Associative Democracy: advisory councils in a multilevel setting


Sectorial and territorially based advisory councils are the most common of all existing participatory devices. However, the generalised perception that they perform in most cases basically a ritual role and their limited media visibility has resulted in an almost complete lack of research about their development and results. This scepticism and lack of rigorous knowledge does not entail that they are being abandoned. In fact, they continue to have a relevant role (sometimes substantive, others symbolic) at different policy levels and areas. In fact, some of the Spanish newly elected local corporations have plans to reinvigorate their performance.

Well known international research is quite limited (Fung, 2004) and the same thing happens with Spanish literature, limited quite often to the analysis of one single experience or a small set of them (Navarro, 1999; Font and Blanco, 2003). To bo beyond this limited evidence, the project will have two main objectives: 1) to establish a clear comparative mapping of the existence of these councils in Spain, going from the local level (municipalities above 200.000 inhabitants) to the national level in a set of policy areas. 2) To understand what makes a consultation council perform well (voice and relevance), in order to provide useful inputs for their potential redesign.

Methodologically, the project will incorporate quantitative and qualitative tools. To do the mapping we will start through an internet data-mining search. A second step will be an on-line survey to members of a sample of Councils at the local, regional and national level. The qualitative part will develop through a series of case studies. Each of them will develop through document search and interviews to diverse participants and organisers.

This project is funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness, R&D Fund (Reference: CSO2015-66026-R).

IESACSICMinisterio de Economía, Industria y Competitividad - Gobierno de España

The Assodem Research Team in the General Conference of the European Consortium of Political Research (2017)

Joan Font and Carlos Rico presented our project and the first findings in the General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research.

The draft presented can be seen in the following url:

Research Questions

The performance of advisory councils (ACs): not an easy question

One of the central goals of the Assodem Project is to understand what makes advisory councils perform well. Thus, the first step is to explain what we understand as good or bad performance.

Most of the participation literature tends to develop general evaluation criteria departing from normative democratic theory, resulting in a list of potential benefits. Each participatory mechanism would aim only at one or a few of these goals (Fung 2006), and it would be unfair to evaluate them, using objectives they were not designed to deal with. For example, most ACs have not been created explicitly to promote social justice and, therefore, it does not make sense to use this as an overarching criterium against which to judge their outcomes.

what for

Research questions

Our research tries to combine these different approaches in two dimensions. The most central concern in our framework is performance, through two main dimensions: voice and policy relevance. Any of our ACs should contribute to make 1) different social voices be heard; and 2) provide relevant inputs for policy-making.

More broadly, we are interested to cover three general research questions .

1. Who participates?

The selection of the AC’s members is a key factor because it affects the diversity of views and information inside the council (Bohman, 2006; Sunstein, 2002). The council’s initial composition determines whether it is a forum for associations, activists and interest groups dominated by an idea of representation  and negotiation or it is rather a forum for non-partisan actors with an idea of representation as deliberation (Hendriks, 2006; Fung, 2006; Ganuza et al, 2013).

Political strategy can be the driving criteria for authorities when deciding the composition of an AC. As Hendriks explains, partisan actors approach these devices through an instrumental rationality that ultimately seeks to move forward their own strategic interests (Hendriks, 2006: 577). In this sense, Navarro (1999) argues that the close links between some parties and associations can generate a “participatory bias”. These strategic attitudes do not only belong to politicians, but they also appear in associations, activists or interest groups. For instance, a specific interest group may decide strategically not to participate in an AC because it is unsure of achieving its interests there, or because it has better pre-existing channels for accessing institutions (Hendriks, 2006: 584). Ganuza et al (2013: 7) state that associations that have traditionally monopolized representation in a given AC may resist losing their privileged position in favor of other participants, such as non-associated citizens or political activists.

consejos torrelodones

Campaign for the promotion of the participation in councils, Ayuntamiento de Torrelodones (Madrid).

2. How does the council work?

Attributing an important explanatory role to institutional design is a powerful tradition in research about participatory institutions (Delli Carpini et al, 2004: 327; Landwehr & Holzinger, 2010; Baiochi et al, 2011). Design choices have consequences for the level, bias and quality of participation.

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