The development of regional government across Europe over the last twenty years has provided more opportunities for citizen engagement, from voting in regional elections to getting involved in regional parties and regional political organisations. Regional political arenas therefore represent a fertile ground to investigate the development of distinct opportunities for democratic innovation at the regional level.
To assess the extent to which the regional institutions of Spain and the UK did ‘bring democracy closer to the people’, a goal often associated with decentralisation reforms, this research compared the engagement opportunities that are provided by regional legislatures to engage with committees, the ability and ease to petition legislatures, the use of regional referendums, and experimentations with mini-publics and civic forums in the regional and devolved legislatures of Spain and the UK.
The research finds that there is very little variation between the way that devolved and regional institutions engage with their citizens compared with the statewide legislatures. The only area are where some divergence can be observed is to do with petitions. While the House of Commons shares the UK’s online petition platform with the UK government, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales can be directly petitioned from their websites and have created a dedicated petition committee; on the other hand, the Northern Ireland Assembly can only be petitioned in writing and/or through a Member. In Spain, whereas the Congress of Deputies has a petitions committee, petitions can only be sent in writing and there is very little information about the petition process on its website. The same applies to the regional legislatures, with the exception of the Catalan Parliament, which has an online petition platform and a dedicated committee.
The adoption of democratic innovations is also limited. Referendums are quite rare in both countries. At the regional level, they have only been used for constitutional matters, and there are no cases of referendums on non-constitutional matters, and there is no provision for popular initiatives on the Swiss model. Deliberative forums were created in only two regions, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and both have abandoned their Civic Forums, as they were not deemed to be efficient.
Overall, the research finds that regionalisation has not led to the development of new forms of democratic engagement. Instead, most regional legislatures have adopted models of engagement that are broadly similar to those of the state. This is particularly true in Spain, but innovations have been limited in the UK.
So what are the obstacles to regional divergence? A first factor could be constitutional. Indeed, whereas British devolved institutions are relatively free to organise as they see fit, the Spanish Constitutions may be a bigger barrier to some democratic innovations. However, it would not prevent autonomous communities from developing e-petition platforms and having non-constitutional referendums on topics that are within their competence. Here, organisational inertia, the propensity of an organisation to keep operating as it always has, may be a factor.
Another significant issue may be financial. More developed forms of democratic innovations like deliberative forums cost money. Financial austerity has also affected the budgets of these institutions over the last ten years, and they may not have much change left for democratic experiments.
Finally, another factor may be elites’ attitudes towards citizens’ engagement. The next stage of this research will look into whether the members of regional legislatures consider that new avenues for citizen engagement are necessary and how their opinion correlates with their views on the decline in citizen engagement and with their views of democracy, the role of citizens and representation.