Five ways to counter dissatisfaction with democracy

A BBC article today caught my eye. A staggering 61% of British people are dissatisfied with democracy. We are not alone. Across the western world dissatisfaction in democracy is the highest its been since the University of Cambridge began its longitudinal study in the 1970s.

The study’s authors blame a perception that government has not tackled the issues of our era - economic crashes, migration, climate change etc - and suggest rates of satisfaction will rise if governments change their ways.

I suspect though there is more going on. The general election showed our democracy is in flux. Much has been written about the end of the so called ‘red wall’ in the north, but across all geographies we saw new voting patterns emerging - people voting on single issues, people who felt that no party fully represented their perspective, people on the left and right turning their backs on parties that have voted for their whole lives.

All of our democratic rituals are stuck in the 20th century

Add to this that pretty much all of our democratic rituals are stuck in the 20th century - from ticking a box, in a school hall, once every 5 years to scrutiny of local government being in person, in a wood panelled chamber where you might watch a debate or submit a question - and I think it’s no wonder we are seeing rising democratic disengagement.

This is one of the many reasons we set up the Democracy Pioneers Award. There’s just one day left to nominate an organisation that is experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK.

But apart from celebrating the pioneers, what else can we do to counter crumbling rates of democratic satisfaction.

What can we do about it?

At Nesta we know that democracy can’t be a ‘tick one box, every 5 years’ exercise, rather we need ‘everyday democracy’ - more ways to engage in debate, scrutiny and our futures as part of our everyday lives. Here’s five ideas from us to do just that and strengthen our democracy and the public’s confidence in it:

  1. Try new ways of voting. A Nesta poll to test an alternative voting system days ahead of the General Election last year, found 60% of voters would rather spread their support among parties, rather than sticking to just one. Freed of the one-person-one-vote system, it showed that people’s true political colours are more of a rainbow than the current system suggests.
  2. Like most people my phone is my go-to gadget for most tasks in life - shopping, banking, news, staying in touch. It allows me to engage in conversations or learning on my terms not the institutions. Democracy in the UK doesn’t seem to have caught up though - we need more digital democracy tools. In Brazil and France, experiments with new tools are enabling citizens to contribute to draft legislation. Political parties such as Podemos in Spain and the Icelandic Pirate Party are using tools such as Loomio, Reddit and Discourse to enable party members and the general public to deliberate and feed into policy proposals. Local governments have set up platforms to enable citizens to submit ideas and information, rank priorities and allocate public resources. We could start with local government council meetings, or parliament select committees - still dominated by in person, usual suspect interactions. More ideas here.
  3. Create spaces to imagine positive futures together. Citizen assemblies are finally in vogue. Every party manifesto mentioned them and Involve have done much to spearhead a new wave of this slower, more intentional form of public debate on the climate emergency and more. But we think the UK should be moving beyond in-vogue citizen assemblies and traditional forms of public engagement to also embrace alternative, ‘participatory futures’ techniques to help people to develop a collective image of the future they want, so that we can make better, more informed decisions.
  4. Teach people how to disagree constructively. We could learn from colleagues in the US (Better Arguments Project) and Germany (My Country Talks) who are facilitating small group conversations between citizens who disagree - effectively (re)teaching people how to have constructive arguments. They suggest the echo chambers we live in are part of the rise of populism and learning to constructively disagree is a building block in recharging democracy.
  5. Counter fake news and invest in public interest news. The rise of fake news and videos hit the headlines in 2019, but as worrying is the decline in quality, local public interest news (that reports on the courts and holds local public bodies to account for example). We’ve been overwhelmed by applications to the DCMS funded Future News Pilot Fund to find new ways of fact checking, generating local news and increasing the presence of under-represented groups on the news.

Everyday democracy

What do these five ideas have in common? They are all about creating more acts of 'everyday democracy'. The University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy research is stark: people want a new way of having their say in and shaping the country - and world - that we live in.

I’d argue the answer lies in moving us away from a tick box every 5 years, towards more debate, more connection. That’s what’s needed to bind our communities back together, to find ways for people to have more influence over how public services work for them, and to rebuild satisfaction in democracy.


Vicki Sellick

Vicki Sellick

Vicki Sellick

Chief Partnership Officer

Vicki was Chief Partnership Officer

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