Missing voices: Engaging citizens in democracy
The recent Missing Voices report, produced by ERS Cymru, gives a clear indication of the state of democratic engagement in Wales at the moment, particularly amongst those that we have to work harder to reach.
The report found three key themes that characterised how people feel about politics in Wales; confusion, frustration and, perhaps most importantly, hope.
Fortunately, we have the opportunity to address this - The Wales Act 2017 gives power to the Welsh Government to change the way elections are delivered, while the Well-being of Future Generations Act both advocates for, and requires, citizen involvement in decision making. Coupled with developments in technology and the spread of digital infrastructure across Wales, the pieces of the puzzle come together to provide ample opportunities to try new things.
To understand how we might do this, we can look beyond the borders of the UK at what other countries are doing to inform and engage their citizens in the processes of democratic decision making. Not only will this help us to see where the gaps are between what we currently do and what others know to be possible, but we can also set ambitious targets for engagement. Most importantly, we need to play and experiment in Wales, at both local and national levels, to understand how new ideas might fit into our cultural context. With these ideas in mind, it’s not impossible for Wales to become one of, if not the, most democratically engaged countries on earth.
Here are some examples of the things others are doing to overcome the key themes raised by the report.
Making easier the process of registering for and casting votes in elections is an area ripe for experimentation, both digitally and with other initiatives. Some things we could try in Wales include:
Allowing people to vote in places that are more convenient for them. In The Netherlands, people are allowed to vote at train stations or even at drive-through polling stations amongst many others.
Giving people time off to vote. In Canada it’s a legal requirement for employers to ensure their employees are given time off to vote in elections.
Allowing electronic voting. In Estonia, citizens have been able to vote remotely using digital technology since 2005 and now, more than 30 per cent of votes are cast using this technology.
We also have the chance to ensure the next generation has both the skills and the knowledge to use these tools better. Wales' new Digital Competence Framework could provide the basis of new modules in democratic engagement, bringing the key elements of citizenship, collaboration, and data literacy to bear on real democratic situations.
Frustration with politics and the democratic process extends far beyond Wales. Here we have the opportunity to experiment with new methods to create more open and transparent governments at both a local and national level. But we shouldn’t just put all our eggs in the Open Data basket; while this is important, we have to be conscious of the technical capacity required to make the most of this as a resource. Perhaps the most important thing Wales could explore is the ability for people to create and see change for themselves:
Crowdsourcing new policy - vTaiwan opened up the policy-making process around a significant and controversial issue.
Giving people the opportunity to make suggestions for new laws. Decide Madrid is one of a number of examples where anyone has the opportunity to suggest new laws.
Participating in budget setting. In France, Madame Mayor I Have an Idea gives citizens in Paris the change to say what they want to spend the city’s money on.
That the report concluded by echoing a sense of hope and optimism that politics can create change for the better is a good thing. The great benefit of devolution is that Wales can set its own course to make sure that this optimism is recognised and fulfilled. Hope provides the space for new and better things to emerge.
Some of the approaches we’ve outlined are big - they’ll require significant investment to replicate in Wales - things like the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal might provide good vehicles for this. Others are more straightforward but require the will of incumbents to deliver on their potential.
Wales has the opportunity to become one of the most democratically engaged nations on earth. Now is the time to seize it.
You can read more about how digital tools are transforming democracy around the world here.