How Do Civil Society Associations Promote Deliberative Democracy?

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How Do Civil Society Associations

Promote Deliberative Democracy?1

By Douglas Chalmers

Columbia University

Civil society organizations make (at least) five types of contributions to the cognitive side of political deliberation2 –knowledge of the conditions of affected groups, best practices, understandings of underlying factors, evaluations of claims made and space for discussion. Whether or not these contributions are significant in any particular case, or whether they promote democracy will depend on, among other things, the informal institutions that link civil society associations together, and to the polity.

Many believe that strengthening civil society in Latin American countries will strengthen democracy. Others think that civil society associations weaken and fragment the political parties and government institutions on which democracy depends. In this paper I take both as serious possibilities, and look for a way to discover what factors make the difference.

Those factors will surely include the overall political conditions (e.g., the regime and whether it is legitimate), the size and resource base of the civil society organizations themselves, and the quality of their leadership. In this short essay, I want to highlight two other factors, the politically relevant structure of civil society itself, and the institutions and practices which have evolved linking civil society and the state. In this I am joining with many others who respond to the question of whether civil society organizations are promoting democracy by saying, “It depends on the political context.” I share the view that, with the exception of situations of breakdown, civil society organizations cannot substitute for the state or political parties. But on the other hand, I believe that in contemporary circumstances, parties and government depend on civil society associations. The issue at hand is to discover what sort of relationship between them works.

Even narrowing the topic of democratizing factors to the self-organization and political links of civil society, however, leaves an enormous agenda. In this paper I will deal with only one – but an important – aspect of the relationships of civil society associations and politics. I start from the observation that civil society associations’ positive and negative contributions to democratic politics can’t be understood without discussing how they fit into the cognitive side of deliberative politics. NGO’s, social movements, labor unions, special interest groups, professional associations, think tanks, neighborhood organizations, self help organizations, environmental groups and all the other formations in the rapidly changing world of civil society organizations generate information and ideas, and help (or hinder) debate and discussion. All political actors, including those in civil society, do other things in politics – represent interests in political bargaining, participate in election campaigns, have a share in implementing policies, demonstrate to influence legislators, even riot to delegitimize power holders. But another thing they do is to gather information, conduct research, formulate strategies and debate with many others on what the real preferences of actors are, what the circumstances are that shape opportunities, and what, in the end, will work. It is my contention that without assessing the role of civil society in this deliberative process, we will miss important contributions to democracy made by civil society, as well as arenas where they may do the most damage.

A plea for including the cognitive side of politics

Highlighting the role of civil society associations in cognitive politics requires not only changing our optic for observing civil society, but for politics itself. The modern tools of political analysis have made impressive strides by assuming ideas in the real world are simply at the service of interests, that preferences can be assumed as given, and that knowledge of the situation is known imperfectly but consistently. They have done so by assuming that discussion, clarification, research, and thinking through problems happens before ‘politics’, or somehow only on the periphery.

But it remains a fact that much of the activity of politics lies in figuring out what to do, what lines of action actually might produce desirable outcomes, what, in fact, desirable outcomes are, what are the concrete meaning of competing abstract moral principles, and many other puzzles that we collectively work through. It involves a constant flow of information and analysis, good and bad, relevant and not, generated for various reasons: to buttress demands, as part of a professional commitment, or to satisfy curiosity. Governments compile statistics, parties conduct formal or informal polls to assess public mood, government agencies and commissions put together talking points and analyses of problems and potential solutions and many other products of data, processed into usable form, which we call information.

I believe that assuming away these processes, or assuming that they take place before, or on the periphery of ‘real’ politics may soon prove a costly intellectual strategy. The enormous increase in available data, analytical skills and the experimental and imaginative means to confront theories with information will, I think, demand closer attention to those processes. The endless half-truths and misstatements of politicians and officials, and the secrecy and calculated ignorance surrounding important decisions, are being challenged. Not necessarily by truth seekers, but by people with more information and more ability to use it. Attention must shift from the question of how ideas are strategically used – which is the tendency of much modern analysis of the politics of ideas, to how this information, true and false, fits into a process of ascertaining truth, testing ideas, and exploring possibilities.

If this cognitive side of politics is significant, then, I am arguing, assessing any set of actors in politics, requires that we assess whether they are important in this cognitive process. To say that an environmental group or an organization concerned with micro-credit for women is playing a significant political role, we may, and should, ask if the interests of the groups they identify with prevail in the ‘who gets what’ of politics. On the other hand, it is wholly possible, and even likely, that their significant role may be to interject information which alters the terms of the debate, provides analyses which lead groups to redefine their preferences, make projections which affect how people think of the range of possible actions, and other dimensions which may not even redound to ‘their’ group’s benefit. Significance should not always be measured by making some set of interests prevail.

One way to looking at what I am calling cognitive politics is to ask if ‘ideas are important’ in determining policy. That is a misleading formulation, however, because it is only one form of importance to have a fixed idea which prevails. Most of the civil society organizations and groups that play an important role, I believe, do so by becoming involved in the process of gathering information and participating in the many analytical, information and theory driven debates, discussions, researches, explorations and investigations going on in the political process. It is not just an idea prevailing, but rather participation in structuring the ever changing ideas.

The reason for insisting on this additional dimension of politics, the cognitive one, is not to promote a new reductionism. I don’t believe that one can explain enduring social inequality, the conjunction of extraordinary strides in productivity along with dramatic economic instability, or the persistent fragility of democratic institutions without recourse to the play of interested power holders, for whom the ‘search for truth’ may be simply a matter of hiring the right experts. But the cognitive dimensions are important not only for understanding outcomes, but also, and particularly for understanding the institutions of democracy – the elements of that regime which make processes concrete and predictable. Consolidation of democracy must include the arrangement of institutions which will make good decisions based on good information. The concern for democratic governance, for the strength and quality of institutions, for all those elements which constitute the stable elements of a regime or a political system, require attention to cognitive politics.

My purpose here, however, is not to rewrite institutional analysis, but rather to suggest that on the topic of much discussion – on this panel and throughout the profession and in society – the role of a growing civil society, I believe we will miss perhaps the major element of its impact – good or bad – on democratic governance, if we do not assess its role in that cognitive dimension of politics. The weakness of civil society associations as well as its strength, I believe, require including that dimension.

Civil society associations and cognitive politics

What role do the NGO’s think tanks, advocacy groups, local associations and other civil society associations play? Here I wish to suggest five areas where civil society organizations may have a significant contribution to make – or significant mischief to perform. They are meant to be suggestive, not exhaustive. These are

·          the provision of knowledge of localities and population groups relevant to policy

·          information about ‘best practices’ or the way in which similar problems have been addressed is other places

·          understandings of the fundamental factors affecting success and failure in this policy area, i.e., the relevant theory,

·          on going assessments of the claims of other actors in the debate, and

·          provision of venues in which stakeholders and other important actors can carry on the necessary deliberation.

All but the last may take the form of legislative proposals, manifestos to the press, informal advice, memos to parties, legislators or government officials, or in may other forms. In part this will depend on the practices and norms which I will call second level institutions, which I will touch on after I discuss each type of contribution briefly.

In this discussion, I want to highlight what appear to be advantages and disadvantages a civil society association has over more central actors (political parties, government officials, or legislators), more importantly, the advantages and disadvantages that the ensemble of all the civil society associations have over them, and the sort of pathologies that might result.

1. Knowledge of affected groups: NGO’s, neighborhood associations, women’s movements, human rights groups or professional or commercial associations claim, with considerable justice, to know the conditions of their clienteles or constituencies better than government officials and local politicians. If politicians and officials have been dealing with a problem affecting a groups for a long time, they may have more or better information, and given their broader responsibilities, better suited to work into legislation or policy. But in the complexity of social life, there are almost certainly clusters of people, e.g., women in the workplace, or residents along a waterway that crosses state boundaries, or indigenous communities across a country, who have not and may never play the kind of role in electoral politics or administrative activities which would have made them subject of study by politicians or government officials. Such groups do, however, become the object of legislation or policy.

Not certainly, but with some relatively high probability, civil society associations which have been formed to deal specifically with that set of people will be able to provide the necessary information about the attitudes, physical conditions, and likely reactions of that set. Not only may they have worked with such groups and acquired such information, but they may also be less inclined to distort the information in the interest of some broader political agenda, or skew it to fit some official government version.

But the issue is clearer if we look at it from the point of view of the political system as a whole, and not just the relative merits of one politician, official or NGO. Given the complexity and rapid change in policy problems, a rich and complex array of civil society associations will be able to generate better information than politicians or officials about groups that are constantly being defined and redefines in legislation – such as teen mothers or those affected by environmental regulations on land use in watersheds. Existing specialized groups may be relevant, or groups or coalitions may form specifically for a policy debate. Sometimes, it is true, the general view of the official or politicians will be crucial, but often it will need to be matched with the precise information of suitably organized groups.

This is not simply an argument for building affected people into the decision making process. Democratic norms concerning deliberative democracy often put emphasis on building in the those being affected into the process of legislation. This is desirable for many reasons, in part because some things about their own situation can only be really known by the people themselves. But it is not always completely true that the command all the information about ‘their’ own experience. It is not always certain that a representative of the group, by themselves knows the situation of the group best. If the group is dispersed, (such as indigenous populations), or if it is newly identified (such as those affected by pollution from a production process), or those affected by a ‘hidden’ social process (such as the members of one or another underground economy), the ‘experts’ will often be as important as the participants in identifying the factors which impinge on that population, and which are crucial for policy. Both expert and participant information is needed to ground policies. It is plausible that the need for that combination, and the increasing availability of the experts, is one of the structural reasons for the emergence of the NGO sector.

Saying that they may have such information does not, of course argue that all civil society associations do in fact have good information, or that they supply it effectively. They may get it wrong, or deliver it in such a way that it inhibits the decision making process or warps it away from democratic norms.3

A particular NGO may be comprised of professionals dropping in from outside (even abroad) who may claim to know a some important things about a group, but lack the depth of knowledge about local customs and conditions to effectively understand what attitudes mean and what unexpected consequences would flow from the adoption of a policy. Alternatively, they may be so tied to their own political agendas, driven by donors or ideologically-inspired parent organizations that the information is faulty.

Looking at the problem from the system as a whole, the range of NGOs, think tanks, professional associations may, for all its plurality not ‘cover’ that group, or more to the point, since the hallmarks of civil society associations are their adaptability, they may, for some reason, not be able to generate the appropriate focus. It might take a long time for civil society to generate the combination of expertise and participants to provide information about the full range of people affected by new policies regarding medical treatments determined to be harmful, for example. Sensationalist media may make it more likely that extremist opinions are actually heard on an issue, than what may be more accurate representation of the total impact.

It seems plausible to expect that such local knowledge can often be better provided by a rich arrays of civil society associations than by relying only on government or politicians, but a desirable outcome is not certain and we will return to ask about some of the arrangements which might make it more likely.

2. Best Practices: The second example of a type of information whose generation and deployment may involve civil society associations is that of ‘best practices’, that is the knowledge of the experiences in other places of the use of policy instruments beings considered, and of the rates and circumstances of their success and failure. Examples of such knowledge might be such things as the techniques that have been used to abate river pollution, or knowledge of how communities have been successfully organized to monitor such pollution. This would include a knowledge of the currently fashionable strategies – at various times, for example, micro finance schemes, building ‘social capital’, police training schemes or (going back) land reform. But knowledge of best practices, if it were to be ideal, would go beyond the fashion to a detailed knowledge of experience in different parts of the country, or the world.

Discovering the relevant, potentially world-wide experience in dealing with a particular problem is a complex challenge. On almost any policy topic, the range of relevant experiences is very large, so the question here is not about perfect knowledge, but about relative degrees of understanding. It needs to be combined with the ‘local knowledge’ mentioned above to assess what would need to be altered in the policy to make it locally effective. Further such knowledge of best practices is not knowledge of a fixed set of ‘facts’ but rather being ‘up to date’, and having such knowledge means having a way of conducting on-going monitoring of experiments and their results. And finally, the judgment of what practice is considered ‘best’ will depend on the perspectives and interests of the person doing the judging. Thus, the effectiveness of knowledge of best practices includes an understanding of the points of view of others, and the possibilities for satisfying the demands of a larger group than any one particular target group.

Acquiring knowledge of, and monitoring best practices goes on in government agencies, in political party organizations (in some countries), and in particular by the professionals in the policy making and legislative offices in government. Individually, NGOs, policy think tanks, internationally organized social movements and other civil society associations do not have the resources to know practices on many issues in many locations that government officials are likely to have have. That generalized knowledge, however, unless the issue is an old one of high priority, is likely to be overshadowed in particular cases by the specialized knowledge of some groups, and in its generality by the manifold practices understood by the ensemble of civil society associations. Although it may be easy to exaggerate, it is worth noting, too, that NGOs may also have the advantage of reaching out to off-the-beaten track experiences, to provide a needed element of innovation.

The relation between governments and civil society organizations is complex, but it is worth noting that in most modern legislatures, a kind of competitive-cooperative arrangement between the ‘special interest group’ and the legislative staff develops, turning in part around the question of information. Exactly what makes this sometimes contentious, sometimes perhaps too cozy relationship work is again a matter of the informal practices that evolve to regulate them.

Once again, all is not positive. This is not a functionalist argument that because such information is provided, that it must be positively related to outcomes. Much of the knowledge of practice provided by NGOs, think tanks, international social movements and other civil society associations may well be flawed. Knowledge of experiences in other places may be wrong, or insufficiently understood to be adapted to new situations. Connections to sources of information about experiences may be heavily colored by wishful thinking or political ideologies. The understanding of the policies being proposed may be imperfect, and thus the relevance of however perfectly understood experiences may be minimal. These same ‘mistakes’ may characterize the work of government agencies and legislative staffs, of course. But they might be more severe in civil society, since civil society associations are not confronted daily with the task of integrating policy proposals into broad government programs. Again, what makes the difference will be the practices with which the information is ‘filtered’ as it enters the political process, and how well the civil society organizations themselves police themselves to maintain integrity.

3. Understanding fundamentals: A third example of the kind of knowledge civil society associations may generate and supply concerns the basic factors at work in the society. For example, environmental policy at some level must come to grips with the physical dynamics of global warming. Agricultural policy is based, consciously or unconsciously on and understanding of the biological characteristics of the products being promoted. Welfare reform aimed at promoting family ties assume certain psychological and material processes when women are put on or taken off welfare. The social dynamics involved when indigenous communities are forced to change the meaning of ritual practices needs to figure into policies about community autonomy.

For short hand, I will refer to this kind of knowledge as theory. While theory may play an hidden role in policy making (see Keynes’ famous quote about the influence of dead scribblers) the process of policy making can, and, impressionistically, increasingly does, involve a conscious confrontation of policy programs and proposals with what theoretical knowledge there is. Theories are often competing and lacking certainty, but when choices are made, “theory” is a way of describing our best efforts at being rational. Whether they are considered as heuristics, or as simply piecemeal efforts to understand the dynamics of a process which requires attention, introducing theories in an ongoing and timely way, is a piece of cognitive politics.

Research organizations, universities and think tanks are the kinds of civil society associations which generate theory in this sense. Some government agencies may well have the research capacity, the time and the autonomy to reach for such insights, but the common complaint of many bureaucrats is that such time and resources are precisely what they do not have. Civil society associations range from those completely preoccupied with practical implementation of their programs, to those whose business it is to reflect on the underlying dynamics. It is the diversity of the research and theory oriented entities in civil society which are usually thought of as the best guarantee that a continuous process of reflection will make possible the best possible adaptation of policy to new situations. And, in the ideal case, theory generated from a wide range of sources will promote the democratic ideal of taking into account the widest range of citizens.

On the negative side, first of all there is an ‘ivory tower’ effect in which the theory being developed in research centers is either not relevant to policy, or is not communicated effectively. This is the sort of problem faced constantly by universities, and I will not elaborate, except to note that building meaningful bridges is a challenge. More dangerous, presumably is misleading or destructive theory. This, also, is a large topic, involving a question of the role of ideology in guiding policy, for example, or theories infected by one or another sort of fundamentalism. Some form of linkage between civil society organizations and politics allowing meaningful reflection on the applicability of theory and which promotes meaningful competition between different perspectives is clearly a desideratum, although not easy to achieve.

4. Evaluating claims

In the course of political debate, politicians and government officials use rhetorical devices to further their goals. In a world awash in advertising where half truths and manipulated information are taken for granted as legitimate means of marketing, political campaigns rapidly acquire, perhaps always have had a heavy dose of the same. One of the self proclaimed tasks of the media – itself a part of civil society, to be sure – is to expose the deliberate falsehoods and exaggerations of public figures. There are two difficulties with this scenario, however. To begin with the media are obviously under their own compulsions to shape the world of information. But rather than going into this, it is the second problem which is more relevant here. Very few newspapers, television networks or news magazines can support the kind of exhaustive examination of claims about states of fact or allegations about causal relations, e.g., what relevance does a tax plan have for correcting a downturn in economic activity, or what would be the consequences of a plan to situate a major industry next to a certain river. What the networks and reporters do, of course, when confronted with government of party claims, is to consult the experts, who are often parts of civil society.

The point is that one piece of a serious deliberation involves evaluating the validity of assertions of fact and causal connections being made by the parties in a political struggle or debate. Much argument in favor of policies relies on assertions that certain actions will have, or have had specified results. As part of significant deliberation, there must be processes in place for such assertions to be challenged. Examples of one kind would be the assertions of politicians about the likelihood of, say, a party’s platform proposal to increase policing to promote public security, or to increase prosperity by reducing tariffs. Both of these might hide considerable uncertainties and contrary evidence. Another type would be the allegation of politicians that a certain public works project or privatization scheme would improve society, while hiding the great personal profit that such a scheme would net for the politician himself.

One condition of a serious democratic debate is that the actors take each other’s positions seriously, but we know that taking someone seriously includes not automatically assuming the validity of their factual arguments, however much we might be constrained to grant them their right to their own moral positions. With regard to factual and causal assertions, respect demands assessment to show if and how they are wrong and how to make progress in getting closer to a commonly agreed upon position, if possible. Symbolically and psychologically, it may be difficult for politicians to grant the correctness of factual criticism, but that, surely is part of what effective deliberation would require.

Civil society associations are in a good position to play this whistle-blowing, watchdog role, although the advantages are relative. It is not so much the relative independence of NGOs and autonomous think tanks that would guarantee the kind of purposive objectivity. After all, even if the commitment of an NGO is ‘only’ to a foreign donor, or to a particular ethnic group, or to a privileged community, those are commitments which makes it at least as likely that their vision of the relevant facts and theories will be as skewed towards these interests. Rather, it is a combination of first, having groups with competing perspectives and interests who will have the incentive to challenge claims, and, even more, the fact that civil society is diverse, multiple and constantly changing which presents the possibility of serious evaluation of claims. A challenge to a politicians promoting a policy he says will serve the poor will be more effective if there are others who are able to either validate or modify that challenge.

The onslaught of critical evaluations from civil society may be destructive as well. One of the hallmarks of contemporary political action is a widespread cynicism about government. Collectively the media and civil society organizations may be swept along in a wave of such cynicism, promoting the very problems often, that the critics are criticizing. Civil society may be so divided – as in the case of an ethnically divided society which has moved toward conflict, that the drum beat of hostile civil society demands may accentuate an already difficult situation.

I am now in territory where I would require a much more rigorous definition of what one might call the ‘ideal political debate situation’ to determine when the actions of civil society in holding politicians and officials to account for the factual accuracy and theoretical adequacy of their statements promote or inhibit good government and democracy. I think I can assume for the present, however, that the impact of civil society’s critical evaluation can both be crucial for an open society in which political half truths are exposed, and on the other hand may be severely problematic. As with the other ways in which civil society associations become involved in politics, the variation requires a look at the institutions and regulations, formal and informal, which control their impact.

5. Providing space for debate

In a democracy, the form and location of political debate yielding authoritative decisions are shaped by the institutions described in the Constitution. The central institutions of legislature and executive and usually the high courts are the venue of decision making which gains the sanction of law and law enforcement. In liberal democracies, popular sovereignty is expressed through elections of the actors in those institutions, and a legislature comprised of people designated as representatives. The venue for authoritative deliberation, as well as the more commonly analyzed bargaining, lies in those institutions. Civil society associations may partake in those authoritative decision making processes through either some kind of lobbying practice with the legislature and executive, or through the grant of formal status on established councils or corporatist chambers.

But the final authoritative decision process is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of deliberative processes in politics. Within the bureaucracy, in the informal discussions among the staff of legislators, in party councils and discussions, there are, of course, thousands of instances of deliberation among the actors who are formally part of the final sovereign system, but conducted in an informal, perhaps preparatory way.

Discussions in civil society are, of course also extremely numerous. Ranging from relatively casual discussions among friends concerning the effects of one’s vote, to the very many conferences and workshops and forums held in Universities, policy research organizations or simply at the behest of a concerned foundation, debate, discussion and deliberation with an intent to influence policy is undertaken throughout civil society. Deciding whether any of these is an important and positive piece of politics depends on first, on how its is structured, second, on whether these discussion are connected with decision making and thirdly on and second on an assessment of their impact.

Civil society organizations sometimes have an important role in bringing together stakeholders who would not otherwise participate in a public debate. Meetings at Universities or at think tanks can bring together, say, government officials, environmentalist scholars and business interests who might not have the opportunity otherwise. Private conversations often present the possibility of ‘open discussion’ where the constraints of the legislature or formal discussion are absent.

Civil society sponsored discussions are sometimes connected to the policy process through a straightforward impact on decision makers by their participation in such discussions. At other times, the connection maybe through the sponsorship of a debate which brings together opponents of current government practices, and makes its connection through the public demonstration of the validity of their positions. Much of the most successful ‘contentious politics’ is carried out by groups which organize discussions around alternative venues which demonstrates the capacity to shape policies along different lines. Much of the process of demonstrating is not particularly deliberative, of course, and the confrontational style of, say, the protests against globalization in recent years has been more of an effort at simple shaming confrontation with moral positions, rather than the result of any coherent rational dialogue within the anti-globalization movement, but we may be seeing a process where the demonstrations in Seattle and Genoa might lead to an intensification of an oppositional dialogue, which would fit into the model I am considering.

Civil society associations may thus contribute to the cognitive side of politics by making room for some of the complex debates which make up the whole of the deliberative system of politics. There is, as always, a possible down side as well as an up side to their impact. Hiving off discussions of public policy into ‘private’ spaces may encourage secrecy and privilege the few. The claim of politicians that the official public fora are more representative or more subject to accountability needs to be taken into consideration, although it obviously can not be taken for granted, given the imperfections of the party systems, elections and legislatures. But it is nonetheless certain that private fora are at least, and probably more capable of being abused. Also, delinking debate and formal decision making power may be either frustrating or inefficient. Intensive discussion may have no impact on legislation, for example, lacking some mechanism of linkage. Or, debates among actors with particular agendas around an ideological positions, separatist ethnic projects or particular economic interests, may well spin off into an isolated and even self-defeating positions. Once again, whether or not this ‘contribution’ of civil society to deliberative politics is positive or negative, depends on the internal organization of civil society, and especially on the way in which civil society organizations are linked to the political process.

Second level institutions as conditions for civil society’s impact

In this short essay, I have tried to point out a limited list of impacts, both positive and negative that civil society associations might have on the process of deliberative politics. In each case, I think, the exploration of the potentials leads to an awareness that positive impacts could only be expected if the situation is set to process the inputs in positive ways. If the system is not in a process of breakdown or major transformation, the institutions which emerge or are collectively established will make the difference.

Civil society’s potential for strengthening democracy, will only be realized if there are strong and responsible electoral systems, party systems and legislative-executive arrangements. The latter have been the focus of many studies of democratic consolidation. To a limited extent, the answer to the question of what makes civil society’s contribution strong is the same as it would be to describe what makes those institutions strong. An honest and effective electoral system will mean that the politician critically evaluated for his or her misleading statements may be held accountable at the next election. A President who is able to mobilize a working majority in the legislature will be able to profit from sophisticated understanding of basic dynamics of a policy problem and the record of techniques used to deal with it supplied by NGOs and other civil society organizations.

But the relationship is too complex and there are too many points of contacts and channels of information flow to leave it to the chance of good intentioned groups working with effective governors. In another paper4 I have tried to lay out the logic of identifying an intermediate, or second level of institutions, below the level of the main constitutional ones and the political parties. Many of these are informal, but legal patterns are a part of all of them.

I will not repeat what I have said in that paper, only list the categories of second level institutions I have identified with a brief note on the relationship of each to the process of cognitive politics that has been the focus here.

First, there are a set of rules which regulate access to decision makers. these include lobbying rules, which perhaps should be considered part of the rules of the legislature. But there are many other ordered ways in which NGOs, neighborhood groups, and other civil society organizations regularly interact. The phenomena of ‘policy fora’, whether organized by the government, political parties, outside foundations or civil society organizations themselves, constitutes an ‘institution’ of this kind. That is, they are provided one can show – which I believe possible – that, in any one period in a particular country, there are rules about which civil society organization are allowed to participate, which ones sought out, the conventions about how to conduct discussions, and about how the outcomes of the forums are utilized. Among these practices, norms and rules, many of the questions raised about the impact of civil society organizations on democratic governance will be answered.

Second, the rules and practices which regulate access to the media will be of major importance in determining the impact of civil society organizations. Not only is receptiveness to news and opinion from NGOs and the like relevant, but the media practices in shaping the news. Very crudely, a sensationalist press will probably distort the information and idea input from civil society, as they do from politics.

Third, referring to the ‘internal’ organization of civil society itself, a significant impact on the civil society role may be accomplished by the development of professional sense of responsibility including the representatives of civil society organizations. I believe the most logical development of such a professional sense would cluster around those members of these organizations who are specialized in some particular policy area, such as environmental policy, or some piece of social policy, such as health delivery. Most probably the membership of such a professional group would include specialists in government, political parties, the universities, international organizations and various specialized media. Bringing together all of these may fit with the tendency in many countries for people to move from one of these ‘careers’ to another, retaining their links with the policy area which is at the center of the professionalization.

Like other professional organizations, such a group would form around a body of knowledge, concerning relevant policy instruments, relevant theories, relevant ways of aquiring and using the knowledge in that field. Although the form might be imposed from without, the participants have a personal interest in maintaining the integrity of that body of knowledge. Orthodoxy is enforced by controlling training and access. In well developed professions such as medicine and the law, this is well recognized, but even in the more informal cases of specialists in social policy, there is a kind of enforcement mechanism by the ‘peer reviews’ entailed in funding of grant proposals, invitation lists to conferences, responsible membership in peer networks, and the like. As with all of these, it should go without saying that such a professionalization of a policy sector can enshrine elitist and/or out-of-date information or theories, depending on how they are established, and what the rules and practice actually are.

A fourth set of ‘second level institutions’ concern the growth of a set of organizations and businesses which provide the resources for group formation and action, something I call the political service sector. Especially since the civil society sector is made up not only of many, often small, groups, but also ones that are constantly changing, the ready availability of advice, access, and technical assistance is very important for the smooth operation of the system. The special advantages of civil society organizations as a whole compared with parties and government agencies, may be their ability to change rapidly, to reformulate their structure, and to construct coalitions capable of assembling and delivering information. The consultants, polling companies, management consultants, media specialists and a whole range of service providers makes this possible. This largely for profit sector (although many of these services are provided now to NGOs by international foundations), and their ‘rhetoric’ style as ‘hired guns’ seem to contradict some people’s notions of the ‘third sector’. But they are multiplying and are probably essential for the health of civil society‘s impact on politics. By needing to make money, and thus favoring those who can pay, the political service sector can push civil society organizations away from effective and/or democratic inputs. But it is not certain, and, as usual, it depends on the structure of this second level institution.

Finally, I will just mention the importance of the legal structure governing non-profit and non-governmental groups. Non-profit status, restrictions on political action (however defined), reporting and registration requirements, rules enforcing transparency of transactions, rules governing the links with foreign institutions and groups and other regulations, will clearly have a complicated positive or negative effect on the activity of civil society associations.


In this short essay, I have tried to focus on one small part of the equation scholars will have to decipher in order to answer the question, “When does civil society play a significant role in promoting democracy?” I have chosen to emphasize the contributions that they may make in the cognitive side of the deliberative process, selecting five categories of such contributions. It lacks a firm criteria for what is, in fact, a democratic deliberative process, or more than a brief indication of the institutional context, particularly at the ‘second level’ which would make the difference between a positive and negative result. In part such a partial approach is justified because we do not usually conceptualize questions of democratic institution building and consolidation in terms of what I am calling cognitive politics. It is my hope that this makes a very small step in making the right connections.

1 A sketch for framing the question, prepared for presentation at the Latin American Studies Association convention, Washington D.C., September 2001

2 ‘Deliberative politics” in current discussions in political theory places emphasis on moral argument. In my usage here, the emphasis is on the cognitive dimensions of that argument. The two are closely connected – to reason through a moral difference will no doubt involve discussions of empirical facts and causal relations. At some point, perhaps, the argument becomes merely a confrontation between moral positions. I am pointing to the cognitive side of deliberation, which I believe is in fact a much greater part of deliberation than these theorists seem to think.

3 At this point I should introduce a set of standards not only abut what makes a decision making process smooth and efficient – which is relatively easy – but also what makes its unfolding and its outcomes democratic – which is very difficult. Despite the recent explosion of thinking about ‘deliberative democracy’, I find the debate confused, and will here simply make the rather disingenuous claim that we will know a democratic deliberative process when we see it. It is clearly a problem to be clarified.

4 “Civil Society’s Links to Politics: The Importance of Second Level Political Institutions” at


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