Published on February 4, 2014

A democracy fit for the future?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

The democracy revolution is not inevitable and Involve has a central role in helping to make it happen: this post highlights my vision for a democracy fit for the 21st Century and is based on what I said at Involve’s 10th Birthday party tonight. 

As the ever brilliant XKCD points out (see partial screen grab below), every era believes the world is more complex and moving faster than seemed possible even a few years before.

The pace of modern life clip, xkcd

And yet…

The world really does feel that it has become increasingly complex and challenging as a result of issues such as climate change, a changing demographic (which in western countries will increasingly be felt as an ageing population), and the impact of a range of transformative technologies on the way we live our lives.

At the same time government has hardly changed since the days of quill, ink and vellum. Separate departments strung along Whitehall operate largely independently of each other. This leads to departments chunking up problems in ways that they can understand, have the mandate and skills to deal with, to policy cycles dictated by parliamentary, media and electoral timetables.

But citizens don’t think like this. They don’t think of government as the stretch of buildings along Whitehall, but as the school their children attend and the hospital they rush their sick relative to. Their daily life and existing work and family commitments are on a totally different schedule (daily, monthly and annually) to the often absurd parliamentary and media timetables. They want to engage when they feel energised to do so, not when it works for government.

And it isn’t enough to say that elections give citizens power; the model of democracy that delegates authority and accountability on a five yearly electoral cycle is broken.

No matter what our politicians would have us believe, citizens just don’t vote on the basis of agreeing with every point in a manifesto across all the key issue areas for the five year parliamentary term.

Government is moving too fast as it makes policy so it does so in:

  • chunks that are manageable for civil servants and politicians;
  • ways that fit with departmental boundaries rather than in ways that fit with how citizens experience government being done to them;
  • ways that don’t relate to any bigger strategic decisions that are being, or need to be, taken; and
  • bursts that happen at such a speed that the public is only ever shoehorned into the decision-making process at the last minute.

The speed at which policy is made means that citizens are brought in at such a late stage, all the key decisions have been taken and they have limited possibility of being able to make a difference. This matters for many reasons, not least because it means we make worse decisions which view citizens as passive subjects of government, rather than active participants with resources, energy and views that will help make the policy work.

Even worse, by inviting citizens to engage in the policy process and then ignoring what they say, government is contributing to the lowering of trust between citizens and government.

So that’s enough of the problems, what is my vision of a different democracy?

Let’s be clear, it isn’t one where citizens make the decisions, where power is handed over wholesale. We still need the ultimate sanction of being able to hold those making the decisions to account, and elections are the best mechanism that I can imagine for doing this. To put it bluntly, we need the power to vote the bastards out, and we can’t vote citizens out; Parliament, ministers, councillors must still play a central role.

However, this does not mean that citizens voices should not be heard outside the ballot box, but rather that they should be heard in a different way. And, from a Whitehall perspective this will be nothing short of a revolution because it means a number of things that will utterly change the way government works.

  1. There can be no more piecemeal public engagement: citizens must be engaged in the most strategic decisions which will affect their lives long into the future. No more engagement around regulation 7b, sub-clause 1.70 with reference to this or that Parliamentary Bill.
  2. The public must be involved early enough in the policy process that they can genuinely influence the framing of the problem and the parameters of the final decision.These first two points will require real courage from our politicians; they will have to open up public spaces for public debate, and they will have to take the time to listen, engage and have the humility to change their position.

    It will also, I mention in passing, require a culture change from both activist civil society organisations and our media, we have to leave our politicians and officials the space to admit they were wrong or have changed their minds as the evidence changes.

  3. For points 1 and 2 to be effective, government must move away from one-off moments where the public is invited into the policy process. Picking the most strategic areas of public policy will give government the chance to develop processes of citizen engagement which are persistent and long term, offering citizens the opportunity to engage at all points in the policy cycle.
  4. The vast bulk of citizen engagement is designed by the policy maker, for the policy maker using a language alien to most citizens. This must change. Policy is for the public, it must be centred on their concerns, happen at times of the day (or evening) that make sense for them and not because it’s the best time for the policy maker. And it must happen in everyday English and not in wonkish (this last point is a bit rich coming from a post steeped in wonk).
  5. All too often when the public is engaged, it effectively happens in secret; only those who are involved know that it has happened. Government must find ways to be more transparent about its consultation and engagement processes, make the evidence that feeds in, the actual process itself and the outcomes much more transparent.This is something we tried to do as we supported the Cabinet Office and a network of UK civil society organisations to develop the UK’s second National Action Plan on Open Government.
  6. Finally, and above all, we must stop wasting the time of policy makers and the public. Every time the public in invited to engage in the policy process they must make a difference and be able to see that they have made a difference. And it must be possible for citizens involved in a policy process to hold officials to account (in public) once a policy has been decided, to find out exactly how their input made a difference.

It is these very features that we are designing into a new system of accountability for NHS England, something we’re calling NHS Citizen. I’ve described this at length in a recent blog post, so I won’t rehearse it again here. Just to say, this is one of the very few times in my professional life where I have seen such high-level commitment to changing the relationship between an organisation and citizens.

That we’re in a position to be designing a new democratic space for one of the most loved institutions in the country is a testament to the hard work and dedication of a number of people.

We’ve been blessed with a fantastic set of people as trustees. Our founding trustees, Andrew Ackland, Ben Page, Diane Warburton, Geoff Mulgan, Ian Christie, Lee Bryant, Lindsey Colbourne, Michelle Harrison and Perry Walker who provided support, energy and ideas to get Involve off the ground.

Our current Trustees, Cat Tully, Ed Mayo, Gareth Oakland, Jack Stilgoe, Jill Rutter, Malcolm Rigg, Marilyn Taylor, Steve Smith and Toby Blume continue to provide similar support, advice and energy to us focused on working where we can make a real difference.

There are too many individual staff members, associates, volunteers and interns to mention by name, but their impact on our thinking, direction and profile is clear to see.

And last, but definitely not least, my predecessor Richard Wilson whose vision and skill as an entrepreneur took a complex idea and made it real cannot be celebrated enough. It is rare for someone to found an organisation as singular and important as Involve. It is rarer still that founder willingly walks away from their baby and hands it over so graciously to someone else. I still can’t believe my luck; I can’t imagine a better job.

The steps I suggest seem obvious to me. But they aren’t inevitable.

Politicians and government are placed under significant pressure as the world gets increasing complex (xkcd not withstanding). This pressure is made worse because our media and civil society finds it hard to accept that even the best intentioned make mistakes. These pressures taken together could push government to become less transparent and even more risk averse than it is already.

If we’re successful the revolution will be televised, streamed and tweeted and it will have been brought into being by organisations like Involve that are able to straddle government and the wider world, creating spaces where government, civil society and citizens have the time and safety (from narrow political attacks) to imagine and create a better world.

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