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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 email@example.com.
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.”
What effect is technology having on democracy in Europe?
Against the background of social and technological change, how can democracy in Europe be made more responsive?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
This week we published our new podcast series Weighing Digital, An Experts Guide.
We spoke to three digital participatory budgeting experts across the globe who have designed, developed and are actively running participatory budgeting & citizen engagement digital platforms, with an aim to create a better and more democratic world.
In this first episode we spoke to Miguel Arana Catania, Director of Citizen Participation for Madrid City Council about the benefits and challenges of using a digital tool for citizen engagement and Consul which is a free software platform first set up and used in Madrid by the brand Decide Madrid and now used across the globe, that allows everyday citizens to participate in various functions for a more open, transparent and democratic government. It includes: citizen proposals, voting options, participatory budgeting, collaborative legislation, public debates, collective interviews, and sectorial processes.
Listen to this if you’ve heard about or are interested in the digital pilot in Scotland! Consul is the digital tool that was set up in Madrid and is now being used here. Listen to what Miguel has to say about Consul, digital engagement and citizen participation!
In this second episode, we spoke to César Silva, CEO & co-founder of Change Tomorrow about the benefits and challenges of using a digital tool for citizen engagement and Participare which is a digital platform used in Portugal, Scotland and beyond, that allows everyday citizens to participate in various functions for a more open, transparent and democratic government. It includes: citizen proposals, voting options, participatory budgeting and their aim is to provide easy to use, do-it-yourself like, solutions to help change the world and make it a better place.
Listen to this if you’re looking for some digital tips on designing your PB process. In this podcast, César talks about international examples, what’s worked, why it’s worked and overcoming challenges!
In this final episode of Weighing Digital, Annie chats to Róbert Bjarnason, President & CEO of Citizens Foundation a non-profit organisation about Iceland’s experience of using digital tools for citizen engagement and the future of democratic participation. The tools used are Your Priorities & Open Active Voting, which are open sourced digital platforms used in Iceland, Scotland and beyond. These tools allow everyday citizens to participate in various functions for a more open, transparent and democratic government. It includes: citizen proposals, voting options, debating, collaborative legislation and participatory budgeting. Their mission is to bring people together to debate and prioritise innovative ideas to improve their communities whilst also helping citizens get their voices heard and to encourage citizens participation in governance.
Listen to this podcast if you’re interested in finding out how you build trust in your area, the importance of building trust and maintaining trust, citizen engagement and the future of digital…including artificial intelligence. Róbert also tells us about setting up digital in Iceland and how it came about!
(Interview by Annie Cook over Skype) Available on Creative Commons licence. Music by Hamish Cook (copyright for music, all rights reserved)