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.


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