics in a Direct Democracy and opens its polity: The right of a small part of all citizens to set a part of the agenda. In more general terms: If the freedom of expression is a basic human right, in a direct democracy a citizen also gets the right to be listened and to be heard. If a democracy means government by discussion, in a direct democracy also citizens get the right to propose the issues, which should be discussed.

Essential is therefore the question how big this minority should be in order to make it representative for a essential part of the people without limiting the possible use of this instrument to the powerful groups and parties already well represented in the pre-parliamentarian and parliamentarian phase of the decision making process. Or how small the number of the necessary signatures might be in order to open the process to as many groups as possible without loosing a certain selective capacity necessary to keep a certain representativity.

As a general rule I would say that for a citizen referendum to bring laws decided in the Parliament to a Peopleís vote the amount of signatures which have to be gathered within letís say 100 days should not exceed one percent of the citizens who have the right to vote. For the right to submit any propositions to legal or constitutional changes not more than 2 percent of the electorate in at least one year are enough.

These comparatively low requirements would create the big advantages to be more open to weaker political groups and positions and to create more integrativeness and responsiveness than requirements around 3, 5 or even 10 or 15 percent as are to be in the US-States and some German Bundesländer, which turn Direct Democracy in a user unfriendly system, which means undermine the directness of itís intention.

6. Why low signature requirements are useful in a good Direct Democracy Design and what they create:

• Give power to the powerless
• Helps to integrate minorities and guarantees diversity
• Less interests and needs might be ignored
• Unsolved problems can be harder overlooked
• The Polity is personally and substantially more open

7. How the necessary signatures should be gathered

Especially when it comes to the question how to increase the communicative potentials of Direct Democracy the question how the signatures should be gathered is as much important as the question how many there have to be gathered.

The motivation to discuss politics is bigger if a question to do so may also trigger an immediate effect and action although latter may seem only of a limited size. Therefore citizens should be allowed to ask fellow-citizens to sign a demand for a referendum whenever they meat and might want to speak about politics and act respectively. The duty to have to this at an official place (Police-station or city centre) with all the related organisatorial limitations reduces the motivation to address unknown people on the street. And it is one of the greatest experiences and motivations for engaged citizens to be allowed to address unknown citizens where ever they are to be meat and having to listen to them disagreeing might be one of the important lessons and opportunity to learn and to improve ones one ability to deliberate.

The reason why in some countryís official places are seen as necessary has a procedural background. The authorities have to make sure that nobody signs the same request twice. Thatís why they ask for the signature in an official list at a public office. This logic necessity should however not to be realised in the same moment of the initiative process as the gathering of the signatures. The prize one would pay by limiting the communicative potential in the signature gathering process would be too high. There for this should be given free and the obligation to check that nobody signs twice should be realised by the obligation to sign only on the list of the village, where you live, and then to have to send this list to the communal centre of this village in order to check the validity and the uniqueness of the signature.

8. No special quorums or other special majority qualifications should be asked

If the essential challenge in a direct-democratic competition is to convince the majority of citizens by means of communication and deliberation of the wisdom of your arguments, those who want to win without convincing should not be supported.

But by introducing a requirement of representative democracy Ė in a Parliament you need a majority of letís say two third of the members in order to be representative not only for the parties in government but of the whole society - in the process of direct democracy and asking for special majority requirements - such as 50% of those who have the right to vote should have participated (Participation-quorum) in the vote or 30% of those who have the right to vote should have been voting for the change (Consent-quorum) Ė you would do exactly this: Examples in the German and Italian history show more than evidently, that opponents of any change appeal to there supporters not to go and vote, because undermining the quorum requirements seem to them more effective than to try to convince the majority of the citizens of the own point of view. Such a requirement would mean that a non-voter would have the same functional character as a no-voter, which does not make sense. To be free means also to be free not to take part in a vote Ė if you are ready to leave the decision to those who go to vote - and such a use of freedom should not be identified with a voter whoís intention is to oppose a change.

When all is about communication those who obstruct the debate because by doing so they hope that not as many citizens as necessary might be mobilized should not be awarded by an easy win. Those who obstruct should loose; if you want to win you have to communicate better, more and more effectively. Those who take part in a referendum, they will make the difference; the majority of those who took part in the vote will decide it.

9. The interface between indirect and direct Democracy

In a Direct Democracy not only individuals have to and should be exposed to potential learning processes but also groups and institutions as parties and parliaments. Thatís why it is so important how the interface between the citizen-actors and the representativesí bodies, the Parliament and the Government are organised. The way this is done is decisive for the question if there will be a cooperative and more communication-intense culture between direct and indirect democracy or a more antagonistic adversarial and less communicative relation.

The latter you get when a citizen initiative has not to be discussed in the parliament or this is done only occasionally and in a later stage of the process, just before the peoples vote. This is to be seen in many of the US-States.

The more cooperative then antagonistic culture you get, if the Parliament is obliged to discuss a citizen initiative, has to vote on it and has even the right to react to it with a own proposal related to the subject but giving the change another scope or another tendency which has to be submitted to the citizens in the same ballot but in a specific way which offers every citizen three choices: No change, the change as intended by the citizen initiative or the change as it has been proposed by the majority of the parliament.

Such a duty and such a right of the Parliament will create in the pre-parliamentarian, the parliamentarian and the campaign stages of the debates much more deliberations and interactions by many different actors and would therefore increase the mutual understanding and learning processes enormously.

Essential for realizing this potential are the time- provisions set in the initiative and the referendum-processes: The shorter they are and the quicker every thing has to be done the less interactions, deliberations and exchanges within many groups are realised, the more exclusive the process will be and the smaller the learning effects and outcome will become.

This is one of the essential reasons why Direct Democracy has nothing to do with quick fix or fast food democracy, but is a time consuming process of many years and with more then eight essential stages, which each needs time to realise its communicative needs and potentials in order to realise as much collective learning in as many parts of the society as possible.

Andreas Gross

Nach oben

Anmerkung 1

Anmerkung 2

Anmerkung 3

Anmerkung 4

Anmerkung 5

Anmerkung 6

Anmerkung 7

Anmerkung 8

Anmerkung 9

For the US-Movements see e.g. Smith, Daniel A. and Tolbert, Caroline J. Educated by initiative, The effects of Direct Democracy on citizens and political ogranisations in the american states, University of Michigan, 2004 and Piott, Steven L. Giving Voters a Voice, The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America, University of Missouri, 2003; concerning the Democracy Movement in Zürich see Gross, Andreas Das Design der Direkten Demokratie und ihre Qualitäten, Erfahrungen und Reformideen im Vergleich zwischen Kalifornien,Schweiz und den deutschen Bundesländern, in: Schiller/Mittendorf, Direkte Demokratie, Wiesbaden, 2002 and the articles on the website www.andigross.ch; concerning the Direct Democracy Initiative in South Tyrol see the website of the citizenmovement www.dirdemdi.org.

For a traditional approach see Matt Qvortrup, Government by the people? The consent of the dominated: Referenda in Europe 1945-2006, paper presented to the House of Commons, London, 2006.

Matsusaka, John G., For the Many ort he Few, The Initaitive, Public Policy and American Democracy, The University of Chicago Press, 2004, p.12

See the Nachwort von Theo Schiller und Andreas Gross in Klages, Andreas und Paulus, Petra, Direkte Demokratie in Deutschland Ė Impulse aus der deutschen Einheit, Marburg 1996

Pierre Rosanvallon, La democratie inachevee, Histoire de la souverainetť du peuple en France, Paris 2000 p.13

See fort he transnational european level Andreas Gross, Basic EU requirements for a really productive transnational Citizens Initiative Process, A Dialoge For Europe Project Frankfurt a.M, September 2006, on: www.andigross.ch

Sen, Amartya La democratie des autres, Paris 2006, p.60ff

ebenda p.46

See part 3 of this text

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