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Reclaiming the civic space

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Making representative claims

The relationship between the political and the civil sphere is often described as a dichotomy between participation as a realm brought about through civil society, and government as a realm of representation. Taking a closer look at the cases presented in this study, instead of two mutually exclusive logics we have found that participation and representation interpenetrate each other beyond sectoral boundaries. While local governments play an active role in instituting public participation, civil society organizations are part of the multi-level representative field. Acting as a member of civil society is also participation in the discursive field where claims are made of representation and legitimacy. Seeing the acts of CSOs as representative claims[1] thus shifts the attention from civil society as an intermediary realm of interest articulation and aggregation to one of activated citizenship as a creative act, where social constituency is a moving target. The “representative claim” framework developed by Michael Saward sees representation as a dynamic interaction between a wide range of representatives (including CSOs) and those they claim to represent, instead of a static institutional fact resulting from the principal-agent relationship between voters and politicians. All kinds of actors, elected and unelected, make claims to represent certain constituencies. Therefore, the role of non-elected actors such as CSOs can be understood as being broader than simply that of audience or spokesperson striving to be represented in the formal political process. Instead, CSOs are actively making claims about themselves as representatives in well-defined cases (e.g. clients or marginalized groups) and have a strong say on the whole representational process by claiming certain practices to be legitimate or illegitimate (e.g. by declaring that the results of an official consultation process are discredited due to a lack of transparency). 

Through institutional and non-institutional politics beyond elections, civil society can effectively exert influence on local governments by claiming the authority of universal norms “from above” (be it human rights, policy goals about climate change or issues from the agenda of national politics). More importantly, they can combine these norms “from above” with the authority of speaking for people “from below” governments (either by their own embeddedness or by creating alliances). The “sandwich strategy”[2] of representative claims that can authentically link “above” and “below” provides an effective symbolic-discursive construction for local CSOs, while the one-sided function of humanitarian representative, acting only as a moral compass that speaks truth to power from above, can easily prove to be deficient in local politics. In the context of rising populism, the explicit articulation of these alternative claims is particularly important, since the field of representation is increasingly emptied out by populists claiming to be the only true representative of the people, while at the same time arguing that citizens are weak and impotent without a strong leader.

Representation as a tool: from participation to deliberation

While making a representative claim is important, this does not mean that a local CSO has to declare itself to be a replacement for the mayor and the municipal council. CSOs make claims about the aptitude or capacity of a would-be representative and about the relevant characteristics of the social audience, even without a mass political movement or plentiful resources behind them. Political actors at the local level usually have more resources at their disposal, but they are less well-equipped when it comes to the resources that are important for public participation (social capital, volunteers, etc.). In making a claim, a certain degree of tension with the local government is a constant possibility, but instead of an antagonistic stance toward politics, civic organizations are more likely to negotiate their claim and secure recognition for their activity. While local governments can legitimately call into question civic representative claims when they are too vague, they cannot arbitrarily decide on the membership in civil society. Discursive efforts to create functional differentiation between local politics and civil society need to be anchored in public institutions (consultative bodies, funding policies, local regulations, etc.). Colonizing efforts to undermine the inner logic of the other sphere need to be kept at bay. Universal values and the autonomy of civil society should not be swept aside for the sake of efficiency and the concentration of power. Similarly, the formalistic ideals of the state bureaucracy (giving each person equal consideration) and of electoral politics (one person, one vote), which mediate between partial interests in the name of the public good, have to be respected. While the local government has to compensate for the structural inequality of membership in organized civil society, the latter also has a role in overseeing the impartial nature of political processes. This strengthens the legitimacy of decision making and invests critical actors with responsibilities.

In the cases we reviewed, civic representative claims differ in terms of the connection between participation and representation and in their political relevance. When a CSO sets up an IT platform where citizens can report problems to their local municipality (see the case study “Járókelő – Hungary”), this activity can be translated into a representative claim about average citizens demanding greater digitalization and a more effective administration – a claim that reaches a larger audience than the actual number of users of the platform. Sometimes, those who are represented are directly involved in advocacy activities as clients (e.g. a marginalized group in the case of the community foundations, or of ULE in Hungary), while a CSO can represent a not-yet-existing group of potential users of a certain facility when it submits a project for funding to the local participatory budgeting process. Mission statements and strategic narratives of CSOs that are interpreted as representative claims always imply normative demands about citizens’ involvement and what the process of representation should look like. This is why top-down technocratic governance techniques often lack democratic potential despite their participatory practices. They leave no room for claim-making about the process of representation or its shortcomings, or the improvement of social factors that make democracy work. Thus representation – often through participatory or electoral schemes – is generated in a seemingly neutral and self-evident fashion, thereby providing information for decision makers “on demand.”

As a general rule, however, informal channels for interest representation are available. Yet the lack of publicity makes claim-making ineffective, since informal negotiations only allow for micro-level interventions, for instance by acting as a spokesperson for a particular group of residents. The force field in which civil society actually comes into existence is generated by continuous mutual reactions within the public discourse. With no such dialog around claims and participatory practices, there is less autonomy and independence for CSOs, and more arbitrary power of decision makers to coopt and, by using local media, hand-pick “worthies” as spokespersons. Local governments make constant efforts to formalize the channels of interest mediation by transforming them into quasi-private contracts controlled by bureaucratic rules, which allows them to mechanically aggregate social interests and express inherent identities instead of engaging in the process of competing representative claims. This poses a risk for civic advocacy and compromises its capacity for substantive partnerships. This deficiency can only be addressed through discursive embeddedness in a public debate that has the potential to appeal to the whole community of citizens.

To sum up, the key to collaborations that push back against the shrinking civic space lies in three interrelated elements: participation, representation and deliberation. First, CSOs play the functional role of creating ways to offer and facilitate effective participation. Then, they have to make a representative claim by linking this activity to universal values, in order to successfully articulate the transformative nature of their work. Lastly, these claims need to be activated through deliberative discourse by actively calling out the deficiencies of the public sphere. This second level of civic practice involves continuous communicative exchanges between the representatives and the represented, which establishes a new norm and a particular form of local culture within the public sphere. Generally, CSOs do not possess any irreplaceable resources or expert knowledge that would make them a valuable partner for the local authorities. This is why it is necessary to carefully craft a representative claim. In their advocacy efforts, local CSOs not only help citizens to participate actively, but – by putting at work their claims in the public sphere – they experiment with a vast array of democratic practices[3] to ground politics in a dynamic and reciprocal relationship of deliberation. This creates a second, systemic layer of political representation beyond appealing to the goodwill of council members and the mayor as representatives. If we see CSOs as contributing not only to the mobilization of social input into decision making, but also to the further development of democracy through representation and deliberation, we get a more complex picture of their functions and perspectives, and of how they become part and parcel of local politics.

Enhancing local civic ecosystems

Local governance in Central-Eastern Europe is at a crossroads. It will either lose its relevance or evolve into a pocket of democracy that actively invests in civic ecosystems to support a democratic renewal. A participatory version of the former scenario, based on the responsibilization of citizens, who thus take part in austerity decisions and the rolling back of public services out of self-interest, is a worrisome possibility. Low-intensity politics – the maintenance of a facade of self-governance that conceals a coopted civil society – is a lived reality in many communities in our region. Such environments are incapable of accommodating alternative representative claims, and thus often lead to conflict. The political or economic success of a city sometimes also works against inclusive operation, while in contexts where political representation is fragile, and the real decisions are made outside of representative organs, public engagement is less prevalent. At the same time, local governments are under increasing pressure, which gives civil society and local governments a chance to recognize their shared interests in deepening democratic governance. By understanding these systemic effects and the constraints within which municipalities have to operate, civic actors are in a better position to create hooks for committing the local administration and leadership to engage in cooperation, instead of remaining stuck in distrust and hostility. The key to unlock the potential of such collaborations is to create enabling conditions not only for a few privileged actors, but for the whole civic ecosystem.

Beyond better responses to social and environmental challenges, the collaborations included in this study have enhanced CSOs’ awareness of the difficult decisions made by the local authorities and, to a greater or lesser extent, created a new setting for public dialog. Mutual understanding between the cooperating parties has enabled a better understanding of policy dilemmas on the part of citizens and more effective deal-making and brokerage between competing stakeholder interests. Civil society organizations operate at the interface between the state, citizens and the market. Owing to their independent position and their embeddedness in society, they can represent and reconcile the interests of a wide range of actors, including marginalized groups. It is also important to note that local collaborations with civil society play an important role in creating coherence between local and global policy agendas. CSOs advocate for these norms and policies, but they are often also able to mobilize expertise and resources that can supplement the limited capacities of the public sector. Participatory governance schemes that operate exclusively on the basis of local government resources are fragile and prone to dependence. Civic ecosystems need to be empowered not only by autonomous deliberative infrastructures, but also in terms of fundraising and networking. Community foundations play an important role in this respect in many cities of the region (see the case study “Community foundations – Romania”).

[1]  See Saward, Michael (2006). The Representative Claim. Contemporary Political Theory, 5(3) pp. 297–318.

[2] The term was invented by Jonathan Fox, see:

[3] For example, by organizing public debates, petition campaigns and consultations, conducting surveys, collecting data, engaging in public information outreach (newsletters), community visioning, study circles, etc.