About Civic Activism

Civic activism, civic engagement and civic participation are alternative terms for a broadly common concept, one definition of which is:

“…the social norms, organisations, and practices which facilitate greater citizen involvement in public policies and decisions. These include access to civic associations, participation in the media, and the means to participate in civic activities such as nonviolent demonstration or petition. Civic activism is essential in ensuring that public institutions function in an accountable and transparent manner, with participation and representation for all.” 

 

Consequently civic activism is a concept that is fundamentally concerned with democracy. Democracy has a long history, with origins tracing at least as far back as ancient Greece. Over the centuries the practice and depth of democracy has ebbed and flowed, evolved and taken various forms from the purely nominal to the truly participatory. In the modern era, specific models of democracy tend to be drawn from one of two main schools of thought:

  1. Representative democracy is a form of government founded on the principle of elected individuals representing the people, as opposed to autocracy or direct democracy. Elected representatives may hold the power to select other representatives, or other officers of government or of the legislature, such as a Prime Minister. A characteristic of representative democracy is that while the representatives are elected by the people to act in the people's interest, they retain the freedom to exercise their own judgement as how best to do so. The vast majority of democratic states in the world, including the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are primarily representative democracies. 
  2. Direct democracy is a form of democracy in which people decide policy initiatives directly, as opposed to through elected representatives. Whilst many countries practice elements of direct democracy, such as referenda (e.g. in ROI) and citizens’ initiatives (e.g. in the US State of California) very few have adopted it as their primary model of government, Switzerland being a rare exception. One, more nuanced, form of direct democracy which seeks to complement rather than replace representative democracy is participatory democracy.

Participatory democracy is a process emphasizing the broad participation of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems. Participatory democracy strives to create opportunities for all members of a population to make meaningful contributions to decision-making, and seeks to broaden the range of people who have access to such opportunities. 

Civic activism is therefore a concept and an approach that takes inspiration from the direct, and especially participatory democracy school of thought.  

In recent decades, the case for a more participatory model of representative democracy has been gradually gaining traction.  One key critique of representative democracy is that it can be elitist, centralising power in the hands of a few individuals and limiting the role of the general population to periodic voting. Indeed there are a number of common contextual trends across ‘western’ countries that would suggest that this is occurring, in particular falling electoral turnouts, rapidly declining membership of political parties and a crisis of public faith in politicians. Furthermore, a generally better informed and educated population weakens the argument of those who suggest citizens don’t have the requisite expertise to participate in decisions around complex issues. Participatory democracy, and civic activism, seeks to address this elitism through placing more power in the hands of individual citizens, with one key role of elected representatives being to facilitate this. The need to engage with citizens more deeply has been recognised by politicians and government too, for example, Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society initiative, the Speaker of the House of Common’s Digital Democracy Commission, the Republic of Ireland’s Convention on the Constitution and both the UK and Ireland’s participation in the Open Government Partnership initiative.

  • These international trends suggestive of a hollowing out of representative democracy resonate in Northern Ireland too, but there are also a number of other factors at local level which support the case for deeper engagement between government and citizens:
  • The establishment of the NI Assembly at Stormont and an increased focus on ‘bread and butter issues’;
  • The requirement for government departments and public bodies to consult publicly on any substantive changes to policy; 
  • The Review of Public Administration, which has led to the restructuring of service delivery agencies and provision;
  • The accompanying review of Council boundaries and the additional powers which the new Councils will have from 2015, including Community Planning;
  • The recession, which has meant that Government's emphasis on efficiency, savings and cuts has been amplified, leading to changes in service provision.
  • The suspension of the Civic Forum, a formal mechanism provided for in the Good Friday Agreement for non-party political input into government decision-making