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Meet 19 pioneers shaking up democracy

All democracies are complex, imperfect systems. UK democracy has evolved over centuries, through war, revolution and reform, upgrading to meet the realities of people's lives. At a time of declining trust and participation in civic life, our current systems have not kept pace.

Worldwide, emerging innovations are providing reasons to be hopeful. From musical theatre, to mini-publics debating the climate emergency, The Democracy Pioneers Award recognises 19 projects working in radical ways to shake up civic participation in the UK. Together, they provide an antidote to our democratic malaise.

From the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the recent experiments with citizens assemblies, our democracy has always been a work in progress requiring us to balance competing interests and adapt to new challenges to ensure a healthy, diverse and inclusive system for our times.

In almost every sphere of life - shopping, working, finance, tourism, and social relationships - our ways of engaging and participating have shifted dramatically over the last few decades. Many argue that our democracy has not kept pace and that we live in a democracy made for a different era.

The lack of change wouldn’t matter if democracy was working well but research from the University of Cambridge highlights that 61% of people are dissatisfied with the state of UK democracy. These findings highlight that the gap between the way in which citizens go about their daily lives and the way in which politics and democracy are carried out has contributed to declining trust and confidence. This is supported by the latest data from the Office of National Statistics, which shows that trust in national government fell by 11% between autumn 2018 and autumn 2019, from 32% to 21%*.

Nesta's Democracy Pioneers have the potential to reconnect people meaningfully to democracy

In December 2019, Nesta launched the Democracy Pioneers Award, to seek out projects and organisations championing civic participation and challenging the view of democracy as a ‘tick one box every 5 years' exercise. Today, we are delighted to announce that we are supporting 19 organisations that are working in fresh and creative ways to shake up democracy and civic participation. If mainstreamed, these organisations have the potential to reconnect people meaningfully to democracy, and better enable people to participate in and influence the issues that affect our lives. These kinds of innovation help make democracy and civic participation better understood, more relevant and hopefully more impactful.

Working alongside the Democracy Pioneers, Nesta will explore the conditions required to foster a climate of experimentation for the field, the systemic infrastructure and large scale shifts needed to grow this work, and the conditions for a wider movement that will help grow the democracy and civic participation that we need for the coming decades.

Meet Nesta's Democracy Pioneers:

Be Buckfastleigh is transforming community participation and power in ‘forgotten’ rural towns through strategic and local collaboration, engagement and delivery in South Devon. The project builds on the transformational work of Buckfastleigh Town council in recent years, which has reinvigorated civic participation and community engagement in discussions and decisions through a variety of non-traditional and imaginative routes.


Democracy Club uses crowdsourcing and technology to get accessible information about elections to millions of UK citizens, filling a significant digital gap left by the state. They are a non-partisan community of 10,000 volunteers and a small core team that harness data to ensure everyone has access to quality information on democratic processes.


Economy supports people - particularly those furthest from power - to use economics to achieve what matters to them and to change how society thinks, talks and makes decisions about the economy. Their online platform, networking and place-based programmes are useful resources to create the conditions for mass public participation in economic conversation and decision making.


Full Fact fights bad information. They are a team of independent fact checkers and campaigners who find, expose and counter the harm it does to lives and to our democracy, by holding politicians and the media accountable for false and misleading claims.


Shout Out UK is a youth-led education network that aims to engage young people in democratic life via political and media literacy courses for schools and colleges. Shout Out UK delivers the courses offline and online, enabling them to reach young people across the country, including in places where democratic engagement is low.


Highway Hope works to increase diversity in democratic process and electoral systems in Manchester. They encourage black and ethnic minority groups in Manchester to participate in electoral registration, voting and work to increase turnout. Their strong connections with minority-led organisations helps reach into communities.


Kirklees Council are working with citizens, councillors, schools and partner organisations to grow a stronger local democracy in Kirklees, from the ground up. Through the Democracy Friendly Schools Programme, Kirklees Council wants local democracy to be part of everyday life, for everyone - including young people who have the opportunity to grow their skills and experience as Kirklees Youth Councillors.

@kirkdemocracy @KirkleesYC

Fife Council are building on the strong foundations laid by Scotland’s keen interest in participatory budgeting, to develop a bold democratic system and corporate framework for mainstreaming participatory budgeting that will support local people to get involved in decisions about mainstream service budgets.


(From The Guardian Foundation, National Literacy Trust and the PSHE Association)

NewsWise is a free, cross-curricular news literacy project for 9 to 11-year-olds across the UK, set up by the Guardian Foundation, National Literacy Trust and PSHE Association. It enables primary children and parents to become independent thinking, active citizens who are able to respect others’ opinions and play a role in the democratic process.


Through websites including FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem and WhatDoTheyKnow, mySociety uses digital tools to empower people to become informed and active citizens, able to participate in shaping decisions and hold power to account.


Glasgow City Council aim to build capacity and develop inclusive participatory democracy using deliberative dialogue and mini-publics to allocate budgets (PB), tackle inequality and inform policy with citizen’s panels. Going forward, Glasgow intends to work with local residents on the challenges of climate change and engage with them to find solutions that work for everyone.

@GlasgowCC @GlasgowCPP

The People’s Powerhouse is a movement which exists to shape the debate around the future of the North, working to ensure that all sectors and voices can contribute, and that people are put at the heart of discussions. Focused on inclusivity, People’s Priorities for the North are particularly thinking about towns, rural communities, people with disabilities, people from low or no income households and the BAME community.


Resistance Lab is a network of activists, grassroots community groups and university staff and students who work to confront state violence, with a focus on racism. The team was initially formed by members of anti-racist groups and activists coming together to ask if it was possible to use technology to fight state oppression. Through several workshops and meetings, they have been working together to analyse and understand stop and search data in their local communities, work with local archives to uncover alternative narratives of people who have died following police custody, and help families affected with the emotional and legal support necessary to investigate and challenge decisions.

@gfscstudio @npolicemonitor

Say Yes To Tess is a new musical theatre production based on Tess Seddon’s real life experience of standing in the 2017 UK General Election as a 30 year old state-educated female from a small Yorkshire town. The production asks audiences to imagine a fully representative democracy, and empowers them to participate and transform the current one.

@TheatreState @SeddonTess @LeedsPlayhouse

Smart Schools Council helps schools to embed a model of direct democracy that involves 100% of pupils and makes regular, youth-led engagement with democracy the norm. The pupil-led, inclusive school democracy model is used by 360 schools to date and provides a way for teachers to involve pupils in decision-making, social action and developing key skills for life.


The Parliament Project works to inform, inspire and encourage women to stand for election in all spheres of Government in Scotland and England. A non-partisan initiative, the project focuses on practical training and support, running workshops to demystify the process for women wanting to get involved in politics and online peer support circles to support women's political ambitions more deeply.


User Voice, led by ex-offenders, provides a platform for service users to have a voice, through their User Councils. Council structures used within prisons and in the community for probation, youth offending teams and other related services. This platform uses democratic processes to enable active participation and provides structures to hear all voices. These processes are used to productively create solutions to collective challenges, and support active citizenship.


The law in the making project works to empower and support survivors of domestic abuse to use their lived experience to campaign for change, and ensuring they, as experts by experience, are central to the development of the Domestic Abuse Bill and future legislation.


National social care charity Community Integrated Care run a ground-breaking campaign, aimed at bridging the democracy gap for people who access the care sector. They support people who use the care system to develop their political knowledge and connections, and enable people to campaign on what  matters to them the most. 



Khyati Modgil

Khyati Modgil

Khyati Modgil

Programme Manager, Government Innovation

Khyati was a Programme Manager in Nesta's Government and Community Innovation team. She is interested in democracy. civic participation and nurturing inclusive organisational cultures.

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Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Carrie Deacon

Director of Government and Community Innovation

Carrie was Director of Government and Community Innovation at Nesta, leading our work on social action and people-powered public services.

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