Published on January 12, 2016

Looking backwards and forwards: reflecting on democracy in 2015 and 2016

By Josephine Suherman-Bailey

Josephine is a Policy Analyst at Involve. She supports Involve's work on the UK Open Government Partnership civil society network and Sciencewise. She is especially interested in opening up decision-making to those who might otherwise struggle to be heard by policy-makers.

At the beginning of last year we looked back at our top 8 democracy moments of 2014. This year we’ve decided not only to look backwards and reflect on what happened in the world of democracy in 2015, but also look forwards at what 2016 holds. Enjoy!

 

2015

  • Shell pulls out of the Arctic

Chosen by Sophie Blake

shellI’ve chosen this moment as a lesson in the importance of deliberative engagement. In September Shell abandoned its drilling operations in the Alaskan Arctic in the face of widespread public protest. The oil company admitted it had been surprised by the scale of popular opposition. This misjudgement, coupled with the fact that the explorations had proved largely unsuccessful, led to Shell reversing its position, at the expense of the £4.6 billion already spent on the operation. Heralded by environmental campaigners as a win for the public interest over private ones, the episode makes a strong case for more deliberation and public engagement in corporate decision-making, especially when dealing with controversial policy areas like climate change. The alternative is putting up with a giant polar bear camped outside your office for a month.

  • The Strathclyde Review

Chosen by Harry Farmer

Prompted by the House of Lord’s effective derailment of planned government changes to working tax credits, the Strathclyde review looks at the relationship between the upper and lower houses – particularly in regard to the passage of secondary legislation. Its suggestion, which David Cameron has promised to review in 2016, is that the House of Lords’ power to block secondary legislation be replaced with the ability to ask the Commons to ‘look again’ at a bill – an option it could only avail itself of once.

Though the need for reform of the House of Lords is dire, the Strathclyde review serves most prominently as a reminder of what happens when those in power dictate the constitutional reform agenda.

Like previous reforms to the House of Lords, the review’s recommendation has little to do with increasing parliament’s overall accountability or efficacy. Instead, it is designed to ensure that the Lords loses its ability to frustrate the government’s legislative agenda in the particular manner that it did last autumn.

Though hardly a high point for UK democracy, the partisan pragmatism of the Strathclyde review is perhaps a useful demonstration of how fair rules are rarely written by those already playing the game – and, therefore, the case for opening up constitutional questions to those outside Westminster.

  • Greek bailout referendum

Chosen by Stephanie Gamauf

My democracy moment of 2015 took place during the tense summer month of July, when the newly elected Greek government called for a referendum to decide on the bailout conditions put forward by the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF.

It is well-known that the sound of the Greek OXI did not resonate very well with Brussels. The referendum was followed by tough negotiations, dominated in particular by Germany’s hard line position. Only 8 days after the referendum was held, Greece came to accept even larger cuts and tax increases than previously rejected by its citizens. It was a slap in the face of those who had put faith in the power of their vote, sparking numerous protests in Athens and solidarity demonstrations in cities across Europe.

The tale of the Greek referendum isn’t a very happy one, but it has shaken the image of the European Union and exposed the political and power structures in place. Whether or not agreeing with the outcome and subsequent decisions made, the story of Greece sheds light on political imbalances and has opened up room for discussion on the future of EU democracy.

 

2016

  • The referendum on membership of the European Union

Chosen by Josephine Suherman-Bailey

Looking ahead to 2016, what does this year hold for discussions of the UK’s membership of the European Union? We don’t yet know when the referendum will be held but regardless, 2016 will be an important year for public debate in the run up.

Senior Tory Owen Paterson recently described the vote as the “biggest decision since the reformation”. It’s certainly going to be a momentous vote, but does the quality of public debate reflect this so far? Our last referendum, on the voting system, was heavily influenced by the unpopularity of the Lib Dems. Many despaired that the public debate was reduced to arguments which had very little to do with the pros and cons of the Alternative Vote. How will we ensure that debate this time round will reflect the seriousness of a decision on Europe?

Many have reflected on the limitations of plebiscites. She who sets the question guides the outcome. Ipsos MORI did an interesting experiment recently showing that different wording on questions about the votes at 16 issue yielded completely different outcomes. Referendums are zero-sum exercises which ignore the shades of grey in complicated issues and encourage a polarisation of the debate.

All of which means it is vital the public has fully engaged with the consequences of leaving or remaining in the EU. I’m interested to see whether it’s a debate which makes it out of TV studios and into people’s homes and places of work.

  • Realising the promise of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act

Chosen by Kaela Scott

The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act, passed in summer 2015, aims to empower people and communities by:

  • strengthening their voices in decisions about public services and other matters that affect them; and
  • making it easier for them to take ownership or control of land and buildings that could be used for the benefit of the community.

As we move into 2016 Scottish Government officials are now facing the very real challenge of producing the guidance and secondary regulations necessary to translate the provisions made in the Act into workable processes: processes that are clear, proportionate and accessible and which, by virtue of these qualities, will enable diverse communities across the country to reap the benefits of these new rights and powers. It is here that exciting opportunities for public involvement now lie.

There was a high degree of consultation and engagement with stakeholders in advance of this Bill being presented to the Scottish Parliament. As a by-product of this there are community groups up and down Scotland eagerly anticipating how they might use the Act to support their aspirations. These communities know best the types of things they want the Act to help them achieve, as well as the barriers they currently face and the supports they will need to make the most of the opportunities it offers. Choosing to make use of this expertise to co-produce the frameworks needed to implement the Act will not only help ensure that it truly is a tool for empowerment but will also give the Scottish Government a valuable opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to empowering communities at all stages of the process.

Chosen by Simon Burall

The report of the government’s FOI (Freedom of Information) Commission, which is expected within the first half of 2016 could have a significant impact on the transparency of government decisions. The Commission was established in July last year and asked to look at three areas:

  • the public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection;
  • the extent to which the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation and frank advice; and
  • whether the balance between maintaining public access to information and the burden this places on public authorities.

Freedom of information campaigners are concerned that the Commission’s terms of reference and the composition of its members means that its real purpose is to restrict the Act’s provisions.

The deadline for the Commission to report has already slipped from November last year, and the over 30,000 submissions to its call for evidence is likely to lead to the timetable slipping again. If the report, and equally importantly the government’s response to it, does lead to restrictions in the Act then it will have a significant impact on the ability to citizens, civil society organisations, the private sector, the media and even other public bodies to access publicly funded information and data.

  • The publication of the UK’s Third Open Government National Action Plan

Chosen by Simon Burall

The UK is one of the leading members of the Open Government Partnership. It is one of 51 countries publishing its national action plan which will make a series of commitments to promote greater transparency, accountability and citizen participation. The last national action plan contained 21 commitments of varying levels of challenge. The process for the development of the next plan is already fully in train and the aim is to make this 2016-2018 plan more ambitious and challenging. If the ambition is realised then the publication of the plan in May/ June 2016 could be an important catalyst for the opening up of the UK government.

  • Smarter Cities

Chosen by Reema Patel

Smarter cities have enormous potential to benefit citizens, through increased intelligence about transport options, the environment and weather and through increased energy efficiency. They can also revolutionise government and business through better sharing and analysis about the behavior and preferences of citizens in a local economy. Last year Oxford announced its investment in a smart cities agenda through a partnership that has an ambition to reach a more sustainable, low carbon future. As the smart city moves from being a concept towards reality, citizen voice about its potential and its limits must be explored. Concerns about driverless cars and drones, the gathering of data and the risk it may be placed at, as well as stark differences of opinion about robotics are among some of the many legitimate concerns that members of the public may have. In engaging citizens through 2016 and beyond, smart cities and their advocates may be able to take more incremental, yet more sustainable steps forward.

 

Photocredit: Greenpeace Instagram

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