How to Assess the Health of a Democracy


A democracy is a way of organizing people to make and implement decisions for the common good. A democratic society allows and encourages all its citizens to participate through voting, volunteering, activism or public discourse. This participation ensures that the views and opinions of all citizens are heard, taken into account and represented in government. Democracy also guarantees that everyone has a fair chance of having their voice heard by the government, through regular elections that are free and open to all.

Democracy’s name derives from two Greek words: demos, meaning ‘people’, and kratos, which means ‘rule’ or ‘power’. It’s a system of rule based on the principle that power should be distributed to the whole of society and that all people are equal in the eyes of law. Democracies guard against all-powerful central governments and decentralize decision making to local levels, understanding that the best way to meet the needs of their citizens is through genuine consultation.

The three most commonly used indicators for assessing the health of a democracy are:

1. How well do different groups in society feel that they have a say in how the country is run?

The answer is a direct reflection of whether the rights and freedoms that democracy is based on are in effect. If there are infringements of these rights, for example if someone is discriminated against due to their race, creed or gender, it will be much harder for them to have a say in how their community and nation are run. This in turn can reduce the quality of democracy and increase inequality.

2. How well do people see their elected representatives holding the government accountable?

There are a number of ways to measure this, but the most common is through polling. This is a process that involves asking questions about the performance of the government and its members and comparing results to other countries. The goal is to understand how well people think their elected representatives are performing and what improvements can be made.

3. How well do people feel that the justice, peace and governance systems are responsive to their needs?

This is a key question for all democracies as it is one of the core tenets of democracy. The most commonly used indicators of this are whether or not people believe their governments have a fair judiciary, treat women equally and provide the right to religion. This is a global concern with majorities in all countries surveyed saying that these issues are very important to them. In contrast, the lowest rated priority is the ability to form an opposition party, which is only seen as very important in nine of the thirty-five countries surveyed. This suggests that there is a need for more work on how to make democracy work better. This could involve finding new ways to allow people to express their views without fear of social opprobrium, or it might involve encouraging more civic involvement by developing more effective models for citizen engagement and decentralization.