Conflict is vital to meaningful citizen engagement

Is conflict a threat to democracy or a re-vivification of mass participation that democracy needs?  This was the question posed by Catherine Durose in her blog post last week.

If people feel excluded from the decisions being made about their own lives, their jobs, their families and communities, they will, in the end, react angrily.  If they are repeatedly excluded, the anger will escalate and could result in a major, violent conflict.   However, whilst conflict does include, as one potential end-point, a violent struggle, there are various stages within a large spectrum of disagreement and competing aims.  

Arnstein[1] proposed in her ladder of participation that there were different levels and meanings in the struggle for citizen empowerment; ranging from manipulation, through to citizen control.  Mid-points on the ladder are ‘consultation’ and ‘placation’ and they are firmly in the territory of tokenism in this model. 

In the UK-Netherlands Partnership Programme in Science workshop on Citizen Governance in diverse neighbourhoods there was a degree of debate (perhaps even conflict?) amongst researchers on the role of consensus and conflict in the empowerment of citizens in the decision-making processes which governed their neighbourhoods.  There were some arguments that consensus must be the starting point for meaningful empowerment; however might this insistence on consensus fall into the trap of consultation and placation?  Conflict, as manifested in the verbalisation of competing aims, could result in more meaningful shifts of control to those voices which are traditionally muffled by the wishes of the majority in traditional consensus models of citizen engagement. 

Conflict is symptomatic of a struggle for justice and, as such, conflict avoidance is not necessarily the way forward, as this can mean that tension and misunderstanding is just buried beneath the surface.  Indeed, the presence of non-harmful conflict, for example the library ‘read-ins’ across Britain last weekend, is indicative of a healthy democracy at work.  Dissenting voices are allowed.  Where non-harmful conflict is engineered out of political processes in less democratic regimes, the only option for the growing discontent of those who have been excluded from decisions about their own lives, is a transformative demonstration which can result in protests and riots, such as in Tunisia and Egypt, which leave little or no room for negotiation with the extant political regime. 

Physical conflict may be necessary in some political arena where there is no viable alternative for dissenting voices to be heard.  In modern democratic processes though, such as in Britain, there isn’t such a physical urgency for conflict because processes for citizen engagement – such as voting in elections – should allow for competing views to be heard.  However, there is relatively little engagement with the ballot box resulting in lower and lower electoral turn-outs in national and local elections.  There are opportunities for engagement at a neighbourhood level – traditionally through tenant participation forums constructed and part-funded by service providers.  The Conservative-led Coalition Government has a proposal to organise engagement through its ideas for referenda in the Localism Bill.  But does any of this get beyond the placation stage in Arnstein’s ladder?  Local authorities will need to ensure that any requests for referenda are not ‘vexatious’.  But, unless something is irritating and aggravating (therefore causing conflict with the status quo) then change is unlikely. 

Citizen participation cannot be shaped and ‘made to work’ by government or public service providers.  There needs to be an apparatus for engaging in decision-making which is in part constructed by citizens – or the building anger at exclusion from the process leads to necessary physical conflict such as seen in Egypt.  However the official apparatus of engagement at national and neighbourhood levels cannot be the entirety of the process either – it cannot be assumed that consensus is always best.  Conflict is an important part of the participation process because it is driven by citizens rather than the state and it is often in response to a perceived injustice on a specific issue – the student marches in London, the library ‘read-ins’ – not all necessarily resulting in violence, but certainly a conflict of ideas and words.

Conflict has the potential to be violent and destructive if left to spiral out of control.  However, within a context of governmental social and moral leadership (a debate on whether such a context currently exists is a debate for another blog…) conflict can also be creative and empowering and can kick-start meaningful citizen engagement.

[1] Arnstein, S, (1969) ‘A ladder of participation in the USA’, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, July

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