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.

It felt like a fairly serious undertaking: we were starting a thing that was going to make democracy better. Or less bad. Either way, the plan was to take advantage of digital to meet changed public expectations of accessible online information about elections. Nine months prior, we’d had amazing success providing candidate information to millions of people via a partnership with Google. And we knew from Google Search data that there was an enormous public appetite for basic information about elections (and perhaps democratic processes more widely). 

Following those 2015 successes, we imagined building up our efforts, testing, innovating, finding a business model… doing everything necessary to really nail the next general election in 2020.

Spoiler alert: events intervened. An EU Referendum, two snap general elections and thousands of local elections later…and it’s suddenly 2020. Seems about the right time for some reflections. Or, as it’s also known, a long and waffley blog post. 

Surprise! The tech isn’t enough…

During that time when we were just getting started, it wasn’t as though I thought tech could ‘save’ democracy, but I was more optimistic about the role of technology than I am today. Back in early 2016, the field of ‘civic tech’ — the term itself having only recently been coined — seemed all the rage. Everyone had an idea to support and improve democratic engagement. And the ill-effects of facebook et al weren’t quite so obvious then.

What didn’t exist then was any research base beyond some Google Search data, nor any clear understanding of the problem, nor any potential business model. In those first months in the accelerator, we spent a significant amount of time trying to find the latter, and — once it dawned on us that there wasn’t a business model for democracy and that that’s sort of the point of democracy — any kind of revenue model. Today, it looks like the only route to building these data products sustainably is to have them funded — or produced — directly by a public institution. 

We hope we will be able to ‘spin-in’ some of the open data work we do to a public institution: the Electoral Commission. If successful, we’ll have solved one problem for citizens — there will be sustainably produced data on elections, which will power useful information tools. Did we play a role in making that happen faster than it would have happened otherwise? Yes, I think so. But have we managed to go beyond simply filling a necessary gap? Is the system any better? Is trust in democracy any higher? What were we even measuring in the first place? We’ve never known enough about civic behaviour to know to what extent a lack of information presents the most significant barrier to participation, versus a range of other factors: education, attitudes, perceptions, past behaviour, social norms, or just people being a bit busy with the rest of their lives.

The greater problem in our democracy might be the complexity of the system: the governance of a 65m-member community. The contextual knowledge required to participate might be too great, the sense of powerlessness too strong (and often quite rational), and hey, the entire democratic system design doesn’t welcome involvement. Our governance system wasn’t designed to be democratic; it wasn’t designed at all. Power was concentrated in an absolute monarchy and over hundreds of years we’ve chipped away at it through mostly small, occasionally major, victories via organising and campaigns and marches and protests and riots and martyrdom and elections and policy changes — and we still have more to do. 

Democracy is important…

It’s still true, what I argued in the original demo day pitch for Democracy Club. Democracy is the meta problem. If you care about the NHS, social care, the environment, transport, sovereignty, the relationship with international institutions — you care about democracy. (Okay, you care about governance, but I’m assuming we’re starting from the same starting point that governance should be democratic). You care about decision-making, about where power is, about how the exercise of power is held accountable to the people. These issues aren’t going away.

…and we don’t look after it 

One of the most frustrating parts of working in this area has been the realisation and increasing concern that ‘the UK’ — from private actors to public institutions — doesn’t take democracy seriously enough. Aside from the work on citizens assemblies — a genuinely exciting innovation (or, you know, Ancient Greek innovation) — the health of our democracy is probably in a worse state than five years ago. It’s difficult to make this kind of call because, as I’ll come on to below, we don’t measure the health of our democracy properly. But there is a fair bit of survey data, particularly on trust in democratic systems, that should raise eyebrows. Or at least lead us to ask more questions and to get the resources together to find out the answer. Given that democratic governance is fundamental to our society, to our national identity and to the health and wellbeing of us all, it is woefully under-resourced. As the need for Democracy Club’s work on data has shown, the UK has failed to get the basics right, let alone invest in experiments and innovation to move things forward. Democracy doesn’t happen by default. It must be monitored, defended and strengthened.

So what should we do about it?

Given the above, it seems like a good time to write down some of the ideas I have had bouncing around in my head for a while, to force me to clarify them and to invite some comments.

  1. A democracy monitor (slash thinktanky thing?)

The first step is to identify the problem that we’re trying to solve: what is it that needs improving about democracy and how are we going to know when we’ve improved it? 

In other fields, like the economy, like public health, like the environment, we measure everything. Daily, monthly, quarterly and annual updates — the stats pile up to help us make evidence-based decisions. We don’t measure democracy. Why not? If we agree that ‘a democratic way of life’ ranks highly in our collective vision of our ideal society — ranks of high importance of Things Our Public Institutions Should Protect — then we had better start measuring it.

What metrics do we need to measure a healthy democracy? This is a piece of work in itself: it isn’t just electoral participation, party membership or subjective levels of ‘trust’, it’s the quality of public debate, the level of civic education (public understanding of issues and processes), the availability of quality independent media, the representativeness (and competence) of politicians, the way politics is conducted, and yes, levels of trust and satisfaction. Some data on this kind of thing does exist in a piecemeal fashion, but much needs measuring for the first time. Are there existing groups of metrics that can be borrowed? Does the OECD do this already? Is there some little-known agency somewhere drawing up reports for this sort of thing? How about an Annual State of Democracy report? How about doing it for the nations, regions and local areas?

Relatedly, we do not pay enough attention to understanding the threats that our democracy faces. As far as I am aware, there’s no thorough analysis of potential threats. There’s no institution whose remit is to predict which threats pose the greatest risk — or to separate moral panics (hello ‘filter bubbles’) from the real threats. Is it actually true, as some data suggests, that young people are genuinely not bothered about living in democracy? Are people in the UK as happy as those in the US to live under military dictatorship? If so, what is going on? What is driving that? How much is fake news a problem? Is it a greater problem than disinformation campaigns led by foreign powers? What’s the actual effect of facebook on politics? And so on…

Perhaps most importantly — and I’ve not even seen much academic writing on this — how will our governance structures stand up in the anthropocene? If it is true that, as you can see mentioned relatively often in regard to the climate emergency, ‘we need a war economy’, then what does that mean for governance? In 1939, that looked like a national unity government and the nationalisation of all industry. It looked like extensive executive powers for surveillance and propaganda. It was felt necessary to pause democracy in order to save it. Will the same be necessary soon? 

If, to be more optimistic, there is still an opportunity to avoid the total collapse of a human-civilisation-friendly environment — is our current system capable of making the decisions necessary to do that? Can our current system park short-term thinking and organise a rapid transition to a net-zero society while respecting (strengthening?) democratic values? Would devolution of more power to local or regional government have positive or negative consequences for the environment? Do we need climate impact assessments for every governance reform suggestion that comes along? And do we need governance impact assessments for proposed adaptation or mitigation efforts in response to the emergency?

We make the effort to understand risk in economics, finance, health, the environment, and, of course, defence. The Treasury models economic and financial threats, Public Health England models threats from both viral outbreaks and from non-communicable diseases, and presumably vast teams in the MOD spend their lives modelling Russian invasions. I think we need an institution that does risk analysis for democratic governance — and one that can make recommendations or even interventions. In last year’s Canadian general election, a ‘Critical Election Incident Public Protocol’ was developed to detail how the public would be informed of threats to the election. Which body should have that power in the UK?

Some of this work is done in a piecemeal fashion across the academy and in civil society. Surveys like the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement give us some clues. Thinktanks or academic centres such as the Institute for Government and UCL’s Constitution Unit help too. But these aren’t enough, given the importance of the issue. It’s too easy for academic research to go unnoticed or be inoperable. Much research is focused on looking back after the fact — or perhaps in a panic in a run-up to an election. An adequately resourced body taking a long-term view is required. Perhaps it’s a democracy-equivalent of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an institution with an income of £8.8m (2018) and a staff of 60. Perhaps it’s the job of the Cabinet Office, or of an arms-length National Democracy Monitor? 

I think the next steps might be to:

  • Get some funding to sketch versions of what such an institution could look like — how it would be governed, financed and examples of what it would deliver;
  • Identify similar functions and similar institutions in other fields for comparison;
  • Find some allies and interested parties.
  1. A democracy commission, or a citizens’ convention

In the Queen’s Speech of 19 December, it was announced that a “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will be established.” 

Nobody seems to know what this means, including, presumably, the government. Such a commission could represent an opportunity for a big, sweaty, necessary national conversation about the state of our democracy. It could be wrapped up in the language of post-Brexit healing, coming together to plot our new common future… Or it could be a closed shop where the outcomes are decided in advance by a bunch of old white dudes. The latter would be an extremely easy target for a rival “People’s Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission”, so one assumes the government will at least try to give the impression of openness and public involvement.

If the government were to be brave — willing to take advantage of all that political capital it now has — to do something to secure the future of democracy (a ‘fundamental British value’, let us not forget), this commission could be interesting: a selection of cross-party great and good, and plenty of citizen participation. It would meet in each region of the UK. It would seek to ask how to build a more democratic country. It would analyse the effects of technological change, environmental change, of civic attitudes and behaviours, of politicians, systems and structure, the roles of media and civil society, and the relationship between all of that and the state. 

A closed commission with no public involvement (beyond ‘making submissions’) would be to go backwards. A broad, open commission would be a step in the right direction. But the government should also consider the gold standard option here: going beyond a commission to run a citizens’ convention. To have faith in the public and give citizens control of the agenda and of the final recommendations. (The government would not have to agree in advance to be bound by those recommendations.) To be truly representative of all of us — and to claim real legitimacy — the convention would randomly select group(s) of citizens to consider issues, ideas and make recommendations. This process of randomly selecting citizens to spend time considering or deliberating on an issue has been taking off around the world: in the UK, most notably with the Climate Assembly and with local council-run climate assemblies  across the UK. 

A blueprint to apply the citizens assembly model for such a constitutional convention already exists in the ‘user guide to a Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy’ developed at Kings College London, with the support of a former Chair of the House of Commons’ Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and a couple of deliberative democracy experts. The blueprint was launched with the support of (then) senior members of five different political parties. A convention on our democracy could be transformational — it’s worth considering how to make it happen. 

Next steps: 

  • Need more intel on what the govt’s planning;
  • Review what models of commissions are available; 
  • Test the prospects for a campaign for a citizens’ convention.
  1. A UK democracy network

Democracy needs supporters. It needs better organised supporters. The ‘democracy sector’ feels small, piecemeal, not linked up nationally and with no sense of a sector-wide strategy. There’s little knowledge-sharing (not even a mailing list); there’s no annual conference on democracy, nor many good opportunities for networking. Or I wasn’t invited yet. Some of these gaps could be easily filled to aid coordination, share information and identify whether there are common goals.

There have been some near-misses. For example, a coalition of organisations was half-organised to help run ‘National Democracy Week’, speaking to the power of the government to act as a convenor (in this case the Cabinet Office, via the Minister for the Constitution). Unfortunately, National Democracy Week felt rather like a project that government wanted to happen, but didn’t have the money to deliver it, so fobbed it off to civil society, which had had no say in the idea in the first place. More valuably, there is the annual NotWestminster conference on local democracy. There are mini-networks in fields like civic tech (e.g. Newspeak House and Democracy Club) and in the related ‘online harms’ field, where the promising Digital Action group has been formed. 

A national, broadly identified ‘democracy network’ could pool resources, develop a clear story or strong narrative about the importance of democracy for our society, identify shared understandings of threats and opportunities, reinforce each others’ messages, avoid duplication, establish measures of system-wide success (in the absence of a ‘monitor’ institution envisaged above), act as an interlocutor to government or institutions and work to make the funding pie bigger. Some early shared goals would be important to identify; ‘strengthening democracy’ might be too vague. 

The hard bit might be identifying what the democratic sector is. Some organisations will self-identify as working on democracy — but others might have to be coaxed into such a network. Part of any network-building, I think, should be helping to broaden the space, bringing in related organisations that might not yet see themselves that way (e.g. the guides/scouts, the WI, faith groups, and so on). 

Worse, it’s possible that there is no ‘democracy sector’: organisations have too disparate, or even contrary, goals, and given everyone’s working on shoestring budgets, perhaps nobody’s even got time for this. But other sectors have these networks — in economics, environment and development, for example — clearly people in those sectors were convinced that it was worth it.

Next steps: 

  • Review the attempts that have been made at this in the past; 
  • Look at other sectors where have networks worked well — how did they come about and what can we learn from them; 
  • Identify a list of organisations whose work concerns democracy;
  • Interview a range of organisations to test the interest — what do they perceive of themselves as needing and what could they offer such a network;
  • Come up with some potential early ‘missions’ for the network: cheap, quick things to test its usefulness; 
  • Get a budget for an organiser, events, online organising tools and let the members develop the agenda from there.
  1. A national endowment for civic education

Democracy Club provides basic information on elections, but what if that is wasted without also providing the wider context on how democratic institutions work? How good is the public’s understanding of democratic processes, politics and policies?

A better informed electorate presumably results in better decisions: it can raise the game of the media, political debate, and demand more of politicians. Better education on how the system works seems likely to increase trust in that system too.

The state of UK civic education is hard to judge, suggesting a need for an audit of knowledge and understanding. Snapshots have been provided in regards to citizenship education in schools — like this recent House of Lords report — but there’s little on the state of adult political literacy and thus any understanding of a need for ‘civic education’ or for ‘lifelong citizenship learning’. (I understand that there is a European longitudinal study of citizenship education, but that, concerningly, the UK dropped out, even prior to Brexit, suggesting a need for this work to be independently supported.)

Other fields have tackled adult education: perhaps most importantly in adult literacy programmes (7m adults in England still have ‘very poor literacy skills’), but there are bodies that focus on specific fields, such as in money and finance. The Money Advice Service, originally set up by government, spent £28m in its last year of operation before it became the Money & Pensions Service. That’s a tiny amount of money relative to government spending, but it could transform civic education.

There are a range of small institutions that could come under an umbrella of civic education, but need scaling up. These include the recently established Bingham Centre, which works, among other things, to ‘explain the rule of law’; the fact-checking organisations; journalism schools (esp. programmes open to the public). There is an academic centre at Sheffield that studies the public understanding of politics, but it doesn’t seem to operate in the same proactive fashion as the professors for the public understanding of science or risk

The Wellcome Trust, the second largest philanthropic body in the world, is another interesting example. It funds significant public engagement efforts in science, monitors the public understanding of health and science, and backs science education. One ‘Wellcome Trust for democracy’, please. 

Another model could be borrowed from abroad: an arms-length public body for civic education. These are relatively common in Europe and there’s even a network of them, which meets annually. At their Glasgow conference last year, several offered an open invitation to UK politicians to visit them to learn more. I wrote about Germany’s BpB, or Federal Agency for Civic Education, here, as a potential case study (as well as looking at the potential role for the BBC in this space). 

In the UK, for longevity and for perceptions of independence, such an institution should not rely upon government funding, hence suggesting an endowment model. The chance to create an all-new institution from scratch would open up exciting opportunities to harness digital, peer-to-peer learning, too. It’s worth further investigation…

Next steps: 

  • Collate data on political literacy/understanding, on citizenship education across the nations, and on whether we can say there is any adult political literacy work at all; 
  • Understand the history of the efforts for citizenship education in schools and what worked / didn’t; 
  • Identify and interview strongest players in the UK (presumably the parliamentary outreach/education teams in each nation) — but who else might advocate for civic education (inc the big education foundations);
  • Review how the media report/explain governance; 
  • Understand how this is done in other countries — across Europe and perhaps across the Commonwealth; 
  • Sketch models for a step-change in civic education, including an endowment model.
  1. A culture of democratic engagement

One thing that surprised me at Democracy Club was that even when we had all the data ready, were obviously non-partisan and almost a universally-agreed-upon ‘Good Thing’, we still couldn’t interest big consumer brands in helping us, outside the tech giants and one honorably-excepted ice-cream company. 

Generally, I get the impression that a lot of companies, charities, institutions are a bit afraid of elections… a bit “oh no, we don’t talk about politics”.  That’s nuts. Democracy is a joy! It’s great! I get the sense Americans do this much better: it’s more of a festival of participation (maybe it’s just their “I voted” stickers), but there’s something about a culture of democratic engagement that should be celebrated. 

I think it might be possible to expand the perception of who has responsibility for improving democracy, or at least democratic participation, to include everyone. To build a culture where participation is expected, promoted, assisted — and that’s everyone’s job. Including in the private sector. In the USA, there are a smattering of blue-chip companies that encourage their staff to vote, giving them time-off if necessary. Some even close their stores on election day, others run staff education programmes. In the UK, I can only muster two examples: Ben & Jerrys (free ice-cream if you register to vote) and Brewdog (a free pint if you vote). Where’s everyone else? 

We should make an effort to expand this kind of approach in the UK. What are the big sports clubs doing about democratic participation? What are our big cultural organisations doing? (Again, hello BBC.) Who are other early adopter brands that would be up for doing consumer-facing stuff? And who are the massive employers that could work to encourage their staff to take part? (Looking at you, supermarkets and fast-food chains). And there’s vastly more that universities could be doing, even if currently their only legal duty is to facilitate voter registration of students.

Next steps:

  • Interview some CSR types and some university types;
  • Borrow some examples from outside the UK;
  • Find some willing early-mover partners to show the way.

6. “Everybody Votes” — getting to 100% voter turnout

The last of the list of things in my head relates to a problem I think democracy organisations face, which is that democracy is a messy concept. It’s hard to focus and thus hard to succeed. As already mentioned, there’s a lack of good long-term metrics against which to measure the success of projects. Or the changes sought are so vast that we ignore the potential for small victories. I assume every sector has a constant debate about the value of ‘quick fixes’ vs ‘changing the system’. A better democracy is likely going to require both. 

Turnout is something easy to measure and record. A goal of ‘everybody votes’ is extremely clear to communicate and it’s obvious how to measure success. And it’s the kind of moonshot goal that gets attention. Having a crystal clear goal and a metric that already exists (quite a bit of work would have to be done to collate all the stats from local authorities, unless this already exists, buried in some university politics faculty somewhere) means that the fun bit is coming up with a load of ideas as to what nudges the dial, testing them, seeing what works and scaling them. I get the impression that JRRT’s UK Democracy Fund is starting to think a bit like this, which is great. Generally, more ‘lab’ style approaches to democracy should be welcomed.

And it might turn out that the quick fixes to boost turnout are actually a bit systemic too. We typically assume that people who feel powerless don’t bother voting, but what if it’s the other way around? That is, people who do not bother voting end up feeling powerless. If you could get everybody to vote, via, for example, design hacks and social pressure, rather than having to change the electoral system, would you in fact change people’s attitudes to the bigger picture stuff? If the action/behaviour actually precedes the intention/attitude, as appears in psychological studies sometimes, then hacks that get more people to vote might result in less powerlessness, greater trust and greater involvement in other areas. The ballot box could be the gateway drug to all kinds of civic participation… But to start, we just need to get them to the ballot.

Next steps:

  • Identify whether there are any competing potential projects that could have the same universal support, clarity of goal, good data with which to measure success;
  • Sketch the project, funding requirements, assumptions and example experiments.

What now?

I appreciate that this list of ideas isn’t, by itself, terribly useful. In my twenties I thought that ideas changed the world, TED Talks were great and that ‘there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come’, etc. It’s nonsense. Ideas are easy. They’re everywhere. They’ve all already been had. It took me a while to realise that it’s only the creation of a thing that is useful and it’s hard.

Some of the ideas above are longer-term ideas, some are realisable in the short-term. Some imagine institutions with significant funding, others not so much. And there are some important projects-for-democracy that I’ve not mentioned — what we’re going to do about public interest journalism, for example — but aren’t less important.

A good strategy identifies the desirable future, identifies possible routes to get there, taking account of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, then works out which route is best. Then you go for it.

It’s tricky when the goal is contested, because democracy. The goal could be to ensure that ‘power is shared equally’, ‘participation is always high’ or ‘trust in the system is high’. Ultimately I tend to fall back ‘to improve wellbeing’, but again, we don’t know enough about democracy’s relationship with wellbeing.

There are at least some clear opportunities and threats ahead: the potential break-up of the UK, the post-Brexit settlement; the need for a new national story; the climate emergency; the technological revolution; levels of extremism; and potential economic recessions or another decade of growing economic inequality. 

My next step is to try to take that strategic approach to the ‘what’s next?’ — there might be another (shorter) blogpost to come soon.

The rationalist community sometimes talks about Hamming questions, which are a nice way to finish. Richard Hamming was an engineer who would ask his colleagues at Bell Labs two questions: “What are the most important problems in your field?” Then he’d wait a bit. Then, to paraphrase, he’d ask: “And what are you working on?”

Feedback welcome!


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