Working up a proposal for a ‘Centre for Democracy’

Is this what a healthy democracy looks like?

Three months ago, I wrote a blogpost outlining projects I thought necessary to improve the state of democracy in the UK. After many helpful conversations and lots of feedback, I’ve tried to work out what’s most useful to do next.

The TL;DR: A Centre for Democracy — research, evaluation and network-building for the democracy sector. Equivalent to similar organisations in health, education and economics.

The pretty slide deck version.

The blogpost version:

From the six ideas I outlined three months ago, I think there are two to focus on now (#1 & #2, with a pinch of #6 from the original post, if you’re following along):

a) a research institution that, at the least, co-produces common goals and indicators for a healthy democracy, then measures them over time; and

b) network infrastructure that supports the democracy sector to achieve those goals through better coordination and collaboration.

Partly it’s just sensible sequencing. The first is a piece of infrastructure that needs to exist before you start trying new things. We need to see if there’s agreement on what a better democracy looks like and, if so, how we know whether we’re making progress. The second is eminently realisable in the short term and is also infrastructure of a sort that allows folks and organisations to be more effective together.

The other ideas in the original post (on civic education, a culture of democracy, and the best way to review the constitution) won’t disappear: the research institution could, as well as goal-setting and measurement, develop ideas into more concrete proposals, pilots or experiments.

A. The research institution

The entire democracy sector could benefit from an understanding of shared goals and from having an independent body that regularly takes democracy’s temperature. It makes the whole sector more robust, objective and investment-worthy. The latter is especially important. I think clear goals and metrics will encourage much-needed funders into the space. Everyone agrees that democracy is good, but where are the areas of consensus, which bits are more contested, and how do you tell if the situation is getting better? As a funder I’d want to know the ‘return on my investment’. I wouldn’t be expecting the precision of how many QALYs/£ as in the health sector, but I’d be expecting some kind of indicators.

For example: I recently cold-emailed one of the new large Californian funders, set up with tech billions. They were good enough to reply, pointing out that there was simply nothing in the governance space that was ‘tractable or distinctive’ enough to get behind. It’s a fair cop. In this area, you’re unlikely to see the kind of clear breakthroughs you get from endowing a Wellcome Trust.

But still. It’s still kind of important, this old democracy lark. Because better democratic governance is a meta project: it transcends (or underlies) everything else you want to achieve as a funder. For example, a better democracy — or better global, regional and national governance — might have nipped COVID-19 in the bud, saving trillions of dollars. How’s that for a return on investment? But right now we can’t tell that story, nor even show our route to get there. Metrics are never perfect — you can never capture everything in a number and they can skew priorities to the things easiest to measure — but I’m sure they’re better than nothing.

Is this being done already? Sort of. There are international comparisons from the Economist and Freedom House, but these ‘provide a snapshot’, when we need granular data that allows for local variation and studies hundreds of metrics. There is also the “Varieties of Democracy” project, another more detailed international project. I need to read further, but suspect there’s still much to gain from a country-specific project.

I think the process to develop the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (and their 169 targets and 232 indicators) shows that it is possible to tackle something that first might appear too broad and too difficult to measure. And then you get things like the SDG Tracker.

The other analogy for this thing is a What Works centre. There are a few of these government-sponsored or -supported centres in fields like education and health (NICE was the original). They track and highlight experiments about…what works. The Educational Endowment Foundation is the What Works centre for education and its tracking of experiments and scoring of approaches is a useful source of inspiration for the same in the democracy space.

The next step for such a research body could be to go beyond data production and measurement, to analysis and idea generation. There’s a need to constantly review effects of new tech or social change on our democracy, and to highlight opportunities and threats. An open research body for the democracy sector to collectively benefit from.

B. Network infrastructure

The other thing I’d want to see if I was a funder — and as someone in the sector — is that we’re working together, sharing knowledge and ideas, or at least avoiding repeating the same thing or competing for limited media attention. That’s where better networking comes in.

A body purposed with supporting a network in the democratic space would regularly check in with organisations across a broad definition of democracy to identify what they need and how these needs might be met better together. It would learn from successful networks in other sectors. For example, it might help the sector to:

  • Share information — contacts (e.g. in media or politics), best practice (e.g. in campaigning, advocacy or media work), knowledge (latest theory, evidence or innovations in democracy), hiring (e.g. freelancers or agencies) and an otherwise supportive environment for Q&A.
  • Coordinate on strategy and tactics — through peer-reviews of strengths and weaknesses; gap analysis; shared narratives and ‘frames’; shared calendars to coordinate and develop stronger ‘moments’ or build momentum over time.
  • Collaborate on projects — joint calls to action to supporters where interests overlap; preparing joint submissions to parliamentary processes or government consultations; developing new workstreams and sharing resources.

A+B = A Centre for Democracy

This is infrastructure that needs to exist, but that no individual organisation in the sector can deliver (and some have, to their credit, tried). Again, if I were a funder I’d be leaping to make this stuff happen — but if necessary, it might be the sector itself that funds its own infrastructure via everyone chipping into a kitty to make it happen.

I’ve wrapped this all up into a concept note: ‘A Centre for Democracy‘ (PDF). An Institute for Democracy would have been fine, but IoD was already taken. The next step would be to draw up a full proposal. In bullet points, the centre would provide:

Research & Evaluation

  • Convenes the sector, academics and experts to agree goals, targets and indicators
  • Measures the indicators over time
  • Does forecasting and opportunity/threat analysis
  • Conducts in-depth research on topical or important new issues and publishes reports
  • Highlights or aggregates new research in the space, particularly making academic work more accessible / actionable
  • Works openly, shares all data and knowledge work
  • Runs events, workshops and conferences
  • Provides expert speakers to media
  • Offers assistance on using data, research and evaluation

Network infrastructure

  • Shares calendars, news, resources
  • Provides platform for discussion, coordination and collaboration
  • Provides a repository of knowledge, lessons learned, best practice, case studies, failures (a projects graveyard)
  • Behind the scenes support and coaching for collaborative approaches

And beyond…

This might not fit in the same body, but there might also be a space for a body that:

  • Designs and delivers or commissions experiments and pilots as a kind of ‘Democracy Lab’
  • Awards grants for new projects; awards for successful projects or people; offers challenge prizes (the first to achieve X gets £Y)
  • And…?

Again, more detail and pretty pictures in this deck, do please share it around and send me feedback.


New democracy projects, briefly

I recently wrote a long post about new institutions to support democracy, but I thought a three-minute version might be handy…


The #lockdown reading list

Given I now have a bit more time on my hands, I plan to spend my time working on institution-building for democracy.

I’m also planning to catch up with several years’ worth of Things I Really Should Have Read Earlier. The COVID-19 lockdown presents an opportunity to try to get through some it.


A more democratic country

Update: This post is 4,000 words long. A very quick summary is available here.

This time four years ago, Sym Roe and I found ourselves working from the converted cellars of Somerset House, alongside the Thames at Waterloo Bridge. Nice spot. We’d joined the Bethnal Green Ventures programme for ‘tech for good’ startups, having decided that Democracy Club — the organisation that Sym had woken from hibernation for the 2015 general election — was worth throwing ourselves at, full-time, in an effort to make something happen.


Huckford Viaduct, Jan 2020

The Huckford Viaduct, via the Frome Valley Walkway.


New year’s donations (2020)

It’s that time of year again… when we all donate some cash. 

The best thing you could probably do with your life in 2020 is to take the Giving What We Can pledge: to choose to spend 10% of your salary to do the most good you can.

If, like me, you want to be good, but are also lazy, then the people at Effective Altruism (EA) Funds are here to help. You visit their website, play with some sliders as to what you think is most important, donate, and then, voila, they parcel it out to the most effective organisations.

You’re supposed to be public about it, pour encourager les autres. So in the last calendar year I earned £30,000 and am donating £3,000: 95% will go to global health and development organisations (mostly to fight malaria) and 5% to support the work of EA Funds.

If you’re like me, then you also donate to climate charities, cos it’s not clear where that falls in the EA work. I’ve given to every year for a few years and it seems to have worked pretty well. Last year I also donated several times to support the narrative-flipping, game-changing activism of XR. And I’ve just made a donation to Trees for Life, because their website is beautiful and it seems like planting a few trees is wise* to cover all bases.

*Particularly if you’ve not taken the FlightFree2020 pledge. Which you should.

Until next year! (Unless we’ve solved poverty and inequality by then… Or Jeff Bezos has finally stepped up)


New year’s donations (2019)

Whoops, I’ve not blogged about anything since last year’s donations. Must try harder .

In the meantime, here’s a belated new year’s donation update: over 2018, I earned £30k and so am donating £3k to the global health and development fund run by Effective Altruism Funds. Thanks to them for doing the ongoing research work to make my money work harder.

I’ve lost the bit of their website where it tells you where your money’s gone, but assume it’s going towards malaria nets, deworming and anti-bilharzia/schistosomiasis stuff. Possibly child nutrition too, not sure.

I also need to sort out payroll giving so that this happens monthly rather than in a terrifying blob at the end of the year.

Over the past year, I’ve worried more about climate change / the anthropocene and its coming effects on health and humanity — but it’s hard to work out where to be useful here, apart from preventing harm (lower your environmental footprint) and lobby lobby lobby for systemic change. Previously I’ve donated to Cool Earth and, but the former took a bit of a beating in this useful blog post, and I like the urgency of the Extinction Rebellion folks, so they’ll get a donation this year. (Not included in the 10% to the ‘most effective’, which is the original pledge.) I need to read this document by ‘Founders’ Pledge’ on climate change, and see what other research into effective mitigation/adaptation is out there.

This is all inspired by the work of Giving What We Can, which is a good place to start learning about — and trying out — charitable giving.

None of this negates the need to do political stuff too!

Scarlet (?) macaws by Alan Godfrey (Unsplash)