If you think democracy is on the run, think again. This is an extraordinary age of voice and participation and we are still only in the foothills of how to organise society and economy on democratic principles.
This is what I have learned from six years of learning about democracy - for free - as Chair of the Trustee Board of Involve. I would recommend this form of learning to anyone (and indeed when I did, it was the impressive Ed Cox who has signed up next).
There is a dramatic set of challenges, don’t get me wrong: the hacking of elections; the re-emergence of populist leaders and patrimonial states; the pollution of facts; the technologies of surveillance and the fading of traditional media…But in each case, the answer is not less democracy, but more.
There is a further challenge though, which is a mindset about what democracy can be. We view it through the one act of voting in elections (‘you’re joking, not another one’ as Brenda told the BBC in a street interview in 2017). Extending that vote, through the referendum on Scottish independence and then EU membership empowered those who formed part of the majority but has done little to build democracy as an inclusive form of participation, learning and decision-making.
Perhaps because the UK has no written constitution, it is natural to rely on traditions from the past. The downside is that there is no consensus on what democracy could be in the future. There are proposals for reform but they tend to be seen as remote or technocratic solutions, without the popular support and mobilisation to make them happen. There is no public campaign for democracy, as there is for animal rights, human rights and the natural world.
And yet, the UK is also an extraordinary hotbed of experimentation on participation and democracy. Involve has been at the heart of this and the good news is that it works.
One of the most moving events I attended was a citizens' assembly in September 2014 for the NHS in England, coordinated by Involve and partners. My role was to be a video scribe, interviewing people who were being left behind by health services, such as transgender young people. Having a voice and being listened to by health service leaders didn’t just address what was wrong, it started to heal it.
That same principle has been taken up around young people’s mental health. Here is a challenge of national importance to which we don’t have the answers. Giving a voice to young people through participation – Involve’s MH2K initiative, which started in Oldham - starts to change that, because the actions are ones that are co-owned and therefore regenerative.
People think that getting things done is about the things to be done. It is not. It is about the people who do them – their ‘agency’, their ability to co-operate. Participation makes things happen and happen again.
Citizens' assemblies have become the best-known example of participatory democracy and it is down to initiatives such as these. I was in Ireland around the 2018 referendum on abortion, a sea change act of democracy that came from an earlier sensitive and deliberative process of a Citizens' Assembly. One demand of the Extinction Rebellion has been that government must create and be led by the decisions of a citizens' assembly. Some argue for a Citizens Assembly to resolve the impasse on Brexit.
And yet, the lesson of citizens' assemblies to date is that they are part of a better democratic system rather than a substitute for it. There are also many different techniques, so you have to choose the right tool for the right context.
The NHS Citizen project I describe above was a classic example of stop-start participation. It started as the NHS England Board wanted, it declared, to be held to account. It stopped in 2017, without consultation or warning, because the NHS England Board preferred not to be held to account. That, in turn, proved to be wantonly destructive of an emerging community of practice.
The reverse is also a risk, that participation happens in a decision-making maze that lies far from where real power and authority lies. I warned about “fake listening” at an event with Involve twelve years ago, when I was Chief Executive of the National Consumer Council. I welcomed interest then in citizens’ juries and assemblies but cautioned that “they are only worth doing if they give people a genuine say.”
The open government approach that Involve has championed addresses this challenge, by changing the defaults around how government policy is run to one of openness. It is not just open data, although it started with that, but open policy making – responding to the ideas and priorities of citizens. The UK and Canada have been leaders on this agenda, even if there is still a long way to go.
A great example has been the story of science engagement. The UK has one of the most effective and successful science innovation systems in the world, underpinning commercial and export success. Key to this has been a regulatory system that, through science engagement, has been able to navigate through the complex and contentious challenges that new technology can throw up.
The roots of this lie in the work of the Cambridge philosopher, Dame Mary Warnock, whose report in 1990 examined the issues and implications around human fertilisation and embryology. Her approach was to encourage education and engagement, building a public consensus across experts and non-experts alike. Today, Sciencewise is a programme coordinated by Involve, currently addressing issues such as AI and data, the future of mobility, ageing society, clean growth, and genomics and genome editing. Through science education and engagement, you have a classic democratic virtuous circle, through which those involved learn, participate and take responsibility.
These three claims, these three innovations, that decision-making can be participative, deliberative and open add up to a genuine option for a reboot and refresh for our fading democracy.
Better democracy is a formula that is relevant wherever power and decision-making happens. It is not just the sphere of government. I work in a co-operative, so I see a landscape of economic democracy, equally energised by the new tools of participation, deliberation and openness.
The world that we are moving towards is a world of complexity, from an uncertain climate and the challenges of sustainable development through to the S curves of technology innovation. The case for democracy is not that it is least-worst – that it is less poor than all the other systems. It is that democratic systems, done well, have one great virtue. They enable us to resolve complex challenges and to move forward in a cohesive way.
We don’t need less democracy, but more, much more.
Ed Mayo was the Chair of Involve from 2013 – 2019 and is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK