I’m currently attending the Edgeryders conference in Strasbourg, and co-facilitating a session called “We The People”. Here is the note I prepared for the session participants on the challenges that we need to tackle.

One of our tasks in the We The People session at the conference is to define the challenge we’re facing in a single slide.

We all know at a basic level how dissatisfied people are with politics at national and European level, and how the crisis all around us demonstrates a serious failure of the political model we’ve lived with for twenty years. However, I think we have two problems with summing up – or even agreeing on – those challenges:

First, we all have our own view of what the political crisis really is, and whether the representative democracy model needs a few repairs, or is completely beyond saving.

Second, the existing power arrangements aren’t going away, and making change happen when it’s against the interests of some well-placed people won’t be easy. I think it can be done, but the solutions we come up with have to be much better than the current arrangements, obviously more democratic, or the big public – the 499,999,900 Europeans who aren’t Edgeryders – won’t be convinced.

So I want to be, perhaps, a bit provocative, and set out a reverse challenge: not what’s wrong with the system now, but what has to be right about the solutions we create. Apologies in advance that these examples are mostly British, that’s the country I know best. It’s a personal worry list – the things that keep me awake at night when I think about my attempts at writing about and doing democratic and participative reform.

I’d be really interested in hearing during the conference or in the comments whether these are the right worries, what I’ve missed, and what projects or ideas out there have succeeded in cracking some of them. Here are my six top worries:

1. Getting them in

As I said in a mission report on one of our projects, people aren’t that interested in democracy as a concept, and often they aren’t much more interested in democracy in practice.

In the UK, only a third of people would be interested in the chance to have their city development plan drafted by their local community, and only 12% would be interested in becoming involved in the drafting. Perhaps (this is my dark middle-of-the-night thinking) public services have started to behave like consumer product companies because the public want to be treated as consumers. How can we encourage people through the door, or do we need to?

2. Being representative

Related to that problem is the limited range of participants who come through the door in traditional exercises. Aside from the obvious questions about how you include disabled people, those with low confidence or serious health problems, there is a wider problem of interest being skewed towards a “civic core” who are less diverse, older, richer, and better-educated. There’s some interesting research on what that civic core looks like in Britain – it’s about one third of the population.

Giving the people who are already engaged better tools doesn’t reduce the unequal representation in society, in fact it makes it worse. We don’t want to create tools that boost the voice of those who can already get their voices heard. How do we ensure that the people who are participating are representative of the population as a whole?

3. Scaling

It takes a village to raise a child, as the old saying goes, but it takes a continent to set a credible energy policy. We don’t have to have the same democratic tools and village and European level, but we need to be able to encourage broader participation among 500 million without drowning the unfortunate policy officials in individual answers.

Similarly, the best democratic mechanism will understand and respond to the sort of issues that human beings have (“I’m worried about climate change”) rather than the sort of issues that organisations have (“what should our rules on maximum road transport axle weights be?”). Can we create a democratic environment that allows issues to be considered at the right level, and speaks human rather than organisation?

4. Public service change

Lots of money, and lots of power is tied up in current institutions that aren’t always ready or able to respond to citizen pressure. We can’t build a new democracy in a vacuum, how can we support, encourage and drive the public services to reform the way they do their work?

My personal experience is that the most difficult “layer” to manage is the middle, where people want to protect their staff and their budgets, but don’t feel they have the flexibility to make radical changes. These are the places where the walls of the silos are strongest – managers neither junior enough to ignore the rules and work with colleagues, nor senior enough to see the bigger picture. How can we make public services an active ally rather than a passive barrier in democratisation?

5. Being informed

Should there be a minimum quality standard for democratic discussion? We’ve seen the low quality andbitterness of much political debate online. We know that trolls and “astroturfers” can easily take over discussions with pre-prepared comments or simple abuse. Can we make participatory democracy better than those online examples?

What information do people need to make good decisions? In America, there is concern that fact-check websites have limited effect. Does it matter if a news story is inaccurate, since people might well be reading it only for confirmation of their existing views? How can we support an informed and fact-based democracy, rather than a shouting competition that favours those with time and money?

6. Barcelona 1936

I can’t remember where I read it, but I was struck by a recent description of the Internet as Barcelona in 1936 – a brief period where revolutionary outcomes seemed a real possibility, and control by either state or established institutions had disappeared.

The corollary of that is that the next stage is the re-imposition of “normality” – a concerted attempt by governments and corporations to take over the Internet and push its use towards commercial and consumer ends, or the continuation of current power and economic structures. Is this going to happen, and if it is, would that be such a bad thing? How can we ensure that democracy and participation online isn’t crushed by Facebook or an authoritarian regime?


Written by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.