Democratic Governance in a Turbulent Age: A Norface Research Programme

Democratic politics and governance in Europe are facing turbulent times. Party systems have crumbled or been substantially changed and so have citizen attachments to government, political parties and democratic procedures.

This sixth NORFACE (New Opportunities for Research Funding Agency Cooperation in Europe) transnational programme on Democratic governance in a turbulent age offers a timely investigation of the precise nature of this recent turbulence, on how European states can negotiate it and develop strategies to enhance the quality of democratic politics and governance.

The projects started their work in 2020. The maximum budget per project is € 1.5 million. Read more about the different projects here.

Challenges and programme themes:

Theme 1: Inequality and redistribution

The financial crisis of 2007-8 focussed attention on questions of inequality, especially on the degree to which the burden of taxation and the benefits of public investment are shared between state, citizens and domestic and multinational firms. A range of social, cultural and political cleavages is becoming increasingly associated with levels of economic inequality. Likewise, conflicts revolving around aggravating generational and educational inequalities are increasingly tied to socio-economic divisions. Certainly, the extent of these inequalities differs between countries, but so does the extent to which those disadvantaged by them organise and demand that states, regional and local governments, as well as the European Union deal with them and implement appropriate policy responses.

Theme 2: The evolving politics of threat

Threat is one of the major driving forces of individual, group and societal behaviour. Threats can be perceived as coming from the outside or emerging from processes within societies. On the individual level, threats and accompanying feelings of threat can lead to severe psychological suffering, to reactions against the threatening agent as well as against third parties which are in one way or the other subjectively connected to the threatening agent. In a similar way, individual-, group- or national-level threats lead to domestic as well as international defensive processes. Individual as well as societal and political reactions to threat have strong implications for broad patterns of support for policing and civil rights.

Theme 3: Democratisation of information and expertise

While the continuing development of information and communications technologies (ICT) has created new possibilities for some citizens and groups to communicate, mobilise and contribute to policy making, traditional sources of political information, such as the press and broadcasting, have also remained powerful in their existing forms and through adapting to the changed digital environment. Traditional sources of authoritative information – above all, experts and professionals in the established media – are being questioned, as citizens have access to alternative sources of information and news and as doubting the integrity of media professionals has become a more common political strategy. Developments in the information landscape, including the easy availability of the means of disseminating information widely, have raised a range of questions about the adequacy of traditional approaches to questions such as freedom of speech, privacy, and the incitement of hatred.

Theme 4: Shifting identities and representation

Demographic, social, and cultural changes have generated new political cleavages and struggles over representation. Ageing populations, declining blue-collar workforces, and rural-to-urban migration, for instance, reshape demands and identities. Along with changing identities and cleavages, there are significant shifts in the loci of democratic engagement. Political parties, labour unions and traditional media are losing their role as primary mediators and distributors of political interests and information. Social media and the internet have become increasingly influential, fostering an emergence of ‘virtual communities’ and new forms of social movements. Thus, there is reason to believe that we are witnessing not only shifts in the sites of representation but in the degree to which they are viewed as legitimate as well.

Theme 5: Changing authority of institutions

Wider questions of democratic legitimacy have been thrown up by the rise of support for populist parties. Whether through more overt forms of authoritarianism or less conspicuous ‘autocratic legalism’ the democratic rules of the game are being recast in European states such that democratic constitutional constraints appear to be under threat if not already subverted. Moreover, shifts in the political weight of different institutions including the apparently increased power of global and European institutions, finance ministries, of depoliticised regulatory institutions, judicial and quasi-judicial bodies as well as hybrid institutions at the regional and local level, may have further made public policies less directly responsive to democratic political pressures. The apparent ‘judicialisation’ of policy making and service delivery could be a further sign of citizen belief that conventional representative and participatory mechanisms are more likely to be unresponsive to their interests. An adequate understanding of the politician and policymaker perspective on responding to the challenges outlined here is important for framing suggestions and advice arising from the research.


This programme has three major objectives:

  • To develop innovative and excellent research proposals addressing important challenges to democratic governance and politics;
  • To produce added value through the development of European cross-national research collaborations exploring the impacts of variations in social, economic, cultural and political contexts on changes in how democracies work;
  • To identify promising forms of policy innovation and institutional design and explore the conditions for their application in different jurisdictions.


The programme is structured around five of the most important challenges to democratic governance and politics.

  1. Inequality and redistribution
  2. The evolving politics of threat
  3. The democratisation of information
  4. Shifting identities and representation
  5. The changing authority of institutions


The research projects will provide a new assessment of how the major challenges to democratic politics and governance have had an impact on social and political relationships in different countries, what accounts for the variation, how these challenges have been met and with what success.

The academic impact of the research will be the generation of new knowledge, insights and theoretical perspectives on relations between the state, political, social and economic institutions and citizens as well as on relations among different groups of citizens. The practical and policy impacts of the programme arise from the examination of the key variables and influences that shape the intensity and outcomes of these challenges, thus providing the basis for understanding the range of positive interventions and policies that might lead to greater democratic innovation.


The programme is funded by 16 NORFACE partners and the European Union:

  • Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
  • Research Foundation Flanders (FWO)
  • Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF)
  • Academy of Finland (AKA)
  • French National Research Agency (ANR)
  • German Research Foundation (DFG)
  • The Irish Research Council (IRC)
  • Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR)
  • Dutch Research Council (NWO)
  • The Research Council of Norway (RCN)
  • National Science Centre (NCN)
  • The Slovenian Research Agency (ARRS)
  • State Research Agency (AEI)
  • The Swedish Research Council (VR)
  • Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)
  • UK Research and Innovation – Economic and Social Research Council (UKRI – ESRC)