In every political campaign headquarters all over the world, special advisors and strategists are working to find new and innovative ways to increase voter turnout. But where do the voters go then? Do they stay involved in the campaign? Do they know the battles fought to deliver what was promised, or the details of why it wasn’t possible this time?
People’s association with organizations that purport to represent their interests – political parties, trade unions, religious institutions, and community-based organizations are at historic lows, as is their trust in government institutions.
Political engagement is a principle, not a hobby
A robust democracy depends on a strong turn-out at elections. However, without participation beyond election time by citizens in political decisions, through consultation, citizens’ panels and forums, and extended deliberative dialogue, the electorate feel totally detached. Low levels of participation have a lot to do with cynicism about the political process, but long hours in paid employment add to the disincentives and help to create a vicious cycle of disengagement.
A report prepared for the Ford Foundation by Hahrie Han a political science professor at the University of California, sets out a framework for how people can participate in the political process in ways that build their sense of agency and encourage further participation:
Means to engage. People must be able to participate. We need to remove barriers to participation and implement policies and procedures that make it easier for people to vote.
Motivated to engage. People must want to participate. It’s not enough for voting to be easy; people have to want to take part.
Meaningful engagement. People must feel their participation actually matters. It must have a tangible impact on policy decisions, and improve people’s lives.
Democracy takes time
Learning about political issues, getting involved in decision-making, joining and supporting political parties, campaigning and voting all take time.
Those who work 40+ hour weeks, participate in family life, social life and take part in a hobby, simply do not have time to engage in their communities in a meaningful way without feeling like they have to sacrifice something else.
Freeing up time for participation will enrich civil society, strengthen democratic processes, and make it easier for voters to hold politicians to account.