Participatory democracy emphasizes the broad participation of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems. Etymological roots of democracy (Greek demos and kratos) imply that the people are in power and thus that all democracies are participatory. However, participatory democracy tends to advocate more involved forms of citizen participation and greater political representation than traditional representative democracy.
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. Since so much information must be gathered for the overall decision-making process to succeed, technology may provide important forces leading to the type of empowerment needed for participatory models, especially those technological tools that enable community narratives and correspond to the accretion of knowledge. Effectively increasing the scale of participation, and translating small but effective participation groups into small world networks, are areas currently being studied. Other advocates have emphasised the importance of face to face meetings, warning that an overreliance on technology can be harmful.
Some scholars argue for refocusing the term on community-based activity within the domain of civil society, based on the belief that a strong non-governmental public sphere is a precondition for the emergence of a strong liberal democracy. These scholars tend to stress the value of separation between the realm of civil society and the formal political realm. In 2011, considerable grassroots interest in participatory democracy was generated by the Occupy movement.
Participatory democracy has a long history. One instance is the Iroquois confederacy (also known as the Haudenosaunee confederacy) which operates under the oldest surviving constitution in the world. In 7th and 8th century Ancient Greece, the informal distributed power structure of the villages and minor towns began to be displaced with collectives of Oligarchs seizing power as the villages and towns coalesced into city states. This caused much hardship and discontent among the common people, with many having to sell their land due to debts, and even suffer from debt slavery. Around 600 BCE the Athenian leader Solon initiated some reforms to limit the power of Oligarchs and re-establish a partial form of participatory democracy with some decisions taken by a popular assembly composed of all free male citizens. About a century later, Solon's reforms were further enhanced for even more direct involvement of regular citizens by Cleisthenes. Athenian democracy came to an end in 322 BC. When democracy was revived as a political system about 2000 years later, decisions were made by representatives rather than by the people themselves. A minor exception to this was the limited form of direct democracy which flourished in the Swiss Cantons from the later Middle Ages. In the late 19th century, a small number of thinkers, including Oscar Wilde and Emma Goldman, began advocating increased participatory democracy. It was in the 20th century that practical implementations of participatory democracy once again began to take place, albeit mostly on a small scale, attracting considerable academic attention in the 1980s.
During the Spanish civil war, from 1936–1938, the parts of Spain controlled by anarchist members of the Spanish Republican faction was governed almost totally by participatory democracy. In 1938 the anarchists were displaced after betrayal by their former Republican allies in the Communist party and attacks from the loyalist forces of General Franco. The writer George Orwell, who experienced participatory democracy in Spain with the anarchists before their defeat, discusses it in his book Homage to Catalonia, and says participatory democracy was a "strange and valuable" experience where one could breathe "the air of equality" and where normal human motives like snobbishness, greed, and fear of authority had ceased to exist.
In the 1980s, the profile of participatory democracy within academia was raised by James S. Fishkin, the professor who introduced the deliberative opinion poll. Experiments in forms of participatory democracy that took place within a wider framework of representative democracy began in cities around the world, with an early adopter being Brazil's Porto Alegre. A World Bank study found that participatory democracy in these cities seemed to result in considerable improvement in the quality of life for residents.
In the early 21st century, low profile experiments in participatory democracy began to spread throughout South and North Americas, to China and across the European Union. A partial example in the USA occurred with drawing up the plans to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with thousands of ordinary citizens involved with drafting and approving the plan.
In 2011, participatory democracy became a notable feature of the Occupy movement, with Occupy camps around the world taking decisions based on the outcome of working groups where every protestor gets to have their say, and by general assemblies where the decisions taken by working groups are effectively aggregated together. Their decision process was an attempt to combine equality, mass participation, and deliberation, but caused slow decisions. By November 2011 the movement had been frequently criticized for not yet coalescing around clearly identifiable aims.
Variants of participatory democracy include:
Representative democracy is not generally considered participatory since it tends to assume a lack of time, knowledge or will in individual citizens to contribute to policy making. Bioregional democracy is often but not necessarily participatory. Grassroots democracy is an alternative term that has been used to imply almost any combination of the above.
New concepts such as open source governance, collaborative governance, open source politics, and open politics seek to radically increase participation through electronic collaboration tools such as wikis and 'wikigovernment'.
Participatory politics (or parpolity) is a long-range political theory that also incorporates many of the above and strives to create a political system that will allow people to participate in politics, as much as possible in a face-to-face manner. Pateman characterizes the participatory model as one where maximum input (participation) is required, and where output includes not only policies but also the development of the social and political capacities of each individual. The literature generally emphasizes this combination of influence on policy making, quality of deliberation, and citizen engagement based on what has been argued that a successful institution of citizen participation is one that (i) provides a channel of influence in policy making, (ii) engages citizens in a process of deliberation and public communication, which in return provides legitimacy to the institution, and (iii) is able to attract a constant or increasing number of participants.
Deliberative democracy differs from traditional democratic theory in that authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of a law's legitimacy. It adopts elements of both consensus decision-making and majority rule. When practiced by small groups, it is possible for decision-making to be both fully participatory and deliberative. But for large political entities, the democratic reform trilemma makes it difficult for any system of decision-making based on political equality to involve both deliberation and inclusive participation. With mass participation, deliberation becomes so unwieldy that it becomes difficult for each participant to contribute substantially to the discussion. Professor James Fishkin argues that random sampling to get a small but representative sample of the general population can mitigate the trilemma, but notes that the resulting decision-making group is not open to mass participation. But in a variant proposed in A Better Democracy, the author presents a direct, participative democracy in which deliberation and political equality are combined with a much wider participation.
Demarchy is a hypothetical system where government is heavily decentralized into smaller independent groups. Each group is responsible for one or several functions in society. Officials are volunteers elected to committees controlling these groups by sortition. The system seeks to avoid problems with centralized and electoral governance, while still providing a stable democratic system.
Panocracy or 'pantocracy' also has similarities with participatory democracy. However, it avoids the concept of demos or the people having a single view with the inevitable limitations that come from trying to agree what that view is. It also avoids the expectations that attach to anything called democracy.
Wise Democracy is a practical strategy promising to facilitate an inclusive powerful symbolic voice of "We the People." It is based on new practices, experiments and theory developed in the U.S. The key practices of this approach are being prototyped in Europe, particularly in Vorarlberg Austria, where elected leaders have modified their state constitution to include these methods.