Germany has a publicly funded agency with a mission to strengthen democracy. The UK needs one too.

Halfway down the Adenauerallee in Bonn, the city that was home to the West German government from 1949 to 1990, there’s an anonymous modern office building, notable only for some sort of bookshop on the ground floor.

The building is home to a fascinating public body, the kind of which has no equivalent in the UK. It’s called the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung. The BpB for short. In English: the Federal Agency for Civic Education. On a rainy Thursday afternoon in July, I met Daniel Kraft, Director of Comms at BpB, who kindly took time out to explain the institution to me.

In this blogpost, I try to capture some of what it is and what it does. I then suggest that we need something similar in the UK, and I’m keen to hear ideas for bringing this about.

What is the BpB? 

The mission of the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung is to ‘strengthen democracy’. While the German constitution and its court provide judgements that protect the democratic process at the highest level, the BpB’s job is to build public support for the democratic system from the ground up. To ‘anchor’ support for democracy in the German population.

The mission is pursued through providing information and educational resources to audiences across different age groups via various magazines, books and leaflets as well as through events, videos and digital. The BpB has 200-staff and an annual budget of €42m to achieve this. It’s ‘subordinate’ to the Interior Ministry, which is interesting in terms of independence, and has advisory boards made up of politicians from all parties and of academics.

If you know more German than me, which seems likely, you might know that ‘education’ is not a perfect translation of Bildung. Bildung goes beyond schooling towards the idea of ‘self-cultivation’ and a ‘process of personal and cultural maturation’. (Thanks Wikipedia). This seems important. Perhaps it’s a problem that we don’t have an equivalent in English — we assume that education ends at school. That’s bad. I like the idea of civic education as a lifelong process in seeking to be a well-rounded person.

It reminds me of the fact that our trust in the way we are governed, which seems likely to be related to our knowledge of how we are governed, is provably part of our wellbeing, our contentedness and satisfaction with life. When we feel disenfranchised or we lack trust in the system, we become unhappier. And that’s when we start looking for alternatives, whether that’s on the far-left or far-right. We get post-truth politics. If we value democracy, we should be taking civic education very seriously indeed.

So how does the BpB do it?

Through content. Including a vast literature, from lesson plans to magazines for young adults to a series of books focusing on political issues of the day (e.g. “What is Populism?”).

fluter magazine for young adults

This literature is available through BpB medienzentrums across Germany; the one in Bonn is designed on the lines of a stylish modern library or museum bookshop, with table football, coffee tables and booths in which to browse online materials. There are also shelves packed with attractively presented publications. I spotted magazines on topics such as Russia, drugs policy, immigration, Islam, refugees — you name it, the BpB has material on it. The books and magazines all appeared authoritative without being heavy, using punchy editorial and bold graphic design to give citizens an appealing way to improve their understanding of topical issues or of central tenets of Germany’s democratic system. If you can’t get to a medienzentrum you can order materials online.

And it’s not just literature. The BpB runs film and theatre festivals. It runs student competitions, and networks for young professionals. It hosts conferences, seminars and public lectures. It arranges study trips for journalists to Eastern Europe or Israel.

Increasingly, the BpB produces digital content, most notably the phenomenally successful voter advice application: Wahl-o-Mat. More on this — and the organisation’s digital efforts — in another post soon, but here’s a beauty vlogger doing civic education via YouTube. Good stuff.

Lastly, because it knows that a big federal agency isn’t going to be attractive to everyone, BpB funds over 80 civil society organisation projects on education. Following the principle of subsidiarity, it tries to ensure that the information comes from somewhere as close as possible to the citizen. A strong partnership strategy is critical to this kind of work.

What I liked was that the BpB doesn’t try to claim ‘neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’. Part of politische bildung is to help people understand that there is no such thing. The aim is to give people the information and arguments and help them to take a more informed decision. To help people understand the consequences of a political decision and, even better, that sometimes consequences are unpredictable. That governance is complex. People might leave a BpB event — or finish reading one of its magazines — feeling less clear than they were before, and that’s a good thing.

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 11.48.02

How was it created? 

The earliest version of the BpB was founded in 1952 under Konrad Adenauer. I’d guessed that it was an attempt by the Allies to re-educate Germans in the values of democracy at the end of the war, but in fact it appears to have been more of homegrown preventative measure against the rise of communism, suggested by advisors to Adenauer.

There’s not an impetus as strong as this in the UK (yet). But perhaps the EU referendum experience — partly a culmination of the rejection of political elites, intellectual elites (‘we’ve had enough of experts’), perceived distance from Westminster, poor quality news reporting over decades, and a lack of accountability for those who made false arguments — can be the UK’s constitutional moment that forces us to look at how well we’re doing at democracy. We should be self-critical. Better to ask the hard questions now.

So how do we know the BpB helps? 

Good question — I’ve not seen enough impact evaluation. I hope that this exists in the annual reports – but, reasonably, these are only available in German. The BpB can quote a few impressive figures, and Daniel Kraft reported that demand for material is consistently high. In 2015, for example:

  • 20,000 Arabic-language versions of the constitution (or Basic Law) sold out immediately; and there were:
  • 22.5m website visits,
  • 360,000 views of partner videos on YouTube,
  • 50,000 entrants to a student competition,
  • 189,000 youth magazine subscribers, and
  • 2,000 grants made to 80+ education institutions.

But these measure people who were already looking to learn; what about the disengaged?

Absolutely. It’s one of the trickiest problems affecting everyone who works in this field: how do you reach those people who don’t engage? The BpB works hard at this: for example, it actively organises meetings with members of Pegida, the far-right, anti-Islam organisation, who can’t be easy to engage with. The BpB works with Muslim communities too — and any other groups that might seem in danger of rejecting democratic politics.

The BpB is currently commissioning another survey of political knowledge across Germany, which will compare a baseline established 20 years ago. I’m presuming that longitudinal surveys are the best way to measure the impact of civic education, but there will be a range of positive effects of civic education that are hard to measure.

So why does the UK need this, and why now? 

There are some excellent civil society organisations trying do various bits of this kind of work in the UK, but do they have the funding to do really strong work at scale? Can they attract great staff and provide a career for them? Do the materials all look fantastic, is the copy all well-written? There are significant benefits to having a large publicly funded institution doing this stuff, building a trusted brand, and assisting smaller organisations through resources or training.

Even with the larger organisations who take on parts of this work in the UK — such as the Houses of Parliament’s outreach and education team or maybe the Citizens Advice Bureau — there’s nobody looking at democracy holistically. It’s a patchwork of underfunded efforts.

Something like a UK BpB could also solve the problems we see at Democracy Club all the time: the lack of joined up democratic service provision, the opportunities afforded by digital technology that go begging. There are plenty of interesting potential media partners out there who want to do civic education work, but they can’t because no quality, trusted central data or content provider exists.

And why now? Well, I don’t think it can come soon enough. Brexit is the most glaring example of where our lack of civic education has let us down. Did people know what they were voting for? Were the arguments on both sides properly laid out in a clear, evidence-based fashion? Had the UK media adequately reported EU affairs for the last two decades? Was it good that the most searched Google topic the day after the referendum was ‘what is the EU?’ How can government, state and society function if the members of that society don’t understand how governance works or don’t have a grasp of a topical policy context

Wait. A ‘publicly funded, independent’ institution that helps educate the public — this rings a bell. Isn’t the BBC supposed to do this stuff? 

The BBC Charter outlines six public purposes. The very first one is to ‘sustain citizenship and civil society‘. So what is happening here? On the news side, the BBC’s concept of impartiality appears to involve playing a soundbite from each of the proposers and opposers of an argument and then throwing its hands up in the air. On the EU, it appeared to have abandoned explaining, providing context and actual reporting. Programmes such as Today in Parliament are great, but appeal to a highly selective audience on late-night Radio 4. What else can be done to engage more people in politics? And democracy more widely?

And that’s just the news media side: what other projects is the BBC doing to sustain citizenship and civil society? The BBC has shown such strength in digital innovation in other areas — thanks iPlayer team — so where are they on digital innovation in citizenship? It’s not clear.

Nor does it seem like the BBC measures its impact correctly. If I’m reading this wrong, correct me, but it seems like they measure the public’s perception of whether the BBC is sustaining citizenship, rather than the actual reality. Just because 65% of people agree that the BBC provides impartial journalism doesn’t mean that (a) it does and (b) that that journalism is helping to meet the public purpose. And impartial journalism is only one element of that first public remit.

BBC chart showing 'citizenship performance'
From the BBC Trust, Purpose Remit Survey, 2015

It might be time for a new organisation to fulfil some of that role. Or at least to help the BBC to improve its efforts.

But don’t they teach Citizenship in schools? 

‘Citizenship’ has existed on the national curriculum in some form since 2002. It seems to have gradually grown in importance since then, with detailed government guidelines published in 2013. Curiously, they include the guidance that teaching should prepare pupils to ‘manage their money well and make sound financial decisions.’ Hmm.

The Citizenship Foundation asks for more to be done, but seems fairly pleased with the status quo; on the other hand, I was told by a former teacher that citizenship in schools was becoming less of a priority. But whatever the state of citizenship education, it seems likely that it would only benefit from a well-funded, central organisation that could provide quality learning resources, conferences for teachers, study trips, independent evaluation of progress and so on.

Okay, I’m in. What next?

If you agree that there’s room for a new UK institution that produces quality information and educational content across a range of media to meet diverse audience needs, that also supports grassroots organisations and produces sustainable longitudinal evaluation of civic knowledge, then the next step is to think about institutional design:

  • How would a UK BpB be independent from government, yet receive sustainable public funding? Is a university-style endowment model useful here?
  • Who would govern it? Perhaps some kind of socially representative board that would include former politicians, academics, media representatives and citizens themselves?
  • How would we measure its success? Can we go beyond turnout or reported civic knowledge? What else will show progress in UK politische bildung? 

And how can we kickstart a conversation about such an institution for the UK?

Perhaps it takes some trusted ‘national treasure’ types — or a group of former newspaper editors, party leaders and education experts —  to present the idea to the public via an op-ed, or letters to the editor? Or perhaps it could build on this related social media petition.

The design stage is also likely to need some amount of public subscription or private philanthropic funding before, as seems likely, it pursues government funding. And how quickly could it test some beta content?

If you have ideas to make this happen, or want to critique the idea, please get in touch. Presumably I’m not the first to suggest this; what happened to previous efforts? And any thoughts on the state of citizenship education or the BBC’s efforts — which I know too little about — are welcome too.

I’ll blog next on the BpB’s digital work, which is led from their Berlin office. 

More detail on BpB’s activities can be found via their English-language pages.

Image credits: BpB.

Paris, j’aime votre civictech projets

The French are precious about French. It’s fair enough. Gotta watch that creeping Anglicisation. Courriel, for example, is the officially designated French translation for email. 

So I’d imagined that they wouldn’t go in for ‘civic tech’ so much. But they love it! People instantly knew what I was on about — even folks not in the tech or civic sector. Vive la France.

And there’s a lot of civic tech going on. Paris’ civic tech scene is thriving — and represents only some of what is going on across France. Here’s what I learned, between scoffing baguettes and incredibly good fromage, and pottering around the Canal St Martin.

What’s happening?

Démocratie Ouverte

Démocratie Ouverte creates its own projects, such as Parliament & Citizens, described below, but I think what’s exciting is that they’ve gone meta and positioned themselves as an umbrella membership organisation for every civic tech project happening in France.

Continue reading Paris, j’aime votre civictech projets

In Brussels. (PDFs, lobbyists, votes and that pesky democratic deficit.)

Our mini-civic-tech-tour-of-Europe* begins in Brussels, the great beating heart of the bureaucracy.

Of course Brussels is far more than a bureaucratic playground: it’s a genuinely lovely city. It’s easy to skip the European quarter and the Eurocrats — though harder to miss the amazing melange of languages and nationalities that mix in the streets and bars of this cosmopolitan city. Even ignoring the amazing Grand Place, there is beautiful residential architecture scattered throughout the surrounding city. Certain areas reminded me of the oldest parts of Manhattan: narrow brick townhouses, often of varying heights, each in a different style, along long treelined streets ending in quiet gardens. 

Enough travel blogging. What’s happening in civic tech in Brussels? Mainly EU projects, it turns out. I didn’t meet a single Belgian civic technologist; apparently its bigger in the Dutch-speaking cities of Ghent and Antwerp. In this post, I’ll summarise the people and projects I came across — on who’s lobbying, how parliamentarians are voting, how voters are choosing candidates, and how people are engaging outside of elections. I’ll then look at what we might be able to borrow for the UK. Continue reading In Brussels. (PDFs, lobbyists, votes and that pesky democratic deficit.)

What does Brexit mean for digital democracy?

Democracy Club was asked by a journalist where it would go post-referendum. I attempted to write a quick response…which turned into a not-so-quick response. Unsurprisingly, the journo ditched it — but I think it’s still worth publishing here. These are my personal thoughts.

In short:

Some digital democracy enthusiasts have long hoped that the internet would help realise a direct democracy, where everyone would vote on everything, all the time. We’re all Ancient Greeks now. (But this time with women voting too please. And without the slaves.)

Perhaps, say a few commentators, after the fibs, bent truths and ill-informed debate, the Brexit referendum experience has shown the merits of our aged representative democracy.

But people are still pissed. Representative democracy has clear problems; and we know these better than we think. If it’s true that a chunk of the Leave vote came from wanting to give the system a kicking, wanting to reject the ‘elite’s’ idea of what is good for the UK, and — of course — of desiring in some way to ‘take back control’ (Ed: why couldn’t Remain find a call to action for their slogan?) — then the system we have is already failing people. And let’s not just pretend it’s about Europe. Feeling out of control; feeling disempowered; feeling that you’re at the whim of HyperMegaGloboCorp is not fun – and is a result of the policies of Westminster as much as Brussels.

We must make our representative democracy better — and part of the way we do that, part of the way we should respond to Brexit — is by pushing forward with the tools and services that make democracy more understandable, more interactive, more user-friendly, more fun. Democracy Club can help do that

Continue reading What does Brexit mean for digital democracy?

“But most of all you’ve let yourselves down.” Brexit: the view from Brussels

I spent last week dodging rainshowers and testing the beer in Brussels. I know I’m supposed to be writing about civic tech — and that will happen — but it was a good two weeks on, and Brexit was still the first word on everyone’s lips when they discover that you’re British. Mostly jokes, then sympathy, then the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

I’m not a political journalist. And I wasn’t meeting with EU experts. I was mainly chatting with friends of friends, and folks I met to talk about the effects that digital tech might have on European democracy. But these were junior folks in EU-related institutions — several of them will grow up to run these things. They were the kind of well-educated youngish folks who had all assumed the UK would vote to Remain. I also scanned the French language newspapers, read Politico Europe (the closest thing to an EU newspaper) and listened to local Bruxellois radio. 

First, there was shock at the result. Not surprisingly, the Brussels bubble (‘the 29th member of the EU’ – M. Lowry) had followed the Westminster bubble, and not understood the depth of anger or malaise outside places journalists live. Many had quickly moved onto denial: trying to follow the legal story of whether or not Article 50 would actually be invoked — and the craziness of the resignation train. Farage quitting was a silver lining. 

Second, there was definitely a sense of disappointment. Not anger, as such, but a feeling like we’d kind of let the party down. And that we’d done something truly self-harming. Before getting to Brussels, I’d seen some argument that suggested that the EU might be strengthened by Brexit: the moany, special-case problem child having exited itself, the rest of them could get on with the real business of governance. But no, there was genuine shock, sadness, and universal agreement from those I spoke to that Brexit has weakened the EU. Watching the Wales game (sob) in a bar in Châtelain, I was approached by a mildly inebbriated bloke, who — upon hearing that I was supporting les Gallois — said he was all for Wales, but he couldn’t understand why the Welsh had voted to ‘go with the English’. He was quite upset about the whole thing.

Third, people were getting on with it. In the UK, in the week after the referendum, it felt like Brexit was signalling the end of the world, or at least the collapse of the political class and the economy. But of course there are another 27 member states, another 490m people, for whom the bureaucracy must work. It struck me that we Brits can tend towards solipsism — my knowledge and understanding of the EU institutions was found woefully wanting while in Brussels — and it’s not always about us. And this is a lesson we’re going to have to learn more and more, as we slip away into whatever oblivion it is we choose. I love Norway, I do, but I can’t help thinking there’s more to be gained from taking an active role in our neighbourhood.

I was only in Brussels for a week, but you can immediately get a sense of the bubble. Someone kindly explained to me the order of where you should be each evening of the week in order to do the networking, gossiping and politicking. Tuesday is one area, Wednesday is Châtelain, Thursday is Place du Lux(embourg). Fridays and Saturdays are rest days. Of course there’s something a bit ugly about this way of working, but as I watched hundreds of multilingual, educated young people from all over Europe spill out of the bars into the squares of Brussels to excitedly debate the football, Brexit and the future of Europe — it felt a bit like a party to which we burned the invite. 

Photo credit: Thorfinn Stainforth • CC BY 3.0

I’m on a mission to find Europe’s best civic tech

Hello. You might know me from writing the weekly dispatch from Democracy Club towers.

Months before we managed to Brexit ourselves, I’d decided that the gap between the EU Referendum and the next elections could be usefully spent having a bit of a holiday and learning a bit more about European organisations doing similar stuff to Democracy Club.

I’d lazily presumed I could take the whole of July and August to do this, given that the next elections in the UK wouldn’t be until May 2017…but of course there’s a chance of a General Election rather sooner now.

Nonetheless, until the timing of the next general election is clearer, I’m off on a mini-trip around some European capitals to learn more about the state of civic tech. And to see if there are ideas we can steal, code we can share, or funding we can tap.

So I head to Brussels tomorrow, before Paris, then maybe Amsterdam. I’ll take a bit of holiday in Switzerland between, then on to Hamburg and Berlin.

I’ve got some really interesting meetings lined up with the likes of, Démocratie Ouvert, VoteWatch Europe, and ParliamentWatch in Germany. And I’ve got some leads into Germany’s state-funded voter information body, the BpB — which I think could have some really valuable lessons for the UK.

Do you know of any other folks I should be speaking to on my travels? Anyone doing anything with digital and democracy or civic participation – and that extends to folks in political parties. All contacts welcome! I’ll blog my meetings and spread whatever wisdom I can glean from our colleagues across la Manche.

Til then!

Update: Here’s what I learnt in Brussels. And in Paris.

Image credit: Wikipedia

We’re not looking for a new England

Well, we might be. Earlier this month, Toby Perkins MP managed to restart a conversation about a national anthem for England. It’s a fun question – and represents an accessible entry point into thinking about the constitution of the UK and the varying nations, principalities, islands and peoples that make it up. And who decides what, and how.

In a happy coincidence, Compass last week hosted 40 people who run or manage democracy organisations for a day of “Designing a New Democracy.”

My notes are below. I think the crucial question is about authority. It’s only going to be useful and gain momentum if the public considers that the process has power and will actually lead to real, lasting change. That is the challenge that reformers face.
Continue reading We’re not looking for a new England