Ideas of Democracy: Save Democracy – Abolish Voting

Demsoc has just launched the first in our Ideas of Democracy series. The series is intended to give space for writers to express a vision and contribute to the debate on the future of democracy and democratic governance. The books are personal views, and not those of the Society.

Here Paul Evans, author of “Save Democracy – Abolish Voting” discusses his new book, which you can buy online now.

“Save Democracy – Abolish Voting” sketches out an alternative means of managing liberal democracy.

It is an unusual book, in that it defends the values and reputation of Representative Democracy as vigorously as possible while also promoting a new form of Direct Democracy that could even eventually replace our current parliamentary system.

While rejecting the use of referendums, the book also rejects the argument made by some opponents of referendums about how voters don’t have the intelligence to make big democratic decisions for themselves. Instead, it argues that it is the wise voter who rejecs the selective appeals of politicians who allow us a say on some carefully-chosen questions but not others.

“Save Democracy – Abolish Voting” calls for an equality of control over every aspect of our governance. The book suggests an alternative to balloting – one that makes it practical and possible for us all to have our interests defended and advanced equally.

The book goes further than just a rejection of referendums. It questions the very link between the desire of each citizen to get “the kind of government that I want” and “casting a vote.” It ridicules the idea that the way citizens can direct a government by selecting from a limited number of political options in an attempt to say what we think we want.

It attacks what many believe to the very heart of democracy; our vote, and the right it gives us to decide what sort of government we think that want to have going forwards. It doesn’t do this without making a better suggestion though.

There is currently some truth in the old anarchist slogan; “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.” While defending the values that underpin Representative Democracy, “Save Democracy – Abolish Voting” recognises that it is not enough for us to only have parliamentarians and other elected representatives directly responsible to us.

“Save Democracy – Abolish Voting” proposes a way of placing every part of the public sphere – every resource that goes into writing laws and deciding what governments do – equally under the control of each citizen. Crucially, it does it in a way that does not depend upon citizens needing to put any direct effort in. This is not a proposal for a system that rewards activists, or the cash/time rich citizens who currently dominate our political system.

“Save Democracy – Abolish Voting” is written from an understanding of how digital technology is changing politics and society. It voices a demand that is very rarely made in a sustained way. It calls for the most complete democratic equality that is practicable. It calls for a huge expansion in the role of participatory government. It does this in a way that actually complements the best aspects of Representative Democracy while abolishing the worst bits.

Most of all, it is a rejection of the idea that “politics” is a good tool to use to control a democracy. “Save Democracy – Abolish Voting” proposes a better alternative.

Reflections on a three month internship with The Democratic Society

In June we were delighted to welcome Alex Hrabinová to our office in Edinburgh to begin a three-month internship, which was enabled by the Erasmus+ programme. Having now returned home to Slovakia, we asked Alex to reflect on her time spent working with the Demsoc team. You can read about her experiences below.

We’re always happy to hear from people interested in working in the Democratic Sector. We are able to support occasional internship opportunities, but it’s important to us that the placements are meaningful development opportunities and can fit alongside our existing programmes of work. If you want to chat, feel free to drop us a line at hello@demsoc.org. 


After five years of studying Economics and two final theses written focusing on participatory budgeting in Slovakia, I found myself dreaming about seeing how it works in practice. At university, they told us all the theories about democratic regimes, systems and transformations – but we all know and even can feel that bringing about change and reform is not that easy.

The reason I chose Scotland was clear: I perceive it as an inclusive and innovation driven country, keen to share its experiences. The reason I chose The Democratic Society was even clearer: focusing on implementation of participatory budgeting processes across Scotland with embedding tools for digital democracy seemed like a perfect opportunity to expand my horizons of professional and personal interest.

First and foremost, when describing my experience with Demsoc, it is useful to say that I was paid during my internship, unlike many other Erasmus interns who may have to live off a small bursary from the Erasmus programme. From speaking with one of my colleagues, it would be in contradiction with their organisational values. They appreciate people interested in their work and make every effort to fairly support anyone who works with them.

Following their broader organisational belief coming from independent, non-partisan and non-political aligned background, they certainly consider the partners they work with too. I found it really affable hearing them talk about considering ethical principles and financial transparency of their potential partners as one of the criteria of their further digital tools research. Although it is increasingly difficult to maintain a flat organisational structure in a constantly growing environment – which requires increasing professionalisation – Demsoc is trying to be non-hierarchical and always treat their employees equally by insisting on providing an open and honest workplace; they focus on clear internal communication and prompt responses to all of their staff’s needs and concerns.

I met my colleagues for the first time in the middle of June when my internship started. I remember stepping nervously into the cosy office to meet my mentor and supervisor, but ended up having a relaxed conversation in a truly welcoming and supporting environment. We finished that day knowing each other better and networking with clients and associates at Demsoc’s regular HolyroodTweetUp event. What a great way to start this experience!

After meeting the rest of my colleagues, I quickly gained in confidence and lost any the nerves that I had. I think there must be something special about Demsoc that just bring the right people into the organisation! I always perceived the team as a bunch of very interesting, all very different but hugely compatible personalities who simply enjoy doing their job – and they do it so well!

During my time working with Demsoc, I discovered a level of creativity and innovativeness that I’ve never seen before. I think this difference might be in part cultural, affected by a different educational system, but mostly it’s about the people who like to share and discuss ideas together and who believe that ‘we’ is more powerful than ‘me’. They were supporting me all the time in developing my ideas and putting them into practice, engaging me in every learning opportunity that occurred.

So, what exactly I was doing during my internship? Because I was interested to gain an internal insight into all kind of issues around participatory budgeting, my first role was observation. I attended meetings with clients and partners, workshops, webinars and learning events from where I started to build a valuable knowledge base. Generally, I was positively surprised by the number of kind people I had a chance to meet during my internship. I never felt unpleasant in conversations I had regarding my language barriers. I learned that when people see you trying and if you have positive attitude and interest, you will get to know all sort of things.

Later on, I moved from observation to supporting delivery of the projects. For example, I was helping to finish case studies for the various PB initiatives running in previous project phase by analysing data from participants’ feedback. It was really interesting to see what people think about the process, what they like or what they would improve, but mostly that they do care about it and they wish to be engaged in decision making.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons and useful tips from case studies written by my colleagues, e.g. how important it is to plan everything properly in advance to make our project successful, what issues need to be considered more specifically, how long time various stages of the process take, but mostly how digital tools can support PB, what are the options and how to integrate them with offline processes. Drawing from these lessons, I further collaborated in designing preparation document for launch of the next phase of PB programme in order to communicate even more effectively with councils and community organizations in the future.

What I enjoyed very much was the possibility to be involved in the research on digital tools for participatory budgeting, finding platforms and tools for a refresh of Demsoc knowledge and building my own. I also had an opportunity to try some of those currently used by Scottish councils and meet their providers. Digital tools for citizen participation are not commonly used in Slovakia, however I believe this topic in the future will be relevant for us and by undertaking further study in this field, I will have a lot to offer back in Slovakia.

Doing this internship in Demsoc provided me with a chance to see everyday progress, it prepared me well to adapt to and act in new situations, to cooperate with people from other backgrounds and cultures and finally help me to make clearer my ideas about my professional career aspirations and goals. Getting back home, I will continue to build on this knowledge and I hope to catch up to their tempo soon. I can’t be more thankful for such wonderful people and lifetime experience!

Thank you for all of your contributions, Alex, it was fantastic to work with you! We wish you every success in developing participatory budgeting and democracy in Slovakia.
– The Demsoc Team

Event Alert: Democracy in action? – The Place of Referendums in Scotland and the UK

The referendum is, in theory, one of the best democratic instruments around.  One person, one vote. Direct Democracy in action. Look at Switzerland!

However, when we look at referendums in more detail, we can be exposed to a very different picture. Are referendums being used within a democratic culture that generates positive democratic outcomes?

Alistair Stoddart from The Democratic Society will speak on a panel about The Place of Referendums in Scotland and the UK in Glasgow on Wednesday 13th September 2017 from 5.30pm.  

The event has been organised by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy and the discussion will reflect on recent referendums, a future Scottish independence referendum and the interpretation of the recent UK “Brexit” referendum.

The event will examine when, and how, referendums have been, and should be, used in parliamentary democracy in the UK and in Scotland.

Did the #IndyRef create a new democratic energy in Scotland? Did the #EUref provide a deliberative debate and a decisive outcome?

Alistair will touch on these questions while also providing his thoughts on alternatives to referendums and ideas about participative democracy.

Join the discussion by reserving your free ticket here or send an e-mail to marine@cspp.org.uk, stating your name and organisation.

If you have any questions about our work in Scotland, please email us at Scotland@demsoc.org

Help us research how the EU is trying to open up, and how this can be supported

We are trying to find out what initiatives are already happening to build greater accountability, participation, and transparency into the work of the EU. We also want to find who the people are within EU institutions that are working on these initiatives, and driving this change. We want to speak to these people about how this kind of work can be better supported – is there a way that learning and progress can be better shared, and innovators within and outside the institutions better linked up?

EU Commission offices
Creative commons image, click for the original

This is where you may be able to help. If you know of interesting initiatives within the EU institutions, or know people who would be interesting to talk to about their work within the EU institutions then please get in touch. Drop Mat an email on mat@demsoc.org with a few sentences outlining the initiatives or people that you know about. It may also useful for us to have a quick research chat with you, if you would be willing to do this please let us know. Either way it would be very useful to hear from you. We are interested in the full spectrum of EU bodies- from the Commission, to the Council of the EU, down to smaller bodies like the EU Fundamental Rights Agency.

This research is being commissioned by the Open Society European Policy Institute (OSEPI). It builds upon research we previously worked on for them, looking at the work of the Open Government Partnership and whether this approach might be usefully applied to the EU. The culmination of both these phases of research will be a public report that looks at how initiatives to open up EU governance could be better supported and taken forwards. We will also be discussing our findings at a roundtable in Brussels to which OSEPI will be inviting key innovators and advocates for opening up government at an EU level.

Thank you for any information you can share, and we look forward to sharing our findings here in July.

Mentoring for democratic innovation – a new way of working?

Democratic innovation can sometimes be challenging because people underestimate what it takes to run a successful process, but with strategic support these processes can be much easier to grasp, and with more confidence, much easier to deliver.

In a recent project (Civic Activism Programme) in Northern Ireland we worked with our friends at Building Change Trust (BCT) and Involve to run a mentoring programme to support local democratic innovation projects. The aim of the Civic Activism Programme was to trial innovative ways of engaging with local communities, and BCT recognised that programme projects would need support to implement these new methods and tools.

As Paul from BCT said, ‘You can’t just ask people to be innovative and expect them to just get on with it’.

For me, acting as a mentor was slightly different to my normal role, as rather than running every aspect of a participation project, we worked in partnership with the project teams. We helped them deliver their projects, meet their objectives and advised on appropriate use of the tools and methods. Calling the right interventions at the right time helped to make sure each of the projects were building their own confidence and capabilities to deliver high quality engagement. Often we were a friend to bounce ideas off, or even a listening ear to take the time to talk through problems. Both remote support and running training workshops gave me the chance to build solid relationships with my teams beyond the project lifetimes.

 

The most important thing I learnt from this experience was that democratic support needs to start at the beginning, possibly even at project formulation stage, ensuring the engagement process plan is integrated with all other aspects. Support should be regarded as working in partnership, with a successful project as the shared goal. In this respect, early intervention is necessary to guarantee a meaningful engagement process.

Working with project partners and facilitating peer-to-peer networks (Belfast Sept 2015)
Working with project partners and facilitating peer-to-peer networks (Belfast Sept 2015)

To explain some of these nuances from my personal experience, it’s worth taking a step back at this point to look at the broader context.

When we talk about democratic innovation we mean new ways of involving citizens in decisions that affect their lives.

Demsoc has been involved in experimenting and piloting democratic innovations throughout Europe for over 10 years. Sometimes we see traditional institutions struggle when trying to experiment with democratic innovation. We know what’s needed to shift to a more participative and engaging way of working, and we know what support is needed to make this happen.

Anyone who works and thinks about democracy every day can sometimes forget how hard it is for people to go it alone with new ways of involving citizens. We need to recognize that democratic innovation is a MASSIVE culture change for some of our public services and institutions. Realise that it is okay to need help; it is okay to co-create processes with others or have someone to guide you through it all. And it’s okay to not get it right first time! Once we step back and assess, it’s all the more apparent why we need to be supporting and enabling this kind of work to happen.

Too often, poorly-designed democratic innovation creates a process that is too complex and off-putting and does not link closely enough to decision making. Although testing new approaches is not to be belittled, it may be too much to expect people to be fantastic innovators straightaway and be able to practice new ways of working which may be outside their comfort zone.

We need to support, discuss, guide, train, co-create and build new democratic processes from beginning to end; not merely provide a rough guide to democratic innovation and sit back and see what happens. This investment in democratic innovation helps to encourage learning and changes in practice – and as a result, greater participation in the future!

Supporting the project on the international stage at World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg, 2016
Supporting the project on the international stage at World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg, 2016

The above example from Northern Ireland of supporting democratic innovation through mentoring is interesting for a variety of reasons (you can find out more about the project here!) but at the heart of it, it’s all about aiding learning and capability building to ensure sustainability. Democratic innovation doesn’t have to be scary and it doesn’t have to be done alone. Mentoring for democratic innovation can be the difference between a disappointing foray into new ways of participation, and fresh insight into better ways of engaging that encourage long term changes in how we involve people in decision making.

 

Our work at Demsoc focuses on providing all sorts of support for democratic innovation, including mentoring. Through face-to-face meetings we assess readiness and provide tailored support packages based on this assessment. If you’d like to find out more about what we could do for you, contact hello@demsoc.org

If you’d like to know more about our work in Northern Ireland, drop us a line at northernireland@demsoc.org or @DemsocNI 

 

By Niamh Webster
niamh@demsoc.org /  @niamhwebster

Niamh Webster

 

 

Have people in Northern Ireland given up on democracy?

What do people in Northern Ireland think of democracy? Have they become downheartened, disappointed, disillusioned?

If the crowds that came for Democracy Day in Belfast last month are anything to go by, it’s clear there’s a lot of enthusiasm and energy for democracy – and plenty of ideas for how to fix it!

 

Coincidentally meeting as Stormont talks were coming to a close leaving Northern Ireland in somewhat of a political deadlock, it was perhaps a fitting time to be talking about the health of democracy in Northern Ireland!

 

We spent the day exploring democracy and beyond through a deliberative lens showcasing some groundbreaking experiments both locally and internationally and starting discussions about how to get a better democracy in Northern Ireland.

Together with our partners at Involve, we hosted a ‘Wall of Ideas’ and encouraged participants at the event to put forward their ideas and solutions for achieving a ‘better democracy’. 

Wall of Ideas
Wall of Ideas

We asked ‘How do we get a better democracy in Northern Ireland?’

Here’s a summary of the key ideas:

  • All-inclusive politics involving people from across society with a focus on engaging young people.
  • Innovate and encourage a culture of participation, deliberation and empowerment
  • Develop skills and educate people in politics, rational evidence based thinking and facilitation
  • Create formal spaces for public dialogue and debate (e.g. a citizens’ assembly or civic forum) in addition to improved representative democracy structures

The ideas we heard from people at the event shows some clear enthusiasm to step outside the confines of representative democracy and use a range of methods and tools to better involve citizens in decision making. Underpinning all of this needs to be a shift in culture and attitudes, particularly pertaining to enthusiasm for innovation and more opportunities for citizen participation.

You can read the short summary report with all the ideas which we wrote to provide an overview.

What needs to happen next?

What needs to happen next? 

We’ve been working in Northern Ireland with BCT for two years as mentors on the Civic Activism Programme. As this programme comes to an end, their next steps are to bring a network together to support a more deliberative and participatory democracy in Northern Ireland. We’re looking forward to working with some of our friends and colleagues at Democracy Day in the future, and continuing our ongoing work in Northern Ireland. Building Change Trust hosted the Democracy Day event as part of the Imagine Festival. Thanks again to Building Change Trust for an excellent event – hopefully this is only the start!

 

 

 

 

 

Democracy Day was run by Building Change Trust as part of the Imagine Festival 2017. 

 

Digital democracy: don’t engage for engagement’s sake

Last month NESTA published a paper called Digital Democracy: The tools for transforming political engagement. It’s a comprehensive and well written piece of work and we are glad we had the opportunity to contribute to it. Members of our team in Scotland have been delivering support, guidance and learning about digital engagement to governments for many years and we are glad issues from our front line experiences are highlighted in NESTA’s paper.

Digital Democracy includes interviews, research and case studies and it is summarised in 6 key themes. Every one of the 6 key themes is spot on: don’t engage for engagement’s sake; be clear about who you are engaging and why; digital should always complement traditional engagement; digital should not be seen as a cheap and easy fix and use tools that are useful and useable for your users (read: it’s not all about your organisation’s needs.) All the work we do is focused on bringing ‘better democracy everywhere’. That can’t be done without organisations and institutions designing and carrying out engagement that has the people they serve at the heart of it. Here’s our take on good digital engagement…

When engagement isn’t engaging

The first theme, ‘Don’t engage for engagement’s sake’ is a piece of advice that is important to us and it’s at the core of our first steps in planning digital engagement with organisations. It’s easy to spot engagement or consultation that hasn’t been planned well and if this takes place online, that lack of planning is amplified. Superficial engagement is a reputational risk and a great way to further distance people who have feel largely ignored or who have never engaged with you before. By reaching out to people online, you are creating a pathway to more people and new people. If their first experience with you isn’t great, well, you might lose them forever.

Give people a stake: There needs to be some kind of value exchange, that people will really only be motivated to spend time engaging with an organisation online if they are being given something of value and they are being valued themselves. What happens when you hand citizens low stake online ‘engagement’ or ‘consultation’? Boaty McBoatface happens.

Our case study: We work directly with councils and community groups all over Scotland to help them bring digital practice into their engagement and communication work. A key part of these conversations is establishing early and articulating well what people are being asked to have a say in or interact about. All of our digital work to date has included a deep dive into purpose, intention and audience identification before jumping online. Our role as an outside, objective and nonpartisan voice has been a really great benefit to the organisations we work with.

Engage people early: This is something we are starting to see more and more of but there’s a long way to go. Integrating digital engagement into existing engagement work is still new to most councils and community groups we are working with. Learning to use a new piece of tech, adjusting communication style and preparing for dynamic two way interaction can be a lot to take on, especially when resources are shrinking. Promoting an engagement opportunity, building up an online community and creating some kind of buzz about it are essential for successful online participation. We have seen instances of low or no online interaction being blamed on the platform or tool but there are three main reasons for failed digital engagement: the value exchange is poor (see above); the way something is being communicated is terrible (see below) or early engagement and promotion didn’t happen. The internet is not magic. Just because you put something online doesn’t mean folk automatically flock to it and it doesn’t mean they automatically want to spend time reading and writing for you.

Our case study: We helped Fife Council build digital engagement from end to end into their Cowdenbeath focused participatory budgeting (PB) process, Oor Bit. By using an online idea generation platform from the beginning of the PB process, Oor Bit Cowdenbeath saw a jump in participation that resulted in more people to engaging in a Fife Council budget consultation exercise than ever before. The online platform also allowed the Council to provide citizens a place to deliberate and to make opinions and input visible to everyone. The platform was promoted from the beginning as well- Facebook, email and face to face promotion went a long way to raise the profile of online engagement opportunities.

Communicate and provide feedback or have a feedback loop. It’s an unfortunate thing but it’s largely true that our institutions are not very good at telling us what they have or have not done with our ideas our input or our feedback. Planning engagement of any sort should include clear ways for people to know what is going to happen, what is happening and what happened at the end.

Our case study: With our support, Spirit of Ruchill/Possilpark integrated online voting into their participatory budgeting work for the first time this year. After the in person and online voting, they created a really nice visual breakdown of the vote to go up on social media along with a detailed written recap of the vote and how money was being distributed. Every participant who provided an email address was also contacted with a full result break down as soon as the results were published. So, within a matter of days, participants were able to see what impact their participation had on their community.

Process not project                   

As a hands on provider of support and guidance, the most important lesson we’ve learned so far in our digital engagement work is this: process, not project. If you’re thinking, ‘How do I use digital to do X’, you’ve missed the point and you’re focusing on the tool, not the audience or the problem. We like to see online/offline as a continuum of tools to support a cultural and democratic purpose.

If you need support thinking this through and planning and deploying a digital engagement initiative, just get in touch.

 

My first two months- a diary of Demsoc’s new Digital Engagement Officer

Hello, I’m Leah and I joined the Democratic Society’s Scottish team in early January as a Digital Engagement Officer to work on a digital integration project with a focus on participatory budgeting (PB). A main purpose of the role is to help local government and community groups think about how they can expand reach and have greater participation in their PB work by using online idea generation and voting alongside their traditional engagement methods. I have been working for years to promote better use of web and social media in government, both for outward communication and internal collaboration so I was glad to see Democratic Society is taking digital integration seriously enough to bring a dedicated Digital Engagement Officer on board. It’s been a really hectic couple of months but here are my key reflections so far.

Image of a notebook and a computer

The importance of objectivity

My background is in local and central government work so everything I’ve ever done working from those places always had some kind of barrier around it. In government there are so many points at which I had to risk assess plans, sometimes to the detriment of seeing out innovative and creative projects. Now that I’m part of a non-partisan team that approaches advice and support from a totally objective place, I remain very focussed on the needs of the individuals and organisations we are working with. This is especially important when looking at technology and digital platforms: we can research technologies and understand their core features without having to worry about breaching procurement frameworks. A core part of our current PB work with organisations is to hold up our knowledge of different online platforms against the need of the client so we can offer up a suite of options that come from an objective place. We hope this will help organisations choose the right tools for successful digital engagement, building both their online communities and their skills.

Demsoc’s culture

I had been freelancing for about a year before joining Democratic Society and it was a big decision for me to become an employee again. Freelancing is all about independence and the freedom to choose your own working patterns, clients and approaches. I had been feeling isolated and a little bit deskilled after working inside government, at a proper 9-5 sort of shackled to a desk. The thought of going back into an office environment seemed risky. I had to consider the impact of losing ties to the freelance community on future work and the impact on my wellbeing in case I started feeling stifled or constrained. However, from the start, Demsoc has been flexible with my working patterns and style. I’m with them four days a week, I still have small freelance jobs on the side and I feel comfortable setting days for working remotely. We use Slack to keep in touch most of the time and staff are trusted to get on with their work. I am just back from my first ‘away day’ with the whole team and it was an incredible experience. I couldn’t feel any more encouraged to try things out, to know anyone is available if I need support or advice and that we are all motivated by our desire to help create better democracy everywhere. Working in this kind of supportive environment has a huge positive impact on the quality of work we deliver and the relationships we forge with our community and clients.

The struggle is real

Encouraging discussion and action about how to engage citizens and communities in new and better ways is rough. Old ways of working, status quo, skills gaps and nervousness about change are always around. We are passionate about real, long term change so we are always thinking about the best ways to support people in learning and shifting the way they work and plan engagement activity. Working closely with people on the ground in communities has been so valuable in helping me to see the landscape view of current engagement practices in Scottish public services. I’m seeing strong patterns in opportunities and challenges that will help us further develop our offer of support and professional services for 2017.

If you haven’t met me yet, you can email me or find me on Twitter @LockhartL. Get in touch any time if you want to talk all things digital engagement.

Helping parliaments get closer to the people they represent

By Andy Williamson

A key challenge for those trying to engage a broader public in parliamentary democracy is that the processes often appear closed and opaque (because, often, they are). The language is off-putting, the procedures cumbersome and unfriendly, and it’s hard to see what’s going on. It can be hard to see any value in taking part. Digital can’t fix thefirst problem (though it can help), it should improve the second (otherwise it’s pointless) and it can significantly impact on the final two.

The internet has given us the opportunity for a genuine paradigm shift towards the ‘open parliament’.

Image of internet cafe

Digital tools create opportunities to make democracy more relevant, accessible, engaging and visible: to break down the walls and silos, to get ordinary people more involved in the decisions that affect their lives. But for this to happen our institutions must change, they must undergo significant cultural as well as technological transformation. This is as true of parliaments as it is of any other public institution and, given the history and tradition of many parliaments, sometimes more so.

The digital parliament is an emerging reality and we are seeing a growing number of innovations in parliamentary engagement and transparency, particularly in Europe and Latin America.

Through digital tools, social media and open data, parliaments are becoming more outward facing and more open. Their internal systems increasingly support and enable openness and engagement but too often the culture remains inherently inward facing and risk averse. Many parliaments also remain hampered by a lack of access to good practices and lack critical skills and resources in new and emerging areas. Globally, the challenges facing our parliaments and parliamentarians are not simply ones of technology adoption (though these are very real), they are strategic and need to be addressed at a systemic level. They require strong political as well as institutional commitment. Elected members must provide political leadership in favour of greater openness and widening civic participation.

The challenge is significant but the price of failure is extremely high.

The public is already sceptical of parliaments and politicians, they already see these institutions and those within them as out of touch and decreasingly relevant. Our ability to deliver any significant improvement in parliamentary engagement and democratic scrutiny is reliant on a dramatic, some might say revolutionary, transformation of the underlying processes and the culture of the institution, it’s members and staff. Though digital alone changes little, it can act as a powerful catalyst for effective and sustainable change.

The successful digital parliament must reflect the world around it.  It draws on the tools ordinary people use, taking parliament closer to their world.

It involves working with intermediaries, supplying resources and data to help educate, inform and engage. Parliaments must seriously consider how they engage with, support and nurture not just the public but also active and effective partners, who can reach audiences that parliament cannot and add value to the democratic process. Digital tools have become fundamental in helping parliaments deliver participation strategies covering a continuum from passive publishing through to genuine and effective engagement and coproduction.

What happens in Huddersfield doesn’t stay in Huddersfield: Ideas for improving engagement in local government from Not Westminster 2017

Yet again ‘Not Westminster’ brought together a fascinating group of people from across the UK who work to put people at the heart of local government, and to improve local democracy, and provided space and opportunity to discuss where we go next.

We were particularly inspired by hearing from Emily Warrilow, a Kirklees youth councillor who spoke about the difference that one person can make in taking the time to kindle a lifetime’s passion for politics. Hearing Emily’s memories of Jo Cox, and her own passion for politics, powerfully reminded us what we’re all in this for.

Demsoc really enjoyed running a workshop which we titled broadly “how can local government can encourage people to engage?”. We’ll be honest – the title itself was controversial inside Demsoc, with some thinking we should shift the onus on to how citizens can be better at engaging. We chose three broad themes – Perceptions of Local Government, Opportunities for Engagement, and Active Citizens – and we want to share some of the great stuff we heard.

We asked those who came to the session to come up with experiments to put these ideas into practice which we’re now thinking about how we can take forward – and we’re keen to hear from those who want to help out.

 

Perceptions of Local Government

One of the strong themes that emerged was a belief that local government seems intentionally boring, bureaucratic, and prohibitive. And that councils need to tackle this by being genuine about creating spaces where people can engage that are built into the centre of the council rather than having occasional opportunities tucked away in different services. There was also a strong sense that many people don’t really know what local government actually does.

There was also the idea that councils could do more to move from talking about service-users, to talking about active citizens – and along with this the council could help foster a sense of empathy and understanding among citizens in the community. And at a more practical level there was a suggestion that when citizens are encouraged to take part in discussions and engagement exercises, those hosting conversations worry too much about separating local and national issues, rather than letting conversations be more natural.

This group came up with a couple of experiments:

  • Bring together members of the public and ask them what they think of local government, before showing them stories about what it actually does, and seeing if their view changes. It should be stressed that the thinking here wasn’t about blaming the public, but getting the council to address its problems with communication.
  • Creating an augmented reality app (like Pokemon Go) that shows people what local government affects in the environment around them – for instance showing what is spent on things like road maintenance. It’s worth noting that this might exacerbate problems around people only noticing more tangible council services, at the expense of things like social services.
Post-it note pledges of how attendees would act on what they'd heard
Alongside the discussions we asked everyone at the workshop for a personal pledge of how they’d take forwards what was discussed in their own work. This is what attendees shared with us.

 

Opportunities for Engagement

This group came up with the idea of a ‘Come and chat café’. This would be a regular chance for local people to get together and just talk about politics and local issues in a relaxed atmosphere. This could be run by local councillors, or just by members of the local community. It would be advertised and run in everyday language, and there would be champions promoting the conversation in the community. Getting the right issues to talk about was seen as a key factor for reaching out to people.

 

Active Citizens

The key issue for this group was using ‘user-centred’ design to think about how to make people more active, particularly for taking the first step. Ideas included:

  • A mailing list to sign up to if you might want to help out in the future.
  • Asking estate agents to give new residents info on how to get involved in their local community.
  • Making council’s statements of how people can get involved more user-friendly, putting info about how to get involved on all council correspondence, and putting info about community activities more centrally on councils’ websites.
  • Encouraging people to join groups like Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) as a step into getting more involved.
  • Recognising that more work is needed to enable hard to reach groups. For instance, good work is being done teaching tenants how to solve problems with their housing.
  • Telling councillors whenever someone joins their ward. And having a network of local community buddies who can help residents find out about their area and how to get more involved.

It’s not just up to the council to take on the work of getting people more involved in their community. For instance, it would be foolish for them to try and manage a definitive directory of local groups. Instead it’s about them making first steps easier, and giving some examples of where to start. In addition the council should also make sure it doesn’t get in the way of community initiatives by being too officious in its work.

This group’s experiment idea was to design what information would be needed for an ideal A4 sheet to be given to new residents via estate agents, telling people how to get involved in their community. This template could then be tailored to specific local areas.

 

Thanks to all our participants for sharing their thoughts. If you want to get involved in making any of these experiments happen then please do drop Mat an email on Mat@demsoc.org . I can connect you with others to work together with on these projects.