Data democracy or deliberative democracy?

Democracy and the Water Framework Directive

Governance increasingly takes place beyond the state. Today, decision-making processes can involve the market, civil society, and private citizens on the one hand and supranational institutions such as the EU on the other. In this light, we need to rethink democracy. Conventional democratic principles such as one man-one vote no longer correspond well with the complex reality in which decisions are made. As a result, new forms of democracy increasingly show up and are drawn upon in order to provide policies with legitimacy or make them accountable. For instance, public  participation is increasingly recognized as an important step in the process of policy formulation.  Furthermore, policy is increasingly made accountable through reporting requirements that ensure access to information and by means of performance targets. Although they are gaining use and recognition, these new forms of democracy are not fully established. The democratic value of public participation is not always recognized and sometimes outright questioned. Equally, reporting does not necessarily bring more transparency nor do performance targets in themselves lead to higher accountability.  A lot depends on how these new forms of democracy are valued, how their meanings are constructed during the policy process, and how they are performed in practice. 

Within the framework of the NWO-project called ‘ Contested Democracy’ , the research project  engages with these questions by studying how the EU Water Framework Directive  took shape in the Netherlands. This directive is an excellent example of a new mode of EU governance and specifically integrates the abovementioned new forms of democracy.  The project results show how different democratic norms and ideals combine into a dream of democratic governance. In addition, the project shows how elements of governance such a participation or ecological quality goals never operate in an isolated fashion, but are always part of larger processes of governance, in which established roles and norms are not easily changed by institutional innovations. The project also shows how democratic  legitimacy is constructed in processes of governance, and how the movement  towards more  deliberative processes can be hindered by political dynamics. It furthermore shows that formalized  public participation is only one of many ways in which to take part in decision-making, and therefore only one of many bases in which to root democracy. Other results discuss how economic analyses, reporting requirements, and ecologic goals all play their part in the decision-making process.  What those parts consist off and what they look like is subject to continuous change and adaptation during the governance process and only becomes apparent in practice. As such, the roles of new elements of governance are not certain or fixed.  They sometimes contribute to democracy, but just as easily can be lost in politics and tokenism.  As such, they are contested forms of democracy; contested to the extent in which they contribute to democracy, but also to the extent in how they function and what they mean.