There is now considerable evidence that civil organisations have become de facto and de jure representatives of particular segments of the population and interests in the design, implementation, and monitoring of public policy. This paper explores two questions that are becoming increasingly important in the debate on the role of ‘civil society’ in contemporary democracy: Who do civil organisations represent when they act as representatives in the polity; and, in what terms is this representation constructed?
The role of civil organisations in political representation has received little or no attention in the research agendas on the reconfiguration of representation or on the democratising of democracy. Furthermore, there are no well-established theoretical models beyond the classic electoral or membership ones which set out how civil organisations could establish their representativeness. The vast majority of civil organisations in middle- and low-income countries, however, are not membership based and few make use of electoral procedures to authorise a mandate or establish accountability.
This paper examines which organisations define themselves as political representatives and the forms of representation they are constructing. It also explores some of the possible consequences of different forms of representation for democracy. The paper draws on findings of a survey of civil organisations – that is, neighbourhood or community associations, membership organisations, NGOs, and coordinators of networks of these organisations – in the city of São Paulo, Brazil.
We find that organisations that publicly claim to be representatives of particular publics in fact do engage in extensive representation activities; and, that the dynamics of representation among civil organisations are closely related to those of traditional political channels of representation. Furthermore, we find that the congruency arguments civil organisations make publicly to support their representativeness are crystallising around a small number of notions of representation. The most common are mediation, proximity, and services. The least common are identity, electoral, and membership.