Interview with Democracy Scholar Gerry Stoker on Designing More Inclusive Governance

Gerry Stoker, Professor of Politics at the University of Southampton

Gerry Stoker - Professor of Politics and Governance at the University of Southampton, UK and a recent Distinguished Academic Visitor at the Australian National University in Canberra - delivered a colloquium lecture during a visit to the University of Sydney on 18 August.

Professor Stoker is a leading expert on democratic politics, and public service and participation reform. He is also the head of the University of Southampton’s Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance.

His talk - entitled “Redesigning Democracy: Pitfalls and Prospects”- evaluated contemporary patterns of public engagement in democratic systems.

In this brief Q&A, Professor Stoker discusses what he believes is broken about democratic governance, and how policymakers and civil society can fix it.


Q&A with Gerry Stoker

The talk you will be giving today centres around "Redesigning Democracy." In your opinion, why is there a need to fix the current political system?

There are probably three substantial issues to address.

One is a set of very negative attitudes that people have towards mainstream institutions, whether they be parties, governments or parliaments. I think that's borne out across all of the established democracies.

Then, there's an issue of people's disengagement from political practices and behaviours. Very few people seem to do anything political.

The third issue is who is engaging in politics. There's quite substantial inequality in those citizens that are actually doing politics.

I'm not suggesting there's a crisis, but I do think there are symptoms of some kind of malaise within the political regimes of many established democracies.

You have written that that political disengagement was also evident in the 1950s. Is there anything different about the current period that is different or alarming to you?

If you go back and look at the data that was collected as part of the Civic Culture Study (Almond and Verba, 1960) in the UK and you compare it to the data that was collected at the beginning of the 21st Century, what we find is that actually people are more interested in politics. There's a substantial increase in the number of people who say they are interested in politics and willing to talk about politics. That makes sense because British society is more educated, more capable of having the capacity to think and talk about politics.

But alongside that sense of people being more interested, there seems to be increasing numbers of people who have lost faith in the capacity of all political institutions and parties. Also, people have substantially downgraded their understanding of how much they can actually influence the political system.

The problem is that [citizens] now probably have higher expectations, but also an expectation on their part that they're not going to get much of a response from the political system.

When you talk about building a new politics, what do you think that should look like? How should that differ from what we have today?

It is difficult to be certain what it is that would actually change the way our political system works. What I think you'd want is something where people felt that their engagement is more likely to make a difference and that their engagement was more worthwhile.

There probably are some changes to the electoral system that would make it more competitive and open. There probably are shifts in power-sharing that you could make. Certainly in the United Kingdom, we have a very centralised system of government. It should be possible to develop a much more decentralised one, opening up more opportunity for people to engage.

We can develop beyond electoral politics a range of other participative techniques for people to get engaged and express their views. So there are some levers there that we could try and pull to deal with these issues.

With voters so suspicious or ambivalent toward government, can change come from within government or does it have to come from outside?

It would be difficult to imagine change coming solely from within government itself. It's almost got to come from civil society as well.

I think elites are getting increasingly nervous about the sense that they have so much antipathy and difficulty expressed about their practices and performance. They perhaps are now more open to reform discussions than they would've been even a decade ago.

A kind of weakness is that there are a lot of civil organisations that are campaigning on particular policy issues, but there aren't very many that are campaigning on how we create a better political system. It's only occasionally that you get the kind of constitutional moment - for example, when the move was being made to Scottish devolution and you had a constitutional convention with lots of different people talking about how to make a different kind of politics in Scotland - from which you maybe will be able to get some substantial change.

Another component of your research is looking at democratic systems in long-established democracies, like the United Kingdom and Australia. What are some of the differences in enacting change in mature democracies versus emerging democracies?

The main difference is that in mature democracies you're engaged in a much more complicated process of institutional change, and you're engaged in a change process that's less likely to be mandated or enforced from international organisations and international bodies. It therefore makes the process of reform much more complex because you're probably going to be talking about gradual institutional change.

You're talking about change that is layered on top of past practice. You're talking about change that might be just modifying rather than simply replacing the previous system. It's inherently more reformist and inherently more complex.

Are there lessons that emerging democracies can take from what's happening in mature democracies?

I actually think it's the other way around. Some of the emerging democracies may begin the seeds of the practices that will get more people engaged.

The most promoted among them is the process of participatory budgeting, which developed in Brazil and went around to different parts of Latin America. It has become a quite common practice in many emerging democracies, but now is increasingly being taken up within established democracies.

In many ways, it's one of those situations where the learning needs to be from the emerging democracies towards the established democracies.