A redesign of representative democracy can enhance policy innovation

Eva Sorensen
Eva Sørensen

by Eva Sørensen, Professor in Public Administration and Democracy, Roskilde University, Denmark

A key task of elected politicians is to develop new innovative policies that address old unsolved as well as emerging policy problems. One of the causes of the current disenchantment of representative democracy is that mainstream forms of representative government favour hierarchy and competition, but provide poor conditions for collaboration between actors with relevant innovation assets. Hierarchy and competition are important innovation drivers because they put innovation on the political agenda and give politicians the incentive to innovate. However, as pointed out in recent strands of governance research and innovation theory, collaboration plays an essential role in creating the innovations. Dialogue between actors with different backgrounds and perspectives on a policy problem is valuable because it can promote creative destructions of existing policy positions, qualify the search for new ideas, inform prototyping and create joint ownership between policy makers and those who implement and diffuse new policies.

I recently published the article Enhancing policy innovation by redesigning representative democracy’ in Policy & Politics. It argues that a redesign of the institutional set up of representative democracy that enhances the space for collaboration between policy makers and relevant and affected stakeholders can enhance the policy innovation capacity of elected politicians. Implied in this redesign is a shift in the role of politicians from sovereign decision makers to political leaders of collaborative policy innovation processes.

The problems and potentials of enhancing the space for collaborative policy innovation in representative democracies are analyzed on the background of two case studies of collaborative policy innovation in Denmark – on at the national level and one at the municipal level of policy making. The Ethics Council in Denmark hosted a collaborative policy innovation process that resulted in the development of a new understanding of causes of the extensive use of force in psychiatric care. The policy process took the form of a one year long dialogue involving politicians, staff and patients in psychiatric treatment. Albertslund Municipality established a new type of collaborative political committee composed of politicians and citizens. They spent a year developing a new municipal strategy for citizen involvement.

The two case studies testify that an expansion of the opportunity of elected politicians to collaborate with relevant and affected stakeholders can contribute to the development of new creative problem understandings and policy ideas. The studies also show, however, that the degree to which these innovative ideas are transformed into new policies depends on the character of the linkages between the collaborative governance processes and the hierarchical and competitive policy arenas. A redesign of representative democracy is not only a matter of creating collaborative spaces but also of designing a productive interplay between these spaces and hierarchical and competitive policy arenas.

If you enjoyed this blog entry, you may be interested in ’Repoliticising and redemocratising local democracy and the public realm: why we need councillors and councils’, by Colin Copus, David Sweeting, and Melvin Wingfield.

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