Dreaming Democracy in Dundee

Annie Cook from The Democratic Society chats to John Alexander, the current Leader of Dundee City Council, about all things Dundee, participatory budgeting, the role of elected members, and Scotland. 

John was part of Dundee Decides, Dundee’s participatory budgeting process that brought people together to decide how a £1.2 million budget across eight local community areas was spent by also using a digital tool for citizens to vote. 

Listen to the podcast below or on Spotify via The Democratic Society…

Here are 7 things we learned about PB from Dundee’s John Alexander: 

  1. By involving more people in decisions through PB this means more people can understand how decisions are made. 

A perk of the John’s job is seeing the benefit of decisions that are made. John says “everybody knows that not all decisions you make are positive ones sometimes necessary ones, but they’re not always well received.” 

We also asked John about decision making and the role of elected members: 

“I don’t think it’s as black and white, perhaps as it can be portrayed. I think it’s really good for people to get an understanding of how this process (participatory budgeting) works… I think there’s always a balance to be struck between making sure that counsellors are held to account for the decisions that we make, also giving people the opportunity to inform those decisions… So I think it’s not having your cake and eating it, but certainly being reflective and being flexible about who we make those decisions for and listening at the bottom line.” 

  1. Making things inclusive means taking the vote to people.

Dundee Decides meant bringing people together in deciding how a 1.2 million pound budget across eight local community areas, was spent. This was a process that ran on a very local level, where people could have input and see the benefits quite quickly of their decision. 

In order to involve people John says “we had a widespread participation from skills from community groups, and we didn’t just expect people to log on to the website. We took the vote to people….It was a hugely successful exercise. Over 11,000 people participated in the actual vote and exercise of Dundee Decides, which was more than 10% of those eligible eligible to vote. We made sure that it was as inclusive as possible. So the limit, I suppose… was that you had to be over the age of 11. So being quite liberal and making sure young people had the opportunity to fit in as well.”

  1. PB is worth it.

“I think PB is fantastic. I really wish we had been doing it for a lot longer” 

After having done a process with a 1.2 million pound budget, John sees a huge benefit in involving people in decision making. 

A decade ago, we could have been having a discussion about how we deliver services, not just how we deliver them individually. Projects have a capital nature, we could be looking at revenue funding, etc. So, I think it would have completely changed the dynamic in the way that cities work more generally because, you know…it’s power to the people, isn’t it? And I don’t think anybody could see that as a bad thing.” 

  1. Getting different people to work together . 

The council’s efforts to engage with communities involved people from across the local authority, who would not normally work together. This included professions, such as engineers and others from different services departments. John said it helped people with different backgrounds in the council to work together and listen to different points of view.

  1. Money matters but not for the reason you might think…

 “You get what you put in is what I would say, we put in quite a sizable budget at you know, in the current financial climate particularly. And that was deliberate because in order to make it…real in order to get people to buy in, they need to believe that there’s real impetus behind it…And they have an ability to use some significant funds to change their community. Now, if what you do is a token gesture of £10,000, it’s not going to go very far. It’s not going to tell about multiple projects across the world. And so I think you’ve got to mean it, it’s kind of bottom line for me.”

  1. While some councillors may worry about PB John says he doesn’t see how it could negatively affect elected members. “we should never be in this kind of mental state of thinking that we’ve got all the solutions and all the answers because we don’t.”

“For all democrats, there is no better argument for PB and enhancing democracy because that’s what you’re doing and councillors will form views, they’ll have their opinions and that’s all well and good. But, you know, power to the people… I don’t think any of us should lose perspective at the fact that actually the power does lie with people we’re elected for a set period of time… If we don’t deliver, then we’ll be out on our backsides. And that’s right but people should have the ability to formulate plans for their own local areas. Because no matter what councillor, you speak to what party they are from, they do not speak for every single constituent. They represent both their own views the views of their party in which they are elected on and on a subset of their constituents, I’m very conscious that I represent- if you’re considering how many people vote for me over the potential electorate- less than 10% of the electorate voted for me, of those that participated”

There is a real value in engaging with people on their own terms on a daily basis, on projects they are really passionate about. John argues “there is so much to be gained from going out and speaking to people and finding out what their challenges are and ideas, actually, because we should never be in this kind of mental state of thinking that we’ve got all the solutions and all the answers because we don’t…The end result is a more engaged population, who respects what you’ve done, who is engaged in a process of participation, and ultimately, you’ve improved the community in one way, shape or form from the projects that have been voted for. So, I see far more positives than I do pitfalls, from a counsillor perspective”

7.) Jonn says people need ‘guts’ to make PB a mainstream activity for Scottish democracy

“People can see it as passing on potential decisions, and that’s never what it is about. It’s about enhancing democracy, enhancing people’s input. One of the kickbacks I’ve heard from colleagues that I’ve spoken to, is about how do we do this when our budgets are already tight? And what I’ve said to them is just what I would say to you right now is if you are absolutely engaged and participate in the budget, if you believe it, then you just make it work. You make a decision, you do it. There is no kind of grey space, if you are really passionate about delivering something, you’ll find a way of delivering it. And that’s how we’ve delivered projects like the VNA. We didn’t have all the money when we came up with the idea, but we delivered it…if there’s a will there’s a way!”

Demsoc book club: How Democracy Ends

We’re starting a semi-regular slot where Demsockers (our staff) review books they’ve recently read. To start, Andrew Brightwell talks about How Democracy Ends, by David Runciman.

If you’re looking for a light spot of summer/autumn reading, this book by the Director of POLIS at Cambridge University might not make it to the top of your list, starting as it does with the observation that democracy will end, and its demise might be rather closer than we might hope.

But if this doesn’t leave you spitting out your Pina Colada and rifling through your hotel’s battered paperbacks for an alternative, you’ll find a fascinating, accessible introduction to many of the most interesting existential questions our democracies face.

Unlike a slew of editorials, books and other media calling time on democracy, Runciman steers clear of hyperbole and melodrama. The notion that tanks will roll on to the manicured lawns of the White House, trundle up Downing Street, or burst the gates of the Elysees Palace, is quickly dismissed. Instead, he suggests, the risks to democracy – at least for wealthy nations, where coups are vanishingly unlikely – is that democracy is deemed unfit for the challenges ahead.

As the author points out, democracy is more likely threatened by our technological revolution and, and the potential for existential catastrophe. Indeed, while the threat of coup d’etat may have withered, the good times our liberal democracies have enjoyed are unlikely to be repeated either.

A historian of political thought, he is skilled at introducing us to the development of our democracies, their weaknesses and to a range of academic responses and critiques. These include an insightful exploration of a contemporary proposal for ‘epistocracy’, rule by the experts, which was made into a long read for The Guardian.

Gideon Rachman, reviewing the book for the Financial Times, suggests that it’s probably best to see Runciman’s work as a thought experiment. In fact, it’s part of a growing body of work that the writer is amassing, which explores what might – perhaps should – happen to our democracies. And some of Runciman’s most interesting suggestions are to be found outside this work, in particular in a series of lectures he has delivered since its publication – which are available as part of his Talking Politics Podcast. These include the startling, but not entirely serious suggestion that we should lower the voting age to six – and Runciman’s use of the Copernican Principle to underline how fleeting our current form of representative democracy might prove to be.

It makes How Democracy Ends a fascinating read, and a great introduction to the problems contemporary representative democracy face, but it is only the start of a longer journey – a journey we’re all on. 

Space in Common – Collaborating to Shape Our Cities – Final Report Now Published

With partners from Jam and Justice, we’ve recently published a short final report about our Space in Common project. This project was about building relationships and exploring collaboration between different groups with a stake in ‘spatial planning’ decisions about how Greater Manchester takes shape. And exploring how these decisions could be approached in a more collaborative and constructive way.

What was Space in Common?

Local authorities across England are required to set out long-term plans for how their area will take shape, which inform what can be built where – referred to as ‘spatial planning’. In October 2016 a draft ‘Greater Manchester Spatial Framework’ attracted considerable opposition, from resident groups and campaigners, objecting to plans to build on the greenbelt. In response to this recent history, and leading up of a planned re-draft, Space in Common was set-up.

The project aimed to build relationships between different people who were trying to influence spatial planning decisions in Greater Manchester. And help people to learn more about each other’s perspectives, identify points of common ground, and explore possibilities for collaboration. Through this process, we also hoped to learn how to build more constructive discussion and decision-making about spatial plans.

We decided to run four workshops with participants from a range of local groups with an active interest in how these decisions are made.. Through a series of workshops, we:

  • helped the group share their previous experiences and ambitions;
  • examined how planning currently works with a planner from a local council;
  • learnt about the alternative approach built by the community network ‘Just Space’ in London; and
  • considered possibilities for collaboration in Greater Manchester

Our Final Report

With our partners, we’ve now created a short report summarising this project and what was learnt. This evaluates what the workshops were able to achieve, and shares some of what was learnt from discussions between participants.

Click here to access our Space in Common report.

Through the course of these workshops we heard how communities feel under threat from a system that  is hard to understand, and where communities can only respond once plans are already drawn up. There are also a lack of opportunities for people with  different views to come together and discuss how they feel. And we heard how local authorities lack the resources to reach out and engage effectively and can feel overwhelmed by the weight of public opposition when plans are consulted on. And at the same time feel under threat from housing developers who have disproportionately greater resources to dedicate to contesting their decisions.

How the system can improve    

But we also saw glimpses of how things could work better. The experiences of Just Space, show what collaboration can achieve. This network has brought together and empowered a range of London community-based groups with an interest in decisions about how their city takes shape.

Rather than just responding to consultations these groups have set out their own vision for the development of their city, and are bringing new voices into spatial planning decisions. You can read more about the work of Just Space work through this blog post. And there are promising signs of collaboration and empowerment in Manchester, where greenbelt campaigners are cascading a growing understanding of spatial planning from one person to the next.

Jam and Justice

Jam and Justice logo, featuring an orange map of Greater Manchester

Space in Common was part of a wider Jam and Justice programme of action and research Local  academics partnered with a range of citizens and practitioners on 10 projects, that developed creative responses to urban challenges, such as care provision, energy, and young people’s democratic participation.

You can learn more about Jam and Justice, and its achievements and findings in this report on the Jam and Just programme.

Space in Common was delivered in partnership between a three-person team from Jam and Justice’s ‘Action Research Collective’ and Demsoc. The idea for the project came from discussions of the Action Research Collective.

We are really grateful to Adrian Ball, Beth Perry, and Bert Russell from the Action Research Collective for all their work, and to all the speakers who gave their time to these workshops, and participants for sharing their experiences, energy and ideas.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to learn more about this project please contact Mat on mat@demsoc.org.


Citizens’ Convention sets out vision for citizens to shape the future of UK democracy

Plans for a two-year national deliberation, in which citizens are asked to shape the UK’s democratic future, have been announced.

Advocated by Graham Allen, led by the Centre for British Politics and Government, King’s College London, and backed by a high-profile group of MPs, The Citizens’ Convention aims to deliver a new ‘partnership between elected representatives and citizens’. The team supporting the Conventions’ plans includes the King’s Policy Institute at King’s College London, Involve and us, The Democratic Society!

A process for democratic change

The Convention proposes starting with a national conversation on the future of UK democracy, open to all citizens in the UK, to establish themes and ideas for a series of citizens’ assembly-style events to then consider. 

Randomly selected citizens, convened to be demographically representative of the UK population, will then work together “to learn, deliberate and make decisions on how democracy can be deepened and improved.” 

Everything is up for grabs

While citizens will be at the driving seat of any recommendations the convention makes, a Parliamentary leaders group has set areas of interest for the convention. This includes powers and membership of the House of Lords, the voting systems we use, and how politics should be paid for – but leaves open any proposals or changes citizens want to see.

The Parliamentary Leaders Group of MPs includes Tom Watson MP, David Davis MP, Dominic Grieve MP, Sir Vince Cable and Caroline Lucas. Importantly, Graham Allen says in the Independent: “The MPs have signed a pledge to seek manifesto commitments from their parties that parliament will receive and then decide upon the recommendations and Bills proposed by the Citizens’ Convention.”

You can read more about the programme – on the Citizens’ Convention website, and in the user manual shared there – right away. 

  • You can also hear Mark Easton, the BBC home affairs editor, and Nick Robinson, discuss the Convention for short piece on the Today programme, from 39 minutes in, on the BBC website. 

Demsoc joins Chatham House’s Conversation on the Future of Democracy and Tech

As part of our digital and data work, we’re excited to announce that we’re working with Chatham House on its Commission on Technology in Europe to explore how technological change is influencing democratic governance. 

Technology and democracy

Launched in early 2019, the Commission is putting forward three research questions:

  1. What effect is technology having on democracy in Europe?
  2. Against the background of social and technological change, how can democracy in Europe be made more responsive?
  3. Are there ways in which technology can revitalise democracy in Europe? 

Chatham House are very keen to develop answers to these research questions in a crowd-sourced and collaborative fashion. Given our expertise in and commitment to improving participatory democracy, we were invited to initially share our thoughts and, subsequently, lead the writing of a response to the question 2: 

Against the background of social and technological change, how can democracy in Europe be made more responsive?

What is the problem?

In keeping with the idea of collaborative research, we pulled together a problem statement of the current challenges and broad landscape drawing upon prior submissions received in the first phase as well as our own experience, thoughts, and views. You can read it on the Chatham House website

We believe that profound technological and social changes in recent decades, together with globalisation, have enabled citizens to self-organise like never before. At the same time, however, this enormous progress has been accompanied by a growth in mass disinformation and distrust in government institutions. 

Indeed, there is no doubt that representative democratic systems are floundering the world over. Against this backdrop, there is a growing movement for more experiments in direct democracy. But while this is welcome, what confidence can we have that these experiments will always work – or successfully mitigate against democratic deficits – if these experiments rely on existing network technologies that in some cases themselves stand accused of reinforcing or exacerbating existing inequalities or creating new ones?

Others are looking to participatory and deliberative democracy as a way to make existing decision-making more consensual, more meaningful and well-informed. For example, with our partners mySociety and funder Luminate, Demsoc is involved in Public Square. This  programme is exploring how citizens can be more meaningfully involved in decision making in a handful of councils in the UK. 

Similarly, in the IiDP (Innovation in Democracy Programme), we are working with partners Involve, the RSA and mySociety, to implement three ‘Area Democracy Forums’ with three UK councils. And we’ve assisted Involve in delivering the UK’s first citizen’s assembly on climate change in Camden. Despite their current popularity in the UK and in many other places around the world, participatory approaches have their drawbacks. For example, they can sometimes be used by governments as one-off interventions that may not leave a significant impact.

Does this mean democracy is doomed? Absolutely not! But if you’re interested in finding out more about our response, please visit the Chatham House website. And while you’re at it, we’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. 
Only have a spare three minutes? Watch Demsoc’s president, Anthony Zacharzewski, discuss our thinking on European democracy and technological change at the Chatham House London conference in June.

Demsoc helps to deliver first-ever climate change citizens’ assembly for a local authority in the UK

Camden Council’s Citizens’ Assembly on “how the council and the people of Camden can help limit the impact of climate change whilst protecting and enhancing our natural environment” was completed last week. 

Kelly McBride and Mel Stevens were lead facilitators for the event on 20th July which was run by Involve, and has now sent its recommendations to the Camden Council thanks to the enthusiasm of residents who participated and Camden’s innovatory approach. Our president, Anthony Zacharzewski, was also an advisor for the assembly.

It becomes the first Citizens’ Assembly to be carried out on climate crisis by a local authority – but is unlikely to be the last. A number of councils are either considering assemblies for a range of issues, or already in the process of developing their own.

Elsewhere, Demsoc is working with mySociety, RSA and Involve on the Innovation in Democracy Programme commissioned by Government to trial deliberative democracy processes, where a randomly selected group of residents are being asked to explore revitalizing Town Centres in Dudley and Test Valley and reducing congestion, improving air quality, and provide better public transport in Greater Cambridge


You can read more about Camden’s Citizens’ Assembly in The Guardian, in Camden New Journal, and Hampstead and Highgate Express.

Innovation in Democracy Programme

We’re delighted to tell you about Demsoc’s involvement in the UK Government’s Innovation in Democracy Programme.

We will be working with three areas in the planning, design and delivery of Area Democracy Forums – the programme’s name for mini-public deliberative democracy events similar to citizens’ assemblies.

A screen grab from the Andover Advertiser’s article about Test Valley’s involvement in the Innovation in Democracy Programme

The Innovation in Democracy Programme was announced last year by the UK Government – Demsoc is are part of a partnership delivery team including Involve, mySociety and the RSA.

We have already started work with the Greater Cambridge Partnership, which recently announced its plans for a Citizens’ Assembly on traffic congestion in Cambridge, and is being led by our colleagues at Involve.

We are leading the projects at Test Valley Borough Council and Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council. Dudley is planning to explore the future of town centres, while Test Valley is looking at future of waste and recycling or possibly the vitality of town centres.

The Innovation in Democracy programme is being led by two government departments, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. You can see more about the programme on the Government’s website, and on Involve’s website.

How voting works in the European Parliament elections for England, Scotland and Wales

A polling card and a voting ballot box

Tomorrow, voters in the UK will go to the polls to elect new members of the European Parliament. Unlike most other votes held in England, Wales and Scotland, these elections will use a system called D’Hondt to decide how seats are won.

Developed by a Belgian lawyer and mathematician, Victor D’Hondt, it’s one way of ensuring that seats are awarded to parties proportionately. D’Hondt does this with a complicated system of counting that penalises parties that have already won seats, so other parties or independent candidates have a chance of winning seats.

At Demsoc, a big part of what we do is explain how democratic decision making works. So, for a bit of fun, we’ve had a crack at explaining D’Hondt. It’s not easy!

But D’Hondt worry

What makes the D’Hondt system interesting, however, is that from a voter’s perspective, it’s really easy to vote.

Unlike some other proportional systems, where you may have to indicate which candidate or party you prefer by voting several times, with D’Hondt you vote once. It’s what happens after you vote that’s a bit more complicated.

Nonetheless, learning how it works is a good idea. If you are a voter, and you’re trying to work out who to vote for, you’re going to want to know how likely it is that your chosen candidate or party will win a seat.

How it works

So here are some slides we’ve prepared that take you through the nuts and bolts of the D’Hondt system.

D’Hondt stop now

Just so you know, this is the system that’s used in Great Britain, but not in Northern Ireland – which uses a different voting system. This guide explains more.

Elsewhere, EU elections are different too – the rules only state that a form of proportional representation must be used. For an overview of some of the differences across the EU, you could look at this European Parliament PDF – but be warned: it’s also a bit complicated!

Oh yeah… D’Hondt forget to vote! And sorry about all the terrible puns!

Online PB in Reykjavik: making democracy easier and more fun

As part of our work developing the use of digital participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland, Demsoc has been sharing inspiring examples of how digital tools have been used for PB around the world. This time we’re looking at Reykjavik’s long-standing PB process. This blog was written with the help of Róbert Bjarnason, who gave us a short interview about Reykjavik’s PB process. Róbert is Chief Exec of Citizens Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation, whose technology has been used in this process. Citizens Foundation are also one of the providers we’ve worked with to support digital PB in Scotland.

Why read this post?

Are you interested in:

  • Using Participatory Budgeting as a way to give citizens power to change what happens on their doorstep?
  • Using digital to make it easy to get involved in political decision making?
  • The promotion of digital PB and dealing with security of voting?

When the city of Reykjavik introduced Participatory Budgeting it was an attempt to do politics differently: giving citizens tangible power to make things happen on their doorstep; and turning participation from something onerous into something easy, or even fun.

This blogpost shows how they did it. It also shows some of the key considerations needed for digitally enabled PB to work, particularly around promotion and security. Lastly, we look at how the PB process fits into other forms of online democracy in the city.

A view of Reykjavik showing low white buildings with water and an imposing mountain in the background.
Reykjavik. Creative commons image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcobellucci/8154357332

The history of participatory budgeting in Reykjavik

After the Icelandic financial crisis there was huge distrust in Icelandic politics. The Citizens Foundation was set up as a not-for-profit civic tech provider in response. The Foundation  developed a platform that allows parties standing in a forthcoming election to crowdsource policy ideas. The Best Party, set up as a satirical response to Iceland’s crisis of confidence in its traditional politics, really took this up and thousands of people engaged with the opportunity. In elections to Reykjavik’s city government, The Best Party won enough seats to form a coalition government and continued to look to the public for direction on policy making. It was in this context that participatory budgeting was first set up in Reykjavik in 2011. According to Róbert Bjarnason of the Citizens Foundation, a key motivation for introducing participatory budgeting was to build a different way for  politics to be done, where engagement was more fun, and where the effects of taking part were really tangible to citizens. But it was also a response to substantial cuts to spending that followed the economic crisis that focused the reduced resources on the best uses.

The digital PB process in Reykjavik

Roughly 6% of Reykjavik’s city council investment budget of €3.5 millions is subject to participatory budgeting each year. This is split between the city’s 10 districts. The PB process is based online, with offline activities feeding into the online idea generation and deliberation.

Stage one: generating ideas

Participants submit ideas for how one of the city’s ten neighbourhoods can be improved on the open-source online platform, Your Priorities, developed by Citizens Foundation. They just need to register with Facebook Connect or an email and password to do so. They are then asked for a short description, an image, and to click on a map to share their proposal’s location. You can also comment on other people’s ideas,  by adding points for, or against the proposal. You can express support by ‘liking’ an idea, and can up-vote or down-vote other people’s comments. This idea generation stage lasts for about a month.

A screenshot of the Better Neighbourhoods website, showing three proposals citizens have made. Each has an image and short description and numbers showing how many comments, up-votes and down-votes each has received.
Screenshot of the online ideation stage for the 2018 PB process within one of the city’s districts: https://betrireykjavik.is/group/1505/successful  (Translated to English using the auto-translate feature in Your Priorities)

Stage two: assessment

Following the completion of this stage, the city’s construction board judges how much they will cost. Ideas that are beyond the scope of the process are rejected. Where ideas are not taken forward, participants are emailed to tell them why.

Stage three: voting online

Voters have the chance to choose which of the ten districts they will vote in, and they then decide which projects they think their district’s budget should be spent on. Anyone 15 and over can vote, two years younger than the voting age ceiling applied in other Icelandic elections. To cast their vote, residents divide the available budget up between their favourite projects. This encourages people to think about trade-offs and get the best value for money. It’s also designed to be a fun way of casting a vote.

Voters are also able to select one project as their favourite, and therefore give it double the vote. Voters aren’t given a lot of information about projects, but instead the focus has been on making it easy for voters to express their preference. Róbert told us that the process of casting a vote takes on average 4.3 minutes. Voters can also go back and change their vote at any time during the voting period. Every time a voter clicks on the site ideas are presented in a random order to protect against bias. The software used for the vote is called Open Active Voting, which is also open source. The votes are announced through a voting ceremony, with participants emailed to share the results.

Each year about 100 – 120 ideas are implemented. Róbert suggested that having a large number of proposals involved could help to increase the chance of a range of different interests getting their projects implemented.

Promotion

Róbert said that you can roughly  predict how many people will take part in a the PB process by how much is put into the promotion. Reykjavik has made a conscious effort to invest in  using professional marketing companies and a multi-channel marketing campaign to make people aware of the PB process. This has included Google and Facebook ads, and adverts on radio and TV. Comedians have been hired as the face of the process.

The city also runs face-to-face meetings. Ideas put forward here are fed directly into the online process. And they conduct outreach in places like shopping malls, older people’s homes, and schools. Using tablets makes it easy for such outreach to feed straight into the online process.

Security

Security is an important consideration for online PB, ensuring that only Reykjavik residents get a vote, and that people aren’t getting more than one vote. This has become even more important over time as concerns about foreign interference have grown around the world. It’s also important that processes are protected from the possibility of corruption – particularly when sizeable budgets are involved.

To make it easier to take part, the ideas generation stage just uses an email and password or Facebook Connect, but stronger security is introduced at the voting stage. The Icelandic National Registry operates a single sign-on system, using citizens’ phones, which is used for a variety of services, including banking. This system is used to verify voters within the PB process.

In offline votes different people would perform different roles to protect against fraud. This principle is emulated in Reykjavik’s online vote. Citizens Foundation created the code used, but they do not have access to data about how people have voted. The election itself is operated by the City of Reykjavik. The city’s Internal Audit monitors the election, and there is also a security audit each year, before, during and after the vote.

Online democracy in Reykjavik

The online PB process, branded as ‘My Neighbourhood’, is hosted on a site called ‘Better Reykjavik’. This site, built using the Your Priorities software, brings together a range of ways that citizens can have their voice heard in the city.

One part of  Better Reykjavik is ‘My voice at the city council’ which allows citizens to make suggestions online about  how their city can be improved. These ideas can be commented on and voted up or down by other participants on the site. Every month the top five ideas, and the top idea in each category, are discussed in the appropriate standing committee within the council. Their response is published on the site.

In 2017 the city also experimented with using this site to crowdsource ideas for their education policy over two stages.

A screenshot of the Better Reykjavik site. Links to different parts of the site are shown using images with short descriptions underneath.
Screenshot of the Better Reykjavik site, showing different initiatives that citizens can engage with: https://betrireykjavik.is  (Translated to english using the auto-translate feature in Your Priorities.)

As such, Better Reykjavik provides an online location where a number of opportunities are brought together. There has also been some movement between these, for instance ideas first submitted to the PB process have been moved into the ongoing ideation section.

What has been achieved?

In  Reykjavik the annual PB process has been able to attract participation of around 12.5% of the city’s population. PB can act as a gateway for bringing citizens and bureaucracies together. It has now become something demanded by voters, and which politicians also really like. At time of writing (April 2019) the city has had just completed its 8th annual idea generation, with around 39,000 people visiting Better Reykjavik (approximately 37% of the voting population) and 5,800 logging in to take part.

The population of Reykjavik makes up about 35% of Iceland’s population. Since being introduced to the capital, PB has subsequently spread to other smaller municipalities.

Find out more

Reykjavik’s PB process shows how online PB can give citizens an easy way to have real power, which they can see working. It also shows how this can be built into a wider array of online opportunities for participation. In creating this accessible front-end, there is lots of work that has to be put in behind the scenes – some of these considerations have been shown here. If you want to know about this case study, or the topic in general, you can contact Róbert via the Citizens Foundation website, or speak to us at: Scotland@demsoc.org.

Corra Foundation’s Change Convention

On 28th March 2019, we attended Corra Foundation’s Change Convention at Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh, which over 300 people attended and it was so great that we decided to write all about it! The day was focussed on exploring how to create positive change in uncertain times. This is fundamental to our work in the Democratic Society as we want to better understand and learn from others how social change happens and how we can help support challenge, change, and create new ways of doing things to develop societies that are just, democratic, and empowered to make their own positive changes.

10 things we learned from Corra Foundation’s Change Convention

1.) In order to change media stereotyping of areas that are depicted as deprived and run-down, we need to change our consumerism habits (what we read/watch/buy into) to tell stories that are balanced around both the good and bad of towns, therefore not sensationalising and buying into bad stories. This will ensure an experience of greater equality and benefit citizens to feel more empowered about where they live.

2.) Creative arts and theatre are a great way to integrate migrants into communities and to express living experiences of moving into a new country.

3.) “Shouldn’t people who have risked everything including their lives and their children’s lives to move country gain the right to work and immerse in a new area?” It’s important to listen to others and treat everyone with respect and equality.

4.) “Evil happens when good people do nothing” We have a human moral responsibility to not let the system fail people.

5.) “Do we have our priorities right?” There isn’t enough compassion and funding for groups that support migrants and isolated individuals. Should we change to a 4 day working week so that 1 day could be allocated to volunteering to support kindness in communities, dignity, and helping others?

6.) A fundraising issue. “Where is the trust?” In order to keep sustainable projects going, charities and organisations have to keep re-applying for funding every year or so. When asking for 10 years worth of funding the answer is usually no way. It’s therefore difficult for companies to get into the swing of their great projects and the potential for positive change because of the concern with funding. We need to work out a way to transcend boundaries between working organisations, councils, communities, and volunteers, by joining resources this will make people’s lives better and develop a more sustainable society.

7.) Sheila McKechnie Foundation Workshop. The social change project. “In whose hands is the power really in?” Governments don’t drive change- it starts with civil society. There is growing evidence in how civil society can ‘play big’ and truly create change. More change is happening through individuals and civil society because of the development of technology, access to online media and the ability to communicate widely. There are lots of examples of this as well; the campaign for the living wage to be changed, plastic ban/reduction, me-too movement, and many more.

8.) Sheila McKechnie Foundation Workshop. The social change project’s 12 steps for social change:

1.) Mission first, not model nor money. Everyone campaigns when they have to (example- saving a child, crisis situations, etc) Perhaps organisations striving for change and charity organisations could and should engage more in public spheres to shift attitudes.

2.) Looking at the bigger picture. In a complex system we shouldn’t be working alone but intervening in different ways. (Invitation to let go- everyone is required to pin down and be accountable for their own actions).

3.) Being adaptive and responsive (example-Grenfell fire).

4.) Persistence, perseverance and resilience- (how do we model longer term thinking?)

5.) In whose name? “Nothing about us, without us” how do you do thing with and not to?

6.) Primacy of relationships- transformational service, civil society can build relationships in a way institutions can’t.

7.) Understanding other people’s interests and motivations. (example, Abraham lincoln- “I don’t like that man. I just get to know him better”)

8.) Radical listening and an asset-based approach- people have value and agency. Power is much more dispersed.

9.) Collaborating rather than competing. (It’s not always about the money?!)

10.) Knowing our tools. How do we pursue change what are the other things we could do?

11.) Evaluating what matters and learning from it- reflection and things went wrong.. be honest and share.

12.) Take responsible risks and take a leap. (It might not work… but that’s ok)

9.) Maryhill Integration Network. “Do we know the difference between refugee and asylum seeker?” There are currently flaws within the system that mean asylum seekers do not have the right to work and can be waiting months before their applications are accepted and thus causing many negative implications to their lives. Giving people the right to volunteer in communities will give individuals a sense of belonging, reduce the sense of isolation, build local language knowledge skills and work skills for employability.

10.) Ruth Ibegbuna- founder of Reclaim and the Roots programme. Don’t be scared to be disruptive. Disruption is key for change.

Many thanks to the challenge speakers, panelists, workshop hosts, event illustrator and event coordinators who put on this event, you can find out more here: https://www.corra.scot/change-convention2019/