Democracy of Citizens, Democracy of Stakeholders

Some people think that democratic decisions should be made by everyone in the community or country – or their representatives. Others think that democratic decisions should be made by the people who will be affected by the decisions (stakeholders) – or their representatives. Both versions of democracy have important gifts to offer, but current institutions and practices constrain and distort those gifts. Fortunately, recent innovations in both approaches suggest they can be woven together into an evolutionary leap for democracy.

Perhaps the most potent leverage for transforming the competitive nature of our political system lies in the dynamic tension among and between citizens and stakeholders. All of them play roles shaping what is going on – and what could go on. Collectively, they embrace the Big Picture and they could do that so much better. But first we need to recognize the nature and democratic legitimacy of each of these roles in the Big Picture and then explore how to weave them together into a new living fabric of wise, participatory power.


CITIZENS are, by definition, the participating residents of a city or town and/or the recognized members of a state [ref Merriam-Webster]. The most common understanding of democracy is “rule by the people” [ref Brittanica] in which citizens hold ultimate decision-making power in public affairs. This can manifest as a direct democracy where citizens vote on public policies directly… and/or as a republic, in which they delegate their power to chosen representatives… and/or through sortition, under which randomly selected citizens deliberate and make public decisions for their whole community or nation.

STAKEHOLDERS, on the other hand, are people and groups who will be impacted by – or are otherwise interested in or involved with – particular actions or categories of action [ref Merriam-Webster]. They are the players in various issue domains where major decisions emerge and play out. Stakeholder-centered democracy maintains that if you will be impacted by a decision, you should have a say in making it or be able to support leaders and advocacy groups who promote your interests to decision-makers [ref The Theory of Citizen Participation].

Any given stakeholder group or network tends to focus on a specific issue domain, such as education, health care, justice, regional development, sustainability, security, etc.. They are often expert – if partisan – regarding the dynamics of their chosen domain and are also (almost by definition) the ones most active in that domain. Citizens, on the other hand, tend to be more eclectic, interested in a variety of issues, and especially concerned about issues relating to the life of their local community or state. However, citizens naturally align themselves with and in stakeholder groups and networks according to their interests, becoming to that extent stakeholders.

In their efforts to shape decisions, both citizens and stakeholders seek to influence public opinion as well as elected officials and various bureaucratic departments and ministries. However, citizens – as local voting constituents – tend to have more institutional leverage with legislatures, whereas stakeholders have more natural leverage with the bureaucratic departments working on their particular issue.

These two roles – citizen and stakeholder – are not mutually exclusive: After all, almost all citizens have a stake in many issues, and almost all stakeholders are citizens of particular jurisdictions. But these two democratic roles can usefully be discussed separately. In most current democratic systems they coexist and interact in dynamic tension, usually through media, government and the courts.

However, their POTENTIALLY COMPLEMENTARY roles in realizing what needs to be understood and done for long-term broad benefit tells us that they are vital threads from which we could weave a wise, participatory, effective democracy on the loom of transformational change.


From the first thread of democratic life we hear the PUBLIC VOICE – the collective voice of the People – expressed mostly through election results and responses to public opinion polls. We can also hear this voice through citizen input mechanisms, participatory forums and inclusive conversations. The public voice of the citizenry is usually fragmented and embattled, but occasionally – under the right circumstances – expresses deeply shared values, concerns, and aspirations.

When we hear the STAKEHOLDER VOICE, it is usually predictably fragmented into various “special interests” contesting how their shared issue should be addressed. People interested in and impacted by certain decisions usually speak collectively through their side’s activists, advocacy organizations, and lobbyists. But they also speak through stakeholder forums and negotiations in search of agreement, compromise, or mutual benefit. On a smaller scale, we see the engagement of stakeholders in phenomena like worker-managed businesses, patient involvement in medical decisions, and other “whole system” participatory arrangements. Often we find stakeholders at work on the ground in their issue domain, gathering information, making decisions and plans, implementing and initiating, separately and/or together.

This works well to the extent that (a) an adequate number and diversity of citizens or stakeholders are included in decision-making and implementation and (b) the engagement processes used generate deeper understanding and cooperation rather than polarized clashes or dubious deals. In the absence of these conditions, power dynamics get skewed and only fragments of the whole picture get adequately addressed, leaving loose ends, confusion, conflict and resistance in their wake.

Currently, the diverse claims of public and stakeholder voices are usually filtered and negotiated through the processes of government – processes characterized by centralized power being pulled this way and that by competing forces. Citizens tend to focus their influence on elected representatives while stakeholders focus on the bureaucratic departments that govern their issue (while also seeking to sway both the public and representatives). Being overwhelmingly centralized and top-down, this arrangement is not only vulnerable to manipulation and corruption but is structurally crippled in its ability to help society address the many-faceted complexity of 21st century challenges.

Nevertheless, if we view all this from outside, it becomes clear that we ultimately need both the generic place-based perspective of the public and the specialized perspectives of stakeholders to make wise collective decisions. The question is what forms should those contributions take and what structures and processes can help us use them most fruitfully.


Luckily, more dynamic and complexity-competent systems are emerging in both woven threads of the democratic fabric.

Most of my work over the last three decades has focused on innovations in the public, citizen, “people’s voice” thread – notably on our growing capacity to hold wisdom-generating conversations among councils of diverse ordinary people. I have also explored innovative ways to involve millions of citizens – the broader public – in these conversations such that their inclusive deliberations become an increasingly legitimate voice of the whole community or nation. Furthermore, there are increasingly functional forms of collective, self-organized, do-it-yourselves versions of self-governance (such as cooperatives, community networks, neighborhood-based projects, grassroots citizen councils, and mediation/facilitation services) running in parallel to – or in partnership with or independent of – relevant government entities.

Alongside of those citizen-centric developments we can see diverse collaborations emerging among multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, and/or multi-scale networks – with each collaboration engaged in addressing a particular issue, system, or domain of collective interest and impact. Although I have only encountered this phenomena in some detail over the last several years, it has apparently been evolving with little notice or comment for several decades. (I provided links to some examples at the end of my earlier post “Inclusive networks are shaping our lives right now. Are they governance?”.) There isn’t any single archetypical example of this phenomenon, but rather many variations emerging around the world.

This dynamic through which most or all of the major players in a particular domain are COLLABORATING – instead of competing or operating without regard to each other – has profound implications for governance – especially in its capacity to engage diversity and address complexity. After all, to the extent ALL the entities involved in a scene are collaborating, they bring every piece of that scene to the table and are able to impact every aspect of it with any shared understandings and intentions they come up with. The dominant dynamic shifts from fragmented and competitive to whole-system coherence. In many cases, these collaborative cross-boundary networks are themselves becoming the major governing force in their shared domain. They both include and transcend government as we’ve known it.


This framing of the public citizen and stakeholder threads of democracy – and the emergence of new, more inclusive and coherent versions of each – at once clarifies a lot that’s happening in the current evolution of governance AND challenges us to identify and develop ways in which BOTH threads can be woven together synergistically to provide a living fabric of shared understanding and power that can better address our greatest local, national and global challenges.

So far, I see three overall strategic directions to translate these emergent trends into substantial transformation of our governance systems. These involve strengthening each thread and then weaving them together into something more potent than either could be separately.


Promote and link up all CITIZENSHIP/PUBLIC DOMAIN innovations grounded in the following:
a. INCREMENTAL CHANGE (i.e., tweaking existing systems: e.g., making sure voting machines are secure and reliable and are backed by paper trails),
b. REFORM (substantial change within the existing governance worldview, e.g., new voting systems like “Instant Runoff”), and
c. TRANSFORMATION (change based on different assumptions about governance, e.g., putting truly empowered, wisdom-generating citizen conversations at the core of collective decision-making – using random selection in ways that impede corruption).

All of these – but especially [c] – can enhance and be enhanced by increasing the capacity of diverse citizens to see themselves as members of an inclusive, coherent “We the People” that has its own collective intelligence, power and aspirations for “the general welfare”. The public use of certain opinion analytics and public engagement processes can help generate this collective awareness and identity.

(Note: Some disruptive innovations – such as those enabling citizens to vote directly on every proposal – need to be adopted with caution to enable wise policy outcomes rather than groupthink and collective folly.)


Develop the capacity and effectiveness of STAKEHOLDER DOMAIN innovations – particularly multi-sector, multi-stakeholder, multi-scale (MS3) networks – to collaborate on both decisions and actions across the full range of domains and issues. This involves at least the following:
a. increasing the functionality of each network;
b. developing the capacity of increasingly diverse and inclusive networks to work together (which can be a challenge since diverse stakeholders and sectors – activists, businesses, governments, and civil society, for example – have significantly different perspectives on their shared domain;
c. increasing the awareness on the part of all involved that their inclusively collaborative activity IS a new form of collective governance; and
d. weaving the diverse realms in which these diverse networks are working into a web of linkages and conversations so that activity in any one realm synergizes with (rather than undermines) the activities in other realms.

(Note that these strategies ameliorate the tendency of big players to colonize the power of networked action. This theme must be kept in mind throughout the development process.)


Integrate both the public and stakeholder threads of democracy into one coherent and all-embracing fabric of governance, involving intelligence, decision-making, and action on the part of all parties. For example, empowered citizen deliberative bodies can engage stakeholders to implement their recommendations (as prototyped by Vorarlberg, Austria’s Civic Councils) or an MS3 network collaboration could engage a citizen deliberative body to clarify their strategic direction or suggest how ordinary citizens could engage more actively in their work (as prototyped by Oregon’s Kitchen Table Conversations). There are probably many other approaches, for this is totally new and extremely promising territory for development.

The combination of these strategies presents the possibility of birthing new forms of governance capable – at least in principle – of addressing the needs of local communities AND the demands of complex rapidly-changing conditions, large-scale crises and systemic transformation.


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Tom Atlee, The Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440
Calling forth the wisdom of the whole for the wellbeing of the whole

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