CM(2001)124 Addendum...(762/10.5)...5 Steering Committee on Local and Regional Democracy (CDLR) - Draft Explanatory Report and draft Recommendation on the participation of citizens in local public life

Ministers' Deputies
CM Documents

CM(2001)124 Addendum (Restricted) 3 August 2001

762 Meeting, 5 September 2001
10 Legal questions

10.5 Steering Committee on Local and Regional Democracy (CDLR)
Draft Explanatory Report and draft Recommendation on the participation of citizens in local public life







I.          Background to the Recommendation


II.        Justification for the Recommendation


III.       Key questions on citizens' participation in local public life


IV.       Tools and techniques for improving the participation of citizens in local public life


V.        Structure and content of the Recommendation


VI.       Glossary 




Recommendation No. R (2001)… of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the participation of citizens in local public life


Appendix I: Basic principles of a local democratic participation policy


Appendix II: Steps and measures to encourage and reinforce citizens' participation in local public life






I.          Background to the Recommendation


1.         The present Recommendation on the participation of citizens in local public life is the culmination of the work carried out by the Steering Committee on Local and Regional Democracy (CDLR) as from 1998, which has already given rise to the publication of a report on the subject[1].


2.         This work is the continuation of a debate which has been going on for over twenty-five years, for issues relating to citizens' participation in the life of their local community have been the focus of constant attention both from the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers and the intergovernmental sector and from the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress (Conference up until 1994) of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe (CLRAE)[2].


3.         One of the first major political and standard-setting instruments concerning these issues was Recommendation N° R (81) 18 of the Committee of Ministers to member states concerning participation at municipal level. This Recommendation, adopted on 6 November 1981, was based on a resolution of the 3rd Conference of European Ministers responsible for Local Government (Stockholm, 1978) and on the conclusions of the 4th Conference (Madrid, 1980).


4.         The guidelines appended to Recommendation N° R (81) 18 greatly influenced the subsequent discussions on this subject. They emphasized, inter alia, the need:


-           to step up communication between citizens and their elected representatives;


-           to improve the opportunities for participation, particularly for citizens who have greater difficulty in becoming actively involved;


-           to give citizens more influence over municipal planning, decisions of strategic importance for the local community and their local environment;


-           to encourage participation by foreign residents.


5.         With regard to this latter subject, following the impetus provided by the Parliamentary Assembly and the CLRAE and on the basis of the conclusions adopted by the 7th Conference of European Ministers responsible for Local Government (Salzburg, 1986), the CDLR prepared the text of the Convention on the participation of foreigners in public life at local level, which the Committee of Ministers opened for signature on 5 February 1992. This convention entered into force on 1 May 1997. To date, it has been ratified by 5 states.  


6.         Meanwhile, in May 1991, the European ministers responsible for local government meeting in Bergen (Norway) had adopted a resolution on participation and democratic control which reiterated the importance of citizens' participation in the management of local affairs and their right to be informed and consulted about any decisions affecting them.


7.         On 15 February 1996, the Committee of Ministers adopted Recommendation No. R (96) 2 on referendums and popular initiatives at local level. This Recommendation affirms “that the right of citizens to have their say in major decisions on long-term commitments (…) is one of the democratic principles common to all member states of the Council of Europe”. It is then stated “that this right can be most directly exercised at local level and that the management of important local affairs should involve more effective citizen participation while losing none of its efficiency”.


8.         Finally, in its Recommendation N° R (97) 7 to member states on local public services and the rights of their users, the Committee of Ministers called for the adoption of practical measures to improve user participation in the management of local public services.


9.         The present Recommendation is wholly in keeping with these various texts, which also served as a basis for drafting it. In particular, the content of Recommendation N° R (81) 18 has been incorporated and expanded upon, so that the present Recommendation replaces it. 


II.        Justification for the Recommendation


10.       The ongoing concern with issues related to citizens' participation in the life of their local community is hardly surprising. For there is a clear link between the development of democratic institutions and the growth of citizens' participation and its various forms. At the same time, the forms of direct participation and the functioning of representative democracy are also closely related to the development of society.


11.       Local democracy – like any other form of democracy – is not immutable. The role and functions of local authorities develop in accordance with a living process: solutions that are deemed appropriate at one point in time must be constantly checked and if necessary challenged in the light of changes in the society and in citizens' needs and expectations.


12.       Thus, all the European countries are currently considering the development of local democracy. Above and beyond their differences, they share several concerns vis-à-vis, firstly, the actual capacity of local communities to take on their assigned role, and secondly, the quality of the relations between citizens and their local councillors and the extent of citizen participation in the political process at the local level.


13.       In particular, having analysed the experiences of a number of member states of the Council of Europe, the CDLR identified the following major problems:


-           declining public interest in and a general feeling of apathy about politics;


-           the difficulty of increasing public involvement through direct forms of consultation and participation;


-           weaknesses in the institutions of local representative democracy that decrease the effectiveness, openness and accountability of the system.


14.       Of course, these problems do not exist everywhere and do not have the same extent in all the concerned countries. In addition, the investigation into citizens' participation in local civic life has shown that, although there are signs of problems and constraints, there are signs of progress and experimentation too.


15.       In this context, it was deemed necessary to review the issue of citizens' participation in local public life and to incorporate in a legal text the main points highlighted by the experience of the member states in this area, so as to provide common guidelines and encourage the process of adapting the forms and mechanisms of participation to modern society and to these new requirements.


16.       In other words, the aim of the present Recommendation is to offer policy-makers a coherent, up-to-date set of principles and guidelines, as a common basis for the activities of the Council of Europe's member states in this area of vital importance to democracy.


III.       Key questions on citizens' participation in local public life


17.       To encourage a hard-header assessment of the actual situation and possible future developments, it is useful to address a number of questions which provide a challenging backdrop to further deliberations.


Is local politics still relevant in a global age?


18.       Might it be that local politics is in a process of long-term decline as more and more issues are determined not just at a national level but a global level?   Some observers suggest that people will inevitably be less interested in participating at the local level because there are fewer issues decided at that level and because of new opportunities to participate at a non-local level.


19.       While recognising the power of global forces, it does not seem that it makes citizen participation at the local level irrelevant.  


20.       Firstly, most problems have both global and local dimensions and require action as much at the global level as at the local level. The key is therefore not to see local politics in isolation but as part of a wider process: the development of local networks and their connection with regional national and international networks. Therefore, participation at the local level remains important, although its form inevitably changes.


21.       Moreover, although the global forces may have come to the fore, there is evidence to suggest that for many people their identity has a local dimension. Within this context, it is nowadays a strategic issue to reinforce the awareness of belonging to a community. In addition, public safety, economic development, social welfare, environment protection and many other matters have an important local dimension, engage local government and are still providing a basis for citizen participation.


22.       The level of municipalities may not always be the appropriate focus for participation. There are times when it may be necessary to go more local by working through neighbourhood councils or community-based associations. Paradoxically as the world goes more global there remains a case for politics to go more local.


Does more wealth in society lessen the need for participation?


23.       Some people argue that, as the proportion of the population that has a relatively high level of income and wealth increases, the motivation for participation lessens. In their view, those with greater material resources and less dependence on the welfare state and, more broadly, government are opting out of the system and participation.


24.       No strong evidence supports this view. There may be evidence of some young professional and wealthy individuals opting-out. However there is also evidence of the poorest and more marginalised in society not finding the motivation to participate. Wealth and education are still reasonable predictors of a capacity and willingness to participate in many societies.


25.       In any case it is clear that wealth does not allow most people to absent themselves from the collective challenges facing many communities, for example, crime or the environment. The welfare state remains central in its core services to the lives of the majority. The real challenge in many societies is how to encourage the most disadvantaged to participate.


Have people become more self-absorbed and less interested in collective action?


26.       Some observers suggests that participation in local political life is on the decline as part of a wider pattern of civic disengagement, as people withdraw from collective pursuits and concentrate on more individual pursuits. The thesis of declining “social capital”, as it is known, explains declining interest in local politics by reference to a wider decline in civic life. According to this thesis, people join less, trust less and care less about community problems and disinterest in politics is part of a wider opting-out of community life.


27.       Again, without wishing to entirely reject the declining social capital thesis, it seems unhelpful and misleading to paint such a bleak picture of modern community life. Firstly in many – but not all – countries it can be argued there is a vibrant and, if anything, expanding associational life. People may be less trusting especially of public authorities, but this may not be a negative development in that it may reflect a greater propensity to challenge and call government to account. People may be more diverse and more selective in the causes they are prepared to be mobilised for, but again this may reflect not a decline in community spirit but a recognition of different interests and a greater willingness to think for themselves.


First conclusion: citizen participation in local politics is not declining but rather changing its form and this challenges the traditional political system


28.       Therefore, the idea that local politics is being swept away by forces beyond its control should be rejected. Neither globalisation, rising prosperity or declining interest and civic engagement provide over-arching explanations of what is happening to local politics. There is evidence of problems, of apathy and disengagement, but the trend should be seen as more towards a changed form of politics at the local level rather than a simple decline. The study carried out by the CDLR shows that people have become more interested in:


-           direct forms of participation;

-           informal and flexible participation;

-           ad hoc participation rather than continuous engagement.


29.       This shift in the pattern of politics has profound implications for the traditional institutions of local representative democracy. It also implies that local governments require an open-minded, transparent and flexible approach to engage with the public.


30.       The greater challenge is to representative politics and in particular to the role of political parties. Several countries reported problems for parties in getting people to stand in local elections. Experience shows in some countries that beyond political recruitment parties cannot guarantee to organise and mobilise people in the same way as was possible a few decades ago. In some countries associations may have overtaken parties in their capacity to represent the public. These developments point to a need for political parties in some cases to reform themselves or face the prospect of becoming less and less relevant to the substance of local politics.


31.       What is essential is to ensure the continued participation of citizens in public life. Governments at the local level need to think through how they can best re-engage with the public and meet changing expectations. Local political systems need to be more responsive to the needs of citizens. There is evidence of exciting and interesting experiments going on as new ways to encourage participation and development.


32.       Participation in local political life is not just possible but highly desirable. Throughout their lives, citizens should have the opportunity to make an input, to engage and to play a part, not least by means of the ballot box, as decision makers for the community. Getting in touch with local people should be considered as a core task for any local political system. A culture of consultation should be embedded into local political life. There are a variety of tools and techniques that will enable that task to be achieved.


33.       In developing strategies to enhance the prospects for citizen participation in the 21st century it is necessary to recognise the impact and potential of information and communication technology, the rise of a global society and shifting patterns in employment. The institutions and mechanisms of local democracy - designed often in the nineteenth century or in the middle of the twentieth century - cannot expect to survive these changes unreformed and unaltered.


IV.       Tools and techniques for improving the participation of citizens in local public life


34.       If participation in local politics is to be sustained in the twenty first century, the key challenge is to adapt the decision-making processes to meet the changing expectations of citizens. There are already many experiments and initiatives under way in several member states. In others, there are debates about wider and more sweeping reforms.


35.       In order to gauge the range of available options for change, it is worth looking at each form of participation in turn, so as to obtain an overview of the main tools and techniques for improving participation.


Participation through the exercise of electoral rights


36.       Voting local elected representatives into office will remain a key element in making local democracy work. The vote given to all adult citizens is an expression of political equality, and organising politics through representatives remains a valuable feature of politics in a complex world. The key strategic issue for the future is how to encourage voters to exercise their rights at the local level and to ensure that voting is seen to make a difference.


37.       There is a range of tools at hand for would-be reformers. Among others:


-          Voting could be made easier through increased use of postal votes or proxy votes and other reforms. Electronic systems of voting could give new excitement and purpose to the electoral process.


-          Direct voting could be extended to a greater array of public offices without resort to the filter of party lists/systems. The option of the directly elected executive, for example, is one option taken up by several countries and is being actively considered by others.


-          Targets could be set or incentives provided to increase the representation of those who, such as women, young persons and underprivileged groups, are currently under-represented in the machinery of political parties, electoral lists, elected decision-making bodies and executive bodies at local level. There are limits to what a government can do best, but it can remove barriers to participation and encourage those that select candidates (mainly parties) to recognise the force of arguments for social representativeness alongside the accountability that comes from public election.


Direct participation


38.       In a world where citizens are better educated and where new information and communication technologies allow the rapid spread of understanding and expertise, the case for direct involvement in the political process by citizens is more substantial than before. The key strategic issue is how to organise direct participation so that it enhances rather than diminishes the quality of local decision-making and service delivery. The facilities that are available today allow citizens to have their say on various issues, every day of the week.


39.       However few people see such “non-stop” democracy as either desirable or viable, as voter fatigue and disinterest would undermine it. Yet it is difficult to deny that in the 21st century citizens may well expect to be consulted to a greater degree than in the past and to be directly involved in making decisions to a greater extent. Direct participation can mitigate the effects of under-representation of certain social groups in elected bodies, by giving these groups the opportunity to become involved in a different way in the decision-making process and by enhancing their sense of belonging to the community.


40.       There is a variety of options available for better consultation or indeed direct involvement of the public in decision-making, as the evidence provided by various countries shows. Alongside the “classic” mechanisms of referenda and citizens' or popular initiatives, there are others that take their inspiration from the impact of “New Management” thinking and its emphasis on the role of the public as consumers of services (user surveys, user management, etc).


41.       Beyond these two categories of mechanisms for direct involvement there are those that take inspiration from the politics of presence and emphasise the need to ensure the involvement of citizens who are often absent from decision-making. Youth parliaments, elderly people forums, neighbourhood forums, co-option procedures, community development and partnership schemes and a number of other mechanisms can play a role in bringing into decision-making those that are normally excluded. Another set of direct participation options attempts to create the conditions for a more deliberative democracy. Interactive websites, citizens' juries and consensus conferencing are mechanisms present in several countries.


42.       Direct participation comes in a variety of forms. To recognise the scope for greater direct democracy at the local level leaves open the question of the form it should take. If the aim is to encourage the participation of those having concrete direct interest in a given matter, the classic forms of referenda and citizens' ballot are ideal. New Management user initiatives enable a similar dialogue with citizens. If the issue is ensuring the presence of the traditionally excluded or enabling a more deliberative, reflective public debate, then other experiments in participation have some advantages. The key issue is to select the participation mechanism appropriate to the goal or perspective that is held.


Participation through associations (other than political parties and groups)


43.       Associations with their base in civil society are seen as crucial to sustain a democratic culture and providing the driving force for democratic practice. Their emergence and impact are affected by wider patterns of economic and social change. There is a considerable debate among academics about whether civic engagement through associational involvements is declining or not as a result of the atomising, high pressured economic and social environment of the late 20th century. However there is a recognition of both sides of the argument that governments can engage in strategic intervention that will support associational activity. The key issue is how to support associations while maintaining their distinctive qualities and independence and enabling them to make a positive contribution to local democracy.


44.       Local authorities and municipalities in member states have developed a number of measures to support associations. They include: the provision of grants to support activities and projects, the offer of contracts to undertake service provision, access to specialist expertise and advice and support through provision of meeting places, photocopying facilities and other key resources.


45.       There is a danger that support provided from government can create too great a dependence on government. There may be an argument for developing “arms-length” or “intermediary” institutions to manage the relationship and help sustain the independence of the associational sector. It is important to recognise the diversity of the associational world which ranges from the professionalised staffed and well-resourced to the grass-root, fragile and under-resourced. Strategies to support the voluntary sector need to take into account this diversity.


Second conclusion:  a wide range of approaches and measures are available for encouraging citizen participation


46.       This overview leads to an extremely important conclusion:  there are many different possible approaches and a wide variety of measures to promote citizens' participation. The approaches and measures must be adapted to the circumstances of each state, or even to the different circumstances facing local communities within a particular state.


47.       In order to be effective, therefore, any strategy to encourage citizens' participation in local public life cannot be based on rigid solutions and must be concerned with empowerment rather than laying down rules. 


48.       In addition, any effective strategy must grasp the complexity of the issue of citizens' participation and take account of the various aspects of this issue, each of which may in turn have subtle distinctions. The impact of the measures taken to encourage citizens' participation can be considerably enhanced (or diminished) by the fact that they are part of a coherent whole (or, conversely, by the fact that they are implemented in a disjointed manner).


49.       Accordingly, policy-makers and citizens generally should have a wide range of participation instruments at their disposal and the opportunity (and ability) to combine these various instruments and to adapt the way in which they are used, according to the circumstances. 


V.        Structure and content of the Recommendation


50.       The Recommendation opens with the preamble which, to a large extent, is explained by the above considerations or borrows from previous instruments, in particular the preamble of Recommendation N° R (81) 18.


51.       The Recommendation then consists of four recommendations to the governments of member states of the Council of Europe. 


52.       It is supplemented by two appendices which set out guidelines and form an integral part of the Recommendation:


-          Appendix I sets out the basic principles by which policy-makers should be guided;


-          Appendix II outlines the various types of practical measures or steps which should be taken into consideration in order to encourage, stimulate and strengthen citizens' participation;


The recommendations to the governments of member states

First Recommendation


53.       This concerns the framing, in co-operation with local and, where applicable, regional authorities, of a policy designed to promote citizens' participation in local public life, based on the principles contained in Appendix I.


54.       In other words, the states are asked not only to devise a strategy, a framework for their activities or a programme to encourage participation, but also to raise the level of their intervention to the level of a “policy”. It should be noted that the Recommendation is concerned with participation at local level; the relevant policy can (or even should) nevertheless form part of a wider policy of participation pure and simple.


55.       Framing the local participation policy requires the intervention both of the government and national parliament, and of the regional and local authorities, because it is these latter authorities which will be directly affected and a number of measures lie within their competence. Accordingly, the governments are asked to involve these authorities in the framing of the policy.


Second Recommendation


56.       The governments are then asked to adopt, in the context of the policy thus defined, the measures within their power, while drawing inspiration from the measures listed in Appendix II to the Recommendation.


57.       It is expressly stated that these measures should aim, in particular, to improve the legal framework for citizens' participation in local public life.


58.       Within this context, in order that local and regional authorities should be able to play an effective role in promoting participation, the governments of member states are asked to ensure that national legislation and regulations enable these authorities to employ a wide range of participation instruments.


Third Recommendation


59.       Framing and implementing the local participation policy is largely a matter for local and regional authorities. This policy cannot succeed, therefore, without the commitment and joint efforts of authorities at all levels.


60.       In keeping with established practice, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe does not address its recommendations to local and regional authorities; it can, nevertheless, as in this case, ask the governments to encourage and stimulate the activities of local and regional authorities.


61.       Accordingly, these authorities should be invited:


-          to subscribe to the principles contained in Appendix I to the Recommendation and to undertake to actually implement the policy of promoting citizens' participation in local public life;


-          to improve local regulations and practical arrangements concerning citizens' participation in local public life, and to take any other measures within their power to promote citizens' participation, with due regard for the measures listed in Appendix II to the Recommendation.


Fourth Recommendation


62.       The governments of member states and, more broadly, public authorities at all levels have a key role to play in promoting citizens' participation in local public life.


63.       Participation in the life of the local community, however, is also a matter for civil society and its various associations, including the political parties. The political parties in particular can greatly contribute to the “participation policy”, eg as regards achieving more balanced representation of certain categories of citizens, especially women, in elected bodies.


64.       Participation is also, of course, primarily the concern of every citizen. While, on the one hand, it can be said that public authorities should guarantee their citizens' right to participate, it can also be argued that it is up to citizens and their associations to make their local elected representatives aware of their needs and wishes as regards the instruments and practical arrangements for their participation in community life. Secondly, they should be prepared to assume the responsibility inherent in this right to participation, whose exercise can in some cases amount to a civic duty. 


65.       For this reason, the Committee of Ministers asks the governments of member states to ensure that the present Recommendation is translated into the official language or languages of their respective countries and, in ways it considers appropriate, to publish it and to bring it to the attention of their local and regional authorities.


66.       For it firmly believes that this text can help strengthen the resolve of any citizen to become more involved, in one way or another, in the public life of their community.


The appendices


The key principles of a “local democratic participation policy”


67.       The need for flexibility when determining the approach and measures for promoting participation explains why the Committee of Ministers chose to draft a flexible, non-binding legal instrument in this area. What matters is the end result and it is for states to chose the appropriate means, with due regard for the circumstances and the wishes of their citizens.


68.       It has nevertheless been possible to identify some general principles; it is thus proposed that the states adopt these as key elements of a “local democratic participation policy”. These principles constitute the hard core of the Recommendation.


Practical measures and steps


69.       When it comes to actually implementing a policy in keeping with these principles, states have a wide margin of discretion. This is only fitting, as the circumstances vary considerably, as do the public needs and expectations which states are required to address.


70.       The experience of the states concerned, as contained in the CDLR report, shows that there are a great many instruments, mechanisms and forms of participation which have various advantages (or disadvantages), and some of which are more suited than others to encouraging, stimulating and strengthening participation, depending on the circumstances. The most significant examples of measures or steps which should be considered in order to pursue this aim are outlined in Appendix II. 


VI.       Glossary


71.       The purpose of the following glossary is to ensure a better understanding of the text of the Recommendation. At the same time, it provides a basis for standardising the terminology used in the Council of Europe's work in this area and describes the main instruments of direct participation which public authorities may use. However, in no way do the definitions below affect or modify the legal definitions and concepts embodied by national constitutions or laws.


72.       Therefore, as an example, the definition of the term “citizen” for the purpose of the present Recommendation does not modify the meaning or the extent given to this concept by the internal legal order of each individual member State. Moreover, the intention is not to give definitions which force states to change the terminology that they normally use.  Accordingly, the terms and expressions as described below may well be known in a given state under a different name from that used in the Recommendation. Likewise, the name used in the Recommendation to refer to a particular instrument may mean different things to different legal systems.


73.       Nevertheless, for the purpose of interpreting the present Recommendation, the following definitions and explanations are the ones which should be used.


74.       All definitions that follow relate to the "local" dimension of political life. However, for simplicity, "local" has not been used for qualifying the terms and expressions defined below.


Citizen Every person (including foreigners) belonging to a local community. This involves the existence of a stable link between the individual and the community.


Citizens' forums → Ongoing bodies which meet on a regular basis. They may have a set membership or operate on an "open" basis. Sometimes they have the power to make recommendations to specific council committees or even to share in the decision-making process. The following forums may be distinguished:


-             Service user forums (which discuss issues relating to the management and development of a particular service);


-             Issue forums (which focus on particular questions of interest to the community);


-             Shared interest forums (which concentrate on the needs of a particular citizen group, e.g. young people or minority ethnic groups);


-             Area / neighbourhood forums (whose members are – at least mainly – residents of a particular geographically-defined area or neighbourhood; they may deal with services and matters of concern to the area or neighbourhood under consideration; they may or may not have dedicated officers attached to them; they may have a close link with the relevant ward councillors or with councillors responsible for the category of services under discussion).


Citizens' juries → Groups of citizens (chosen to be a fair representation of the local population) brought together to consider a particular issue set by the local authority. Citizens' juries receive evidence from expert witnesses and cross-questioning can occur. The process may last some days, at the end of which a report is drawn up setting out the views of the jury, including any differences in opinion. Juries' views are intended to inform councillors' decision-making.


Citizens' panel → Ongoing body made up of a statistically representative sample of citizens whose views are sought several times a year. They focus on specific service or policy issues, or on wider strategies.


Co-option / involvement in a council committee → Co-optees are citizens who usually represent a particular community group or set of interests on local council committees or working parties. In some cases these citizens act merely in an advisory capacity but in others they play a full role in decision-making.


Council of children / youth council → Assembly, established for a municipality or a neighbourhood, and made up of young people or children elected by their peers, usually co-chaired by one of its members together with the mayor or the municipal councillor responsible for youth affairs. It may discuss issues concerning most directly the category of age it represents and may draw up and implement projects, on the basis of a budget allocated by the local authority.


Decision-making process → It includes: definition and consideration of the issues to be dealt with; proposals for solutions and instigation of regulatory measures; deliberation and decision taking; implementation of decisions adopted; follow-up and assessment of measures implemented.


Direct participation Involvement of local citizens – individually or collectively – in the various stages of the decision-making process at local level, alongside or instead of their elected representatives. This involvement takes tangible forms in a number of arrangements, mechanisms and procedures associating citizens in the regulatory activity usually incumbent on the elected bodies (local councils in particular) and in the management of local public services. The various forms of such involvement go from mere information through dialogue and consultation to direct decision-making and direct users' management of certain services.


Focus group → One-off meeting of citizens brought together to discuss a specific issue. Focus groups need not be representative of the general population and may involve a particular citizen group only. Discussions (which typically last no more than two hours) may focus on the specific needs of that group, on the quality of a particular service, or on ideas for broader policy or strategy. Focus groups do not generally call expert witnesses.


Interactive web-site → This may be based on the internet or on a local authority-specific intranet. "Interactive" initiatives enable the citizens to send e-mail messages on particular local issues or services for which local authorities are responsible and get an answer, open a dialogue. Therefore, these initiatives differ substantially from the mere provision of information.


Opinion polls → These are a tool of direct participation on a random basis, used to find out citizens' views on given issues, which are submitted to a sample of citizens who are representative of the various social groups of the community.  A classic opinion poll is a way of obtaining citizens' immediate reactions. Deliberative opinion polls are used to compare a group of citizens' reactions before and after they have had the opportunity to discuss the issue at hand.


Participation through the mechanisms of representative democracy → It includes: participation in local elections / the exercise of electoral rights (right to vote and right to stand) for determining the members of (decision-making and executive) representative bodies; the exercise of the electoral mandate within the framework of the functioning of local authority bodies.


Popular consultation → Consultative referendum (see Referendum, below).


Popular initiative → Instrument which gives effect to a right of proposal granted to citizens to bring about a decision by the local deliberative body, if need be. The popular initiative may take the form of a proposal drawn up in general terms or a fully drafted project. It is introduced by a minimum number of persons entitled to vote. The legal value of the result of ballots may vary according to the case.


Public meeting or assembly of citizens → General meeting of the electorate of a local community, initiated by the local council or executive body, or convened at the request of citizens / of a given number of electors. It gives the opportunity to obtain public views on particular issues or facilitate debate on broad options for a specific service, a project or a policy. Its function may be advisory or decision-making. In some cases, the citizens' assembly is the deliberative body of the community, within a system of direct democracy at local level.


Question and answer sessions → These are held at the end of council or committee meetings, providing citizens with an opportunity to direct questions at elected members.


Referendum → Instrument whereby a plan or decision is submitted to the judgement of the local community. According to the case, the referendum is initiated either by the local bodies (or a given number of elected representatives) or citizens themselves (through a request bearing a minimum number of signatures by residents or electors). A consultative referendum (which is not binding on the local bodies) must be distinguished from a decision-making referendum (the result of which is binding on local bodies).


Right of presenting petitions, applications, proposals or claims → In all these cases, there is a right for an individual or a group to address the relevant local body. The latter must, in general, examine the question submitted to it and reply, although it is not obliged to give a positive answer.


Satisfaction surveys → These may be one-off or regular initiatives, focusing either on specific services or on the local authority's general performance. Surveys may be carried out in a variety of ways (e.g. postal or door-to-door) and may cover the entire local authority population or a particular group of service users or citizens.


User management of services → The initiatives of this kind imply direct control of citizens over the management of local services and resources. Such initiatives usually operate through an executive committee, elected by the wider group of users.


Visioning exercises → A range of methods (including focus groups) may be used within a visioning exercise, the purpose of which is to establish the "vision" participants have of the future and the kind of future they would like to create. Visioning may be used to enlighten broad strategy for a locality, or may have a more specific focus.


Ways of voting which are alternative to the vote at the polling station → Electoral arrangements seeking to facilitate the exercise of the right to vote by enabling the electors to vote in a different manner or time or place than the traditional ones. For example, they include the following modalities:


-          Early ballot (the electors may vote before the official election day);

-          Voting at post offices (post offices operate as polling stations);

-          Postal ballot (the ballot-sheet is addressed to the elector, who sends it back, duly completed, in a closed envelope);

-          Electronic ballot (the electors fill in an electronic ballot-sheet and vote through a computer connected to the numeric network)

-          Home ballot and voting in hospitals, barracks, prisons (ballot-sheets are distributed, filled in and collected in these places, so that certain categories of persons facing real difficulties or who are even unable to attend the polling station may exercise their right to vote);

-          Proxy ballot (the elector who is unable to attend the polling station has the possibility of instructing a person who accomplishes the act of voting on his/her behalf).


B.        Draft recommendation No. R (2001)…of the Committee of Ministers to member states on the participation of citizens in local public life


The Committee of Ministers, under the terms of Article 15.b of the Statute of the Council of Europe,


Considering that the aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage and to foster their economic and social progress;


Considering that participation of citizens is at the very heart of the idea of democracy and that citizens committed to democratic values, mindful of their civic duties and who become involved in political activity are the lifeblood of any democratic system;


Convinced that local democracy is one of the cornerstones of democracy in European countries and that its reinforcement is a factor of stability;


Noting that local democracy has to operate in a new challenging context resulting not only from structural and functional changes in local government organisation, but also from the radical political, economic and social developments that have occurred in Europe and the process of globalisation;


Aware that public expectations have evolved, that local politics are changing form and that this requires more direct, flexible and ad hoc methods of participation;


Considering that, in certain circumstances, the level of trust people have in their elected institutions has declined and that there is a need for state institutions to re-engage with and respond to the public in new ways to maintain the legitimacy of decision-making;


Recognising that a wide variety of measures are available to promote citizen participation and these can be adapted to the different circumstances of local communities;


Considering that the right of citizens to have their say in major decisions entailing long-term commitments or choices which are difficult to reverse and concern a majority of citizens is one of the democratic principles common to all member states of the Council of Europe;


Considering that this right can be most directly exercised at local level and that, accordingly, steps should be taken to involve citizens more directly in the management of local affairs, while safeguarding the effectiveness and efficiency of such management;

Reaffirming its belief that representative democracy is part of the common heritage of member states and is the basis of the participation of citizens in public life at national, regional and local level;


Considering that dialogue between citizens and local elected representatives is essential for local democracy, as it strengthens the legitimacy of local democratic institutions and the effectiveness of their action;


Considering that, in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, local authorities have and must assume a leading role in promoting citizens' participation and that the success of any “local democratic participation policy” depends on the commitment of these authorities;


Having regard to Recommendation No. R (81) 18 of the Committee of Ministers to member states concerning participation at municipal level and considering that the changes that have taken place since its adoption justify that the latter be replaced by the present Recommendation;


Having regard to Opinion …….of the Parliamentary Assembly;


Having regard to Opinion 15(2001) of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe and to the Congress' texts which are relevant in the field;


Recommends that the governments of member states:


1.         frame a policy, involving local and – where applicable – regional authorities, designed to promote citizens' participation in local public life, drawing on the principles of the European Charter of Local Self-Government adopted as an international treaty on 15 October 1985 and ratified to date by a large majority of Council of Europe member states, as well as on the principles contained in Appendix I to this Recommendation;


2.         adopt, within the context of the policy thus defined and taking into account the measures listed in Appendix II to this Recommendation, the measures within their power, in particular with a view to improving the legal framework for participation and ensuring that national legislation and regulations enable local and regional authorities to employ a wide range of participation instruments in conformity with paragraph 1 of Recommendation No. R (2000) 14 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on local taxation, financial equalisation and grants to local authorities;


3.         invite, in an appropriate way, local and regional authorities:


-           to subscribe to the principles contained in Appendix I to this Recommendation and to undertake the effective implementation of the policy of promoting citizens' participation in local public life;


-           to improve local regulations and practical arrangements concerning citizens' participation in local public life, and to take any other measures within their power to promote citizens' participation, with due regard for the measures listed in Appendix II to this Recommendation;


4.         ensure that this Recommendation is translated into the official language or languages of their respective countries and, in ways they consider appropriate, is published and brought to the attention of local and regional authorities;


Decides that this Recommendation will replace Recommendation No. R (81) 18 concerning participation at municipal level. 


Appendix I


Basic principles of a local democratic participation policy


1.         Guarantee the right of citizens to have access to clear, comprehensive information about the various matters of concern to their local community and to have a say in major decisions affecting its future.


2.         Seek for new ways to enhance civic-mindedness and to promote a culture of democratic participation shared by communities and local authorities.


3.         Develop the awareness of belonging to a community and encourage citizens to accept their responsibility to contribute to the life of their communities.


4.         Accord major importance to communication between public authorities and citizens and encourage local leaders to give emphasis to citizens' participation and careful consideration to their demands and expectations, so as to provide an appropriate response to the needs which they express.


5.         Adopt a comprehensive approach to the issue of citizens' participation, having regard both to the machinery of representative democracy and to the forms of direct participation in the decision-making process and the management of local affairs.


6.         Avoid overly rigid solutions and allow for experimentation, giving priority to empowerment rather than to laying down rules; consequently, provide for a wide range of participation instruments, and the possibility of combining them and adapting the way they are used according to the circumstances.


7.         Start from an in-depth assessment of the situation as regards local participation, establish appropriate benchmarks and introduce a monitoring system for tracking any changes therein, in order to identify the causes of any positive or negative trends in citizen participation, and in order to gauge the impact of the mechanisms adopted.


8.         Enable the exchange of information between and within countries on best practices in citizen participation, support local authorities' mutual learning about the effectiveness of the various participation methods and ensure that the public is fully informed about the whole range of opportunities available.


9.         Pay particular attention to those categories of citizens who have greater difficulty becoming actively involved or who, de facto, remain on the sidelines of local public life.


10.       Recognise the importance of a fair representation of women in local politics.


11        Recognise the potential that children and young people represent for the sustainable development of local communities and emphasise the role they can play.


12.       Recognise and enhance the role played by associations and groups of citizens as key partners in developing and sustaining a culture of participation and as a driving force in the practical application of democratic participation.


13.       Enlist the joint effort of the authorities at every territorial level, with each authority being responsible for taking appropriate action within its competence, according to the principle of subsidiarity.


Appendix II


Steps and measures to encourage and reinforce citizens' participation in local public life


A.        General steps and measures


1.         Ascertain whether, in a complex and increasingly globalised world, the relevance of local action and decision-making is made clear to the public by identifying core roles for local authorities in a changing environment.


2.         Give proper emphasis to these roles and ascertain, if necessary, whether the balance of powers exercised at national, regional and local levels is such as to ensure that a sufficient capacity for local action lies with local authorities and elected representatives to provide the necessary stimulus and motivation for civic involvement. In this context, make use of every opportunity for functional decentralisation, for example by delegating more responsibilities with regard to schools, day nurseries and other facilities for children or infants, care facilities for the elderly, hospitals and health centres, sport and recreation centres, theatres, libraries, etc.


3.         Improve citizenship education and incorporate into school curricula and training syllabuses the objective of promoting awareness of the responsibilities that are incumbent on each individual in a democratic society, in particular within the local community, whether as an elected representative, local administrator, public servant or ordinary citizen.


4.         Encourage local elected representatives and local authorities, by any suitable means including the drafting of codes of conduct, to behave in a manner consistent with the high ethical standards and ensure compliance with these standards. 


5.         Introduce greater transparency into the way local institutions and authorities operate, and in particular:


i.          ensure the public nature of the local decision-making process (publication of agendas of local council and local executive meetings; meetings of the local council and its committees open to the public; question and answer sessions, publication of minutes of meetings and decisions, etc.);


ii.         ensure and facilitate access by any citizen to information concerning local affairs (setting up information bureaus, documentation centres, public databases; making use of information technology; simplifying administrative formalities and reducing the cost of obtaining copies of documents, etc.);


iii.         provide adequate information on administrative bodies and their organisational structure, and inform citizens who are directly affected by any ongoing proceedings of the progress of these proceedings and the identity of the persons in charge.      


6.         Implement a fully-fledged communication policy, in order to afford citizens the opportunity to better understand the main issues of concern to the community and the implications of the major political decisions which its bodies are called upon to make, and to inform citizens about the opportunities for, and forms of, participation in local public life.


7.         Develop, both in the most populated urban centres and in rural areas, a form of neighbourhood democracy, so as to give citizens more influence over their local environment and municipal activities in the various areas of the municipality. More specifically:


i.          set up, at sub-municipal level, bodies, where appropriate elected or composed of elected representatives, which could be given advisory and information functions and possibly delegated executive powers;


ii.         set up, at sub-municipal level, administrative offices to facilitate contacts between local authorities and citizens;


iii.         adopt, in each area, an integrated approach to the organisation and provision of public services, based on a willingness to listen to citizens and geared to the needs which they express;


iv.        encourage local residents to become involved – directly or via neighbourhood associations – in the design and implementation of projects which have a direct bearing on their environment, such as the creation and maintenance of green areas and playgrounds, the fight against crime, the introduction of support/self-help facilities (childcare, care for the elderly, etc.).


B.        Steps and measures concerning participation in local elections and the system of representative democracy


1.         Conduct audits of the functioning of local electoral systems in order to ascertain whether there are any fundamental flaws or voting arrangements that might discourage particular sections of the population from voting and consider the possibilities of correcting those flaws or arrangements.


2.         Endeavour to promote participation in elections. Where necessary, conduct information campaigns to explain how to vote and to encourage people in general to register to vote and to use their vote. Information campaigns targeted at particular sections of the population may also be an appropriate option.


3.         Conduct audits of voter registration and electoral turnout in order to determine whether there is any change in the general pattern or whether there are any problems involving particular categories or groups of citizens who show little interest in voting.


4.         Consider measures to make voting more convenient given the complexity and demands of modern lifestyles, e.g.:


i.          review the way in which polling stations operate (number of polling stations, accessibility, opening hours, etc.);


ii.         introduce new voting options, involving alternative dates and locations (early voting, postal voting, post office voting, electronic voting, etc.);


iii.         introduce specific forms of assistance (for example for disabled or illiterate people) or other special voting arrangements for particular categories of voters (voting by proxy, home voting, hospital voting, voting in barracks or prisons, etc.).


5.         Where necessary, in order to better gauge the impact of any measures envisaged, conduct (or allow) pilot schemes to test the new voting arrangements.


6.         Examine the procedures for selecting candidates to stand for local elective office and consider, for example:


i.          whether voters should be involved in the process of selecting candidates, for instance by introducing the possibility of presenting independent lists or individual candidatures, or by giving voters the option of casting one or more preference votes;


ii.         whether voters should be given a stronger influence in the election or appointment of the (heads of the) local executives; this can be achieved by direct elections, binding referendums or other methods.


7.         Examine the issues relating to plurality of elective office, so as to adopt measures designed to prevent simultaneous office-holding where it would hinder the proper performance of the relevant duties or would lead to conflicts of interest.


8.         Examine the conditions governing the exercise of elective office, in order to determine whether particular aspects of the status of local elected representatives or the practical arrangements for exercising office might hinder involvement in politics. Where appropriate, consider measures designed to remove these obstacles and, in particular, to enable elected representatives to devote the appropriate time to their duties and to relieve them from certain economic constraints.


C.        Steps and measures to encourage direct public participation in local decision-making and the management of local affairs


1.         Promote dialogue between citizens and local elected representatives and make local authorities aware of the various techniques for communicating with the public, and the wide range of ways in which the public can play a direct part in decision-making. Such awareness could be developed through the publication of guidelines (e.g. in the form of a charter for public participation at local level), the holding of conferences and seminars or the establishment of a well-maintained website so that examples of good practice could be posted and accessed.


2.         Develop, through surveys and discussions, an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the various instruments of citizens' participation in decision-making and encourage innovation and experimentation in local authorities' efforts to communicate with the public and involve it more closely in the decision-making process.


3.         Make full use, in particular, of:


i.          new information and communication technologies, and take steps to ensure that local authorities and other public bodies use (in addition to the traditional and still valuable methods such as formal public notices or official leaflets) the full range of communications facilities available (interactive websites, multi-channel broadcast media, etc.);


ii.         more deliberative forms of decision-making, i.e. involving the exchange of information and opinions, for example:  public meetings of citizens; citizens' juries and various types of forums, groups, public committees whose function is to advise or make proposals; round tables, opinion polls, user surveys, etc.


4.         Introduce or, where necessary, improve the legislation/regulations which enable:


i.          petitions/motions, proposals and complaints filed by citizens with the local council or local authorities;


ii.         popular initiatives, calling on elected bodies to deal with the matters raised in the initiative in order to provide citizens with a response or initiate the referendum procedure;


iii.         consultative or decision-making referendums on matters of local concern, called by local authorities on their own initiative or at the request of the local community;


iv.        devices for co-opting citizens to decision-making bodies, including representative bodies;


v.         devices for involving citizens in management (user committees, partnership boards, direct management of services by citizens, etc.).


5.         Give citizens more influence over local planning and, in a general manner, over strategic and long-term decisions; more specifically:


i.          give citizens the opportunity to become involved in the various stages of the decision-making process concerning these decisions, notably by dividing this process into several stages (for example programming, drafting of projects and alternatives, implementation, budgetary and financial planning);


ii.         illustrate each phase of the planning process by means of a lucid, intelligible material that is readily accessible to the public, using, if possible, in addition to the traditional methods (maps, scale models, audiovisual material) the other media available through new technologies (CD-Rom, DVD, electronic documentary bases accessible to the public).  


6.         Develop systematic feed-back mechanisms to involve citizens in the evaluation and the improvement of local management.


7.         Ensure that direct participation has a real impact on the decision-making process, that citizens are well informed about the impact of their participation and that they see tangible results. Participation that is purely symbolic or used to simply grant legitimacy to pre-ordained decisions is unlikely to win public support. However, local authorities must be honest with the public about the limitations of the forms of direct participation on offer, and avoid arousing exaggerated expectations about the possibility of accommodating the various interests involved, particularly when decisions are made between conflicting interests or about rationing resources.  


8.         Encourage and duly recognise the spirit of volunteering that exists in many local communities, for example through grant schemes or other forms of support and encouragement for non-profit, voluntary and community organisations, citizens' action groups, etc., or through the forging of contracts or agreements between these organisations and local authorities concerning the respective rights, roles and expectations of these parties in their dealings with one another.


D.        Specific steps and measures to encourage categories of citizens who, for various reasons, have greater difficulty in participating


1.         Collect, on a regular basis, information on the participation of the various categories of citizens and ascertain whether certain ones such as women, young people, underprivileged social groups and certain professional groups are under-represented in the elected bodies and/or play little or no part in electoral or direct forms of participation.


2.         Set targets for achieving certain levels of representation and/or participation of the groups of citizens concerned and devise packages of specific measures to increase the opportunities for their participation, for example:


i.          introduce, for the groups of citizens concerned, an active communications and information policy including, where appropriate, specific media campaigns to encourage them to participate (consideration will be given to adopting a particular language, media and campaign style geared to the needs of each group);


ii.         introduce specific institutional forms of participation, designed, where possible, in consultation with the group or groups of citizens whose involvement is being encouraged (there is a wide range of possibilities for meeting the specific needs of various groups, such as various forms of meetings, conferencing or co-option);


iii.         appoint officials specifically responsible for dealing with matters of concern to the excluded groups, passing on their demands for change to the relevant decision-making bodies and reporting back to the groups on the progress made and the response (positive or negative) given to their demands.


3.         As regards women in particular:


i.          emphasise the importance of a fair representation of women in decision-making bodies and consider any arrangements which might make it easier to combine active political involvement with family and working life;


ii.         consider, if legally possible, the introduction of compulsory or recommended quota systems for the minimum number of same-sex candidates who can appear on an electoral list and/or a quota of seats reserved for women on local councils, local executive bodies and the various committees and boards formed by local bodies.


4.         As regards young people in particular:


i.          develop the school as an important common arena for young people's participation and democratic learning process;


ii.         promote “children's council” and “youth council” type initiatives at municipal level, as genuinely useful means of education in local citizenship, in addition to opportunities for dialogue with the youngest members of society;


iii.         encourage youth associations and, in particular, promote the development of flexible forms and structures for community involvement, such as youth centres, making full use of young people's capacity to design projects themselves and to implement them;


iv.        consider the reduction of the age for voting in or standing for local elections and for participating in local referendums, consultations and popular initiatives;


v.         consider the various other types of initiative suggested by the European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Municipal and Regional Life adopted by the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe in 1992.


5.         As regards foreigners in particular, encourage their active participation in the life of the local community on a non-discriminatory basis, by complying with the provisions contained in the Council of Europe's Convention on the participation of foreigners in public life at local level of 1992, even when its provisions are not legally binding on states, or, at least, by drawing inspiration from the mechanisms referred to in this Convention. 



[1]                  The participation of citizens in local public life – “Local and regional authorities in Europe N° 72.

[2]                  A non-exhaustive list of the main reports prepared by the intergovernmental sector on issues related to citizens' participation in local public life, as well as a few recent texts from the Parliamentary Assembly and the CLRAE will be published at a later stage.



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