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Improving Democracy Through Dialogue – Stockholm, Sweden May 2018




I am writing this during the lunchtime session of day one at the SALAR conference on Participatory Budgeting.  I am in Stockholm, Sweden (a very expensive place to eat and drink – £8 for a beer!).

This blog is a way of me adopting the role of social reporter – not a role that was officially allocated to me but one that I have assumed after an inspiring morning: I wanted to capture for me and for others what I have heard so far so that it doesn’t get lost in my messy brain!  It is therefore a series of points (22 to be precise) that resonated with my extensive experience of supporting, training, and promoting PB in the UK.

Forgive the lack of structure and analysis – take what you need in terms of the points made to help you strengthen your approach to PB.


  1. Ann-Margerethe Livh, the housing and democracy Mayor of the City of Stockholm opened with a comment about how the lack of trust and disconnect with voters and voting is dangerous: we must avoid the call for strong leaders in democracy and instead extend and strengthen our approach to participation.
  2. Edward Andersson spoke about this being a good time to think about strengthening democracy: for those of us that have been in this game for years, our parents may still not know what we actually do, but nowadays our public sector is most definitely more attuned to what we are doing and interested in embedding participation in their world of public service.
  3. Giovanni Allegreti said that participation provides the strong walls to a house whilst the earthquake is happening – we are in an earthquake of democratic politics and participation is a way of strengthening our resolve as the earthquake plays out and strengthens our method of resistance to the negative implications of this changing democratic landscape
  4. He also said that we ‘castrate and vandalise the creative ideas’ within communities by not wanting to talk about budgets and expectations of managing those budgets – redistribution and recognition are the essence of PB he argued
  5. And then he went on to say that the methodologies we use are VERY important – PB is cyclical and must be so to create the social and cultural capital that can strengthen democracy
  6. After apologising for the election of Donald Trump, Josh Lerner said that we have a crisis in our democracy – it is neither representative nor democratic any more and people are literally dying as a result of that disconnect between government and the people: government is now seen as the problem rather than the solutions to problems and that is largely based on a lack of trust
  7. Elections can’t fix that problem because it is essentially about relationships – we need to DO things better; we need to co produce; we need to dream big: talking more creates better representation, and with a diverse voice in our political system we can make better decisions.
  8. But Josh also acknowledged that people must have a reason to engage and Edward paraphrased his talk by suggesting that government and their local administrations are moving from ‘delivering what’s needed’ to more relationship building that can improve delivery when it is needed
  9. Martin Sande (who I think is my favourite out of a set of fantastic speakers) said we have a crisis of efficiency and legiltimacy according to the eyes of the people. We must democratise participation too – we must ensure we don’t just build houses but we also ask how we should live together – that requires a power shift and a need for greater democratising of our participatory processes.  He said when things are tough we need to open up not close down.
  10. Politicians are part of the problem in Martin’s mind but they are also part of the solution. If we don’t open up we create structural arrogance, which leads us to make decisions through our own interpretation of what we hear (I see this so often!!!)
  11. Martin also spoke about the need to recognise the zone we work in is one of complexity and we must stop trying to create a single solution out of that complexity – there isn’t one! We must accept complexity and manage it through greater participation (ooh plenty of my followers might want to take note of that one!)
  12. He challenged the audience (largely local government workers and academics) to stop sitting around the fire chatting with post it notes and jump right into the fire – sit in it – it is uncomfortable and we need to listen more to those deeper dialogues (I am sure he will let me keep a flame proof version of post its though – his point was don’t make the post it’s the point – make the difficult dialogue the point – I think!)
  13. Our engagement is often wrapped in barbed wire he said (ooh ouch – yes I agree with him!) Our engagement must change – participation can enrich representative democracy and should not challenge it as many fear (or argue if they don’t want to let go of power)
  14. And then he moved to another warning for us – the polarisation of digitisation – we must have more face to face and not depend of digital – dialogue must be facilitated in person. We see each other and hear each other differently. Yes! Yes! Yes!
  15. Anne Tortzen, Centre for Borgerdialog, Denmark, spoke a lot about coproduction and the negativity of New Public Management and its influence on the way we govern: how effective is it?  Where is the evidence? Where are the results? We want everything now – but the two paradigms of coproduction and NPM are distinct.  We need to support people to work differently
  16. Shift the way we think – what makes bad practice and how do we learn from that? asked Edward
  17. Martin asked ‘why do we have a desire to control?” – officers and politicians use a lack of presence to justify what we think is right and good. We need 360 degree listening in communities to benefit from losing control
  18. Giovanni said one of the problems is that those officials think they can facilitate but they can’t – they too listen to those they want to and close down different voices. They decide what is important and forget the central points made by citizens (this is a prominent issue for those we work with; they turn the dialogue into something convenient to them and we have to be a strong critical friend!)
  19. Josh said engagement needs to be iterative and learn from failure
  20. Martin said we need to move away from our linear approach of start/finish – choose a different form of sequencing over a longer period of time
  21. Giovanni added, we need to use participation to understand conflict, not to mask it and Josh encouraged participants to show how it can help those people who don’t value its intrinsic values
  22. Messages from the speakers to delegates were:
    1. Be curious – you really don’t know it all!
    2. Have hallway conversations to helpeach other
    3. Try to remember we are not unique – try the cultural translation
    4. Reflect and focus on learning – do it differently next time!

Table discussion gave the following strap-lines:


  • Foreigners are just friends we haven’t met yet
  • House new immigrants with existing communities from the start
  • PB is a catalyst for finding new people, new faces

Written by Susan Ritchie 17.05.18