Nesta Democracy Pioneers

Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. This series shares the experience and work of 19 Pioneers and what they hope to see change for their impact to go mainstream.

Community Integrated Care is one of the biggest social care providers in the UK. In 2015, people supported by our charity developed ‘Promoting Our Voting’, a unique guide on utilising person-centred methods to enable people with learning disabilities, mental health concerns, dementia and autism to vote in general elections. 

There are more than one million people with learning disabilities in the UK. Estimates suggest that 70% wish to vote, but 64% of people felt unable to do so in recent elections. 250,000 people live in dementia care homes - many of whom have strong political preferences and the capacity to make an informed choice. However, many care homes do not even support residents to access postal votes. This is a startling barrier to democracy. Our guide was shared widely across the care sector, including by the Care Quality Commission, and enabled hundreds to vote for the first time.

This has inspired our Experts By Experience to develop our Democracy in Social Care project. Through creating training, toolkits, events and mentoring projects, they are aspiring to enable thousands of people who have care and support needs to understand their democratic rights and have a bigger voice in society.

Giving everyone a voice in our democracy

In recent focus groups with the people we support, we found that even amongst the most independent people we support, 50% felt they would not know how to vote or the importance of democratic rights. People with care and support needs, such as learning disabilities or dementia, are both disproportionately isolated from democratic processes and disproportionately affected by political decisions, such as austerity and cuts in public services.

Sadly, we live in a society where all is not equal. Those who have the greatest influence and the loudest voice also have the greatest focus too. People who access social care services are often the least considered but the most affected by political decisions. Overlooking the value and potential contributions of any people, of any backgrounds, is not just detrimental to them but to society as a whole. By empowering people who access social care to understand and participate in democracy, we hope to enable them to have a more equal footing in society.

Group of people who access social care support

Creating the collaborations and developing the skills to challenge the system

Campaigns like our 'Promoting Our Voting' programme have had some impact, but much more is needed. Through our Democracy in Social Care project, we aspire to meet some of the amazing people and organisations that collectively represent ‘the art of the possible’ for citizenship and democratic participation. These connections will allow us to consider not only the good practice that exists but also the personal and systemic challenges that constrain citizenship and self-advocacy. Using this insight, we will plan and resource ways that we can promote democratic participation within our charity and more widely across the social care sector.

Promotion of democracy within social need will require training, support, culture change and innovation. We’re not just looking to support the fundamental activities of democracy, like knowing how to vote, but to help enable the self-actualisation that comes from being an active, respected and supported citizen. We want to give those in social care the full agency and empowerment to access all levels of the democratic process. From meeting local councillors to campaigning, sharing views in consultations even to taking on political roles.

We know that whatever our ‘experts by experience’ create, it will need to have many touch points. To achieve this, we will need to influence and support many groups - the individuals, support workers, family members, political groups, care sector bodies, and local authorities.

A lesson for all of us

However, it’s not just about changing the social care sector. Fundamentally, we believe that work like this plays an important part in creating a more inclusive society where everyone is valued and has their say.

Many people express a distrust in modern politics and how it functions. Perhaps that is at the root of how turbulent the world feels right now. There is a sense that political life is less about the values of integrity, accountability, and public service, and more about careerism, self-interest and personal gain. We are becoming more polarised and as this division entrenches, we’re forgetting how much we all have in common and that we can’t really enjoy personal progress without societal progress too. Life isn’t a zero-sum game. A politics that becomes more inclusive, more community centric, and more focused on the lived experiences of citizens, is better for us all.

We are excited for the potential of this project for people who access care and support. But we are also equally excited for how their greater participation and representation can adjust the balance of power, and in doing so make life better for us all.


John Hughes

John Hughes is Director of Partnerships and Communities at Community Integrated Care.