Many citizens in western democracies are now distrusting politicians and political institutions, and also feel increasingly powerless about the local and national political scenes. In a Dutch municipality, we experimented with a fundamental redesign of local democracy and public administration, drawing on principles of circular design. This local democracy has long suffered from majority-minority ploys and voting schemes, but has recently been transforming itself toward a consent-based culture of collaboration.
In many Western democracies, trust in public institutions and politicians is decreasing and a sense of powerlessness among many citizens is growing. These problems arise from a deficient democratic governance system that tends to generate substantial gaps between winners and losers. The deficiencies of democratic governance have been attributed to a lack of leadership and participatory governance as well as the limited scope and powers of participatory innovations.
Based on the sociocratic circular management approach, developed in the corporate world, the city council is repositioned as the "orchestrator of civil participation". In another hack, key principles of circular management (e.g. informed consent and double linking) are presented: http://www.managementexchange.com/users/georges-romme
In the Dutch municipality Utrechtse Heuvelrug (UH), a city of about 50,000 people, circular design principles were used to revitalize local democracy and create more effective local governance practices. The key objectives were to close the perceived gap between citizens and the administration of the municipality and to develop constructive collaborative ties between citizens, civil servants, and the council of mayor and aldermen.
As such, citizens, administrators, and civil servants in UH engaged in a collaborative search and learning process to identify solutions for policy formulation and decision-making that would fit the needs of all stakeholders. In this collective learning process, they observed that the knowledge and opinions of each individual participant may contribute to making high-quality decisions that are socially and politically legitimate. The approach subsequently developed in UH appears to enable participation by all those citizens who want to directly contribute (as well as any external experts), while the city council maintains its role as orchestrator of civil participation and also holds the final authority to make policy decisions.
Key challenges in renewing local democracy and municipal administration arise especially from the need to move decision-making by informed consent, in the context of the legal framework that implies majority voting. These challenges can be met by developing a consent-based collaborative culture, embedded in the legal framework. As such, no changes in formal regulations and legal frameworks are necessary.
The decision rule of consent is often mistaken as "consensus". However, consent is fundamentally different from consensus. The consent principle is widely used in the medical world, where it is known as "informed consent". Giving informed consent to particular proposal implies that one can "live" with it, after exchanging arguments and opinions in an extended dialogue. Informed consent, thus, is equated with the absence of an argued objection, whereas consensus refers to a full agreement that is often not attainable. Notably, the consent principle is fundamental to the American constitution as well as the constitutions of other western democracies (i.e. "The people should be governed by their own consent").
Romme, A.G.L., J. Broekgaarden, C. Huijzer, A. Reijmer & R.A.I. van der Eyden, "From Competition and Collusion to Consent-Based Collaboration: A Case Study of Local Democracy". Forthcoming in International Journal of Public Administration, 2017: