Reading the News, You'd Think Democracy Is Retreating Everywhere. Good News: The Opposite Is True | Opinion

India. The United Kingdom. Brazil. The United States. The major headlines in these countries conveys "Democracy in peril," "Democratic backsliding," or "Populist threats to democracy." However, another democratic transformation occurring around the world lacks the same spotlight: the spread of participatory democracy. Modern participatory democracy is about empowering all members of a political system to make decisions about issues that affect their lives on a regular basis, not just during electoral periods.

The slow, discreet spread of participatory democracy to almost every country in the world should give us hope. After decades of experiments, participatory democratic institutions, in many ways, deepens democracy by giving more power to more people. At the same time, they are no panacea. The complexities of polities demand multiple approaches, rooted in clear goals and a commitment of values, that involve the existence and improvement of both representative and participatory democratic institutions.

Such institutions exist in nearly every country, in both electoral democracies and authoritarian regimes. Not flashy, they consist of meetings and planning sessions to develop and vote on ideas about roads, bridges, parks, and sidewalks. Mostly local and state governments set them up, so they don't make national headlines. They provide space for citizens to come together, talk about how to improve their communities, and make collective decisions about how to move forward.

This largely unnoticed trend can be traced to the failures of electoral democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. After the initial euphoria in the West about the potential for liberal democracy, it became clear to most that the problems facing political parties, judiciaries, parliaments, and executives could not be fixed with elections or national reforms. Corruption, clientelism and systematic inequalities were deeply rooted in most nations' fabric. A new generation of leaders, mostly on the left, emerged to argue that one way to rectify these problems lay in creating participatory democratic channels that would engage a large number of average citizens in policy decision-making.

Most of these efforts took place in cities and towns; local governments offered a sweet spot for engaging citizens and offering a venue for more deliberative policy-making. One of the best-known examples of this trend is the Worker's Party participatory budgeting (PB) experiment in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In the late 1980s, local government officials worked with activists to set up a budgeting process that was open for debate by the city's residents. Once the international community highlighted this as a successful democratic innovation, the process became widely celebrated, and quickly spread across the country, and then the globe. Today, an estimated 11,000 cities worldwide conduct this form of budget-making annually.

Several models of participatory democratic institutions exist. Citizen councils in Chile and Rwanda engage people in decision-making about public policies; India's village councils invite residents to deliberate regularly; and Colombia's national council system aggregates and approves community development policy proposals.

Decades later, have participatory democratic institutions deepened democracy? Can they chip away at anti-democratic structures rooted in centuries of colonialism, inequality, corruption, clientelism and discrimination?

Persistent bad news about democracy suggests they have not, but scholarship on these experiences tells a different story. A large set of research documents and evaluates the effectiveness of the participatory democratic experiment around the world. A great deal of variation exists in the institutions, contexts and outcomes, but there are several takeaways.

First, participatory institutions proved they are an important way to educate and engage citizens in democratic processes, especially at the local level. Hundreds of thousands of citizens in countries around the world gather on a regular basis to debate policy and development priorities. These citizens learn more about how governments work and build the "bonds of connection" that are increasingly missing in daily life. Often, they are local residents, not normally engaged in political activities.

Participatory institutions can also improve citizens' quality of life. In Brazil, cities with successful participatory institutions spend more on education and have lower infant mortality rates.

The most successful experiences need careful design processes, leaders truly committed to citizen engagement and transparency, and citizen groups active enough to hold them to their promise.

My recent book, Democracy from Above?, explores the effectiveness of national laws that established participatory institutions in Guatemala, Peru and Bolivia. My research shows national laws do create ways for engaging citizens in local participation. At the same time, in countries plagued by authoritarian pasts, corruption and clientelism, these institutions can fall prey to the same problems as representative democratic institutions, serving as new institutional channels for the exchange of goods, kickbacks, and paternalistic patterns.

Advocates and reformers can design their institutions to reduce the potential for co-optation, exclusion and corruption with processes that codify their democratic values. If a team of government officials wants to improve the quality of life in low-income areas, they must set rules to prioritize spending in those areas. If government teams are interested in ensuring that women and other historically marginalized populations are engaged, they can develop rules of engagement that ensures gender parity. Careful attention to these institutions' design improves their effectiveness.

Globally, participatory democratic institutions are here to stay. The challenge is to improve these efforts to ensure the maximum number of people remain involved in rich democratic processes that truly inspire people to overcome apathy and strengthen communities.

Stephanie McNulty, associate professor of government and political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College, studies participatory governance, gender, decentralization and development.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​