Bickering political parties that pursue partisan goals have left the public frustrated, disappointed and increasingly apathetic toward politics. There is, however, a way to stop this ineffective style of politics. As argued in the Chinese-language China Times article "Politics abandoned" recently, "only the development of civil society can stop the vicious political cycle."
Conferences and other activities organized by civic groups have become increasingly common since 2004, allowing the public to participate in the debate about politics, in the hope that the nation's democracy will improve through engaging the public.
Government organizations have held conferences on such diverse issues as surrogate motherhood, the national health insurance system, tax reform, the Maokong cable car system, water resource management, environmental protection and labor rights.
In addition to the public debate on national and municipal issues, civic groups are encouraging progressive activities in local communities.
Networks of academics, educational institutions and local organizations are holding conferences in cities as well as in the countryside.
Recent conferences have been held in Keelung, Ilan, Beitou (
This collaborative network brings together civil society, expands public participation in deliberative democracy to local communities, and diversifies its possibilities.
In the past, conferences on social and political issues were only held to discuss controversial issues.
However, local organizations have begun holding a variety of workshops, forums and debates on a variety of topics.
Even tough identity issues and cross-strait relations are being discussed by the public. Both the 2005 county commissioner and mayoral elections and last year's Taipei mayoral election employed deliberative TV debates in which the public could ask the candidates questions.
The development of civil society is causing the concept of "deliberative" democracy to grow. At the same time, it raises many questions, mostly in regard to conferences sponsored by the government.
The public should ask whether the participants at those conferences are qualified to represent public opinion.
There are many misunderstandings regarding forums and other similar activities. Many conferences have panels with less than 20 participants; they do not necessarily represent the range of opinions in the community they are discussing or the nation. They may differ greatly in terms of educational background, occupation and ethnicity.
But instead of focusing on whether they represent the community demographically, we should pay attention to their ability to reflect public opinion. We should look at whether or not their deliberation reflects the different stances, interests and values of the community.
Panelists do not make policy decisions. Public participation in deliberative democracy is meant to correct the shortcomings of representative democracy by allowing citizens the chance to influence policy-making actively.
The formation of public policy should incorporate public opinion through rational discussion and communication, but civil society cannot replace the role of the legislature and administration to create policies and implement them.
When legislating or drawing up policies, lawmakers and government officials should make use of public deliberation as a resource, tapping into public opinion and evaluating the political consequences of accepting or rejecting public opinion. In addition, they should account for their decisions.
However, listening to civil society doesn't mean they should always follow the tide of public opinion as expressed through civil groups.
Although discussions at conferences have no legal implications, they offer an opportunity to impact on democratic politics.
To accomplish this, activities should be timed to occur during policy formation.
Working with civic groups is also a way for our government to show that it is part of a truly democratic system.
During the deliberation process preceding legislation, the general public should make its opinions heard at conferences and forums -- which also provide the opportunity for people to learn about the issues at hand.
During this process, government agencies should be open about their policy proposals and explain the rationale behind them.
Open communication increases the chances that public values will be integrated. At the same time, open explanations of government policy can help build public trust in the government and its agencies.
In addition, working with civil society can improve the quality of policy-making. Bringing in public deliberation means incorporating local wisdom and the life experiences of the public.
That can make policy-making a more open process, more relevant to everyday issues and more realistic -- preventing policy-making that is impossible to implement.
In addition to the impact on policy-making, public deliberation encourages greater democracy in that it incorporates ethics.
A budding civil society in local communities nationwide will not necessarily have a direct impact on policy-making, but it will educate the citizens participating in these activities.
It has already become clear that open debate often helps the public better understand issues surrounding government policies. It also helps the average person look beyond their personal interests and pay attention to the public good.
When the public has the opportunity to participate in policy-making discussions and learn more about the issue at hand, they have the ability to form their own opinion.
It also makes them pay more attention to government policies that affect their lives and it encourages them to push for the kind of public policy that they believe in.
The key to improving the quality of the nation's democracy lies in the cultivation of a civil society that encourages people to learn about the issues surrounding policies, care about the public interest and participate in public affairs.
Lin Kuo-ming is an associate professor of the Sociology Department at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Ted Yang
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