Democratic innovation in 2020 requires a substantial rethink in light of two critical developments across Western democracies.

The first is COVID19, and the second has been the death of George Floyd, and the ascendance of Black Lives Matter. I take each of these in turn to examine their implications.

A photo of Black Lives Matter protests in front of Houses of Parliament in London, UK
Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

1. COVID19’s effect on society

The pandemic has had the effect of suspending many civil liberties, democratic norms, as well as the usual operation of elections in some countries. At the same time, the need for public trust in institutions has never been higher - especially regarding the effectiveness of public health messaging. The pandemic has led to a debate about the ‘new normal’, a near-complete reconfiguring of society (how we live, work and interact with each other). These conditions present opportunities for democrats and public engagement practitioners to forge new, online civic spaces, but also new challenges: the constraints of online engagement are different to their more familiar offline counterparts, as experience through the creation of deliberative mini publics online has taught me.

2. The impact of George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement

George Floyd’s death sparked protests from Black Lives Matter activists and allies across the globe.The ascendance of the movement mainstreamed a hitherto marginalised conversation about structural inequalities, injustice and asymmetries of power, particularly in the context of racial injustice.It did so by making visible the invisible: for example, in our decisions about how knowledge is constructed, experience is acknowledged and responded to, and what institutions support and fund.

It also exposed the influence of ‘new power’ — the participation of many individuals in a distributed way — and the tension with ‘old power’ i.e.  institutions that are exclusive, controlled and top-down, but whose authority and legitimacy is increasingly questioned in a networked society. Old power is manifest in this case in the authority of the Minneapolis Police Department. Old power can be understood as akin to a currency (hoarded), and new power as a current (relying on connections and networks to surge, as authors Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms describe. 

Towards blended governance models of new and old power

The Black Lives Matter movement highlights how old power models have struggled to account for and relate to new power; it presents democrats with a new challenge: how best to create blended models of new and old power, in which movements and institutions can co-exist and perhaps even complement each other. This is not a new challenge nor is it unique to the racial justice conversation - many thought leaders and institutions are leading in terms of shaping the public debate about bridging the new and old power divide.

as movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too illustrate, beyond the emerging practice of individual institutions, there is much more work to be done across the system and within traditionally ‘old power’ institutions as a whole.

For instance, as a first step and a beginning in the organisation’s shift away from more traditional practice, Bank of England Chief Economist Andy Haldane has drawn extensively upon the work of Sherry Arnstein (1969), and the ‘ladder of public engagement’ in informing his vision for a greater culture of public engagement within the bank. It’s about as  ‘old power’ as it gets  (300 years old to be precise), but there is a desire to imbue it  with ‘new power’ values. The Bank continues to engage, listen and respond through its regional panels and youth forums (still active online during lockdown) in beginnings of the embodiment of new power values.

But, as movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too illustrate, beyond the emerging practice of individual institutions, there is much more work to be done across the system and within traditionally ‘old power’ institutions as a whole. As the ongoing work of the Bank illustrates, it is possible to have old power models whilst embodying new power values.

Designing participatory initiatives that enable blended models of new and old power

In developing democratic innovations over the coming months and years, our live conversation about what type of participation and engagement we need to see has great potential to bridge that ‘old’ and ‘new’ power divide.

I do not wish to say that a deliberative mini-public could solve all the ills that come from centuries of police injustice and brutality. For a start, that would be far too simplistic. Rather, a step change within ‘old power’ institutions to acknowledge the importance of new power, and to recognise the significance of a more deliberative, consensual approach is needed, of which mini-publics are just one part. This is a question, not of process, but leadership, culture and values - a shift from the old ‘decide, announce and defend’ model towards ‘engage, deliberate, decide’, as facilitator Penny Walker has argued.

How then do we embed new power models and ways of working, to enable that representation of a range of views, perspectives and narratives, especially from those who have been marginalised or silenced?

One example of what such an increasing focus on values, culture and purpose might look like would be to more explicitly acknowledge the power asymmetries often at play within deliberative mini-publics, and design more explicitly to level those power asymmetries out - this is particularly important in the context of the conversation about often (hitherto) invisible structural injustices experienced by marginalised groups and communities.

As Simon Burall (2015) has argued, democracy itself is a deliberative system, where we need to move away from thinking of the representation of individuals towards the representation of views, perspectives and narratives.

How then do we embed new power models and ways of working, to enable that representation of a range of views, perspectives and narratives, especially from those who have been marginalised or silenced?

Design questions for democratic innovations in the wake of change

I have some emerging questions that might help address this challenge, but I would be also keen to use a ‘new power’ approach and invite you all to contribute your own thoughts, reflections and additional questions with virtual post-it notes on this online whiteboard (do indicate who you are on the post-it note). Here are three high level design questions, to start the conversation, which I have also posted on the whiteboard:

1) How do we address exclusion and ensure representation in approaches to participation, whilst recognising they are not the same? 

Designing democratic innovations to ensure that they do not exclude, in ways that understand and account for structural inequalities, whilst focusing on equity amongst all participants in traditional ‘sortition’ type models for deliberative processes can be difficult. We need to accept, not shy away from the tension between addressing exclusion and representation; and reflect this balance in our decision making about sampling and selection? Is there a role for purposive sampling in this context, and what are the underlying principles that might guide a purposive approach to sampling?fn]Purposive sampling has been defined as ‘a form of non-probability sampling in which researchers rely on their own judgment when choosing members of the population to participate in their study.’ This can be contrasted with recruitment approaches that deploy probability based and stratified random sampling. 

2) How do we enable the creation of deeper civic spaces online, warding off ‘slacktivism’?

Author Evgeny Morozov has long argued that the shift online is at risk of creating ‘slacktivism’ - activism that necessarily requires and involves very little effort or meaningful engagement. Should we accept Morozov’s hypothesis that all online engagement must necessarily be ‘slacktivist’ and ‘shallow’ - or are we in a world where we can make a more conscious choice and effort to create a thriving democratic civic space online (and by extension also offline)? If so - what does creating a ‘deep’ democratic civic space that promotes human agency look like? 

3) How do we balance the tensions between quality, integrity and innovation in informing best practice? 

Sharing learning as we go along is critical to the project of maintaining a balance between quality, integrity and innovation, as this Engage Britain and Ipsos MORI report illustrates. How do we make the case for adequately resourced, high quality and evidence-based democratic innovations online at the same time as ensuring flexibility and innovation and the creation of a growing evidence base? And how do we get the balance right between experimentation and innovation/learning, and the establishment of standards so as to protect the integrity and independence of democratic innovations?

Big questions, certainly, but I hope that they can be the basis for further discussion and debate. What else have I missed?

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Reema Patel has authored this piece in an independent capacity, drawing upon practical and research experience that encompasses roles at Involve, the RSA, the Nuffield Foundation and the Ada Lovelace Institute. She is on Engage Britain’s policy advisory committee, and the Scottish Government’s COVID19 public engagement expert working group.