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.

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. The way the public expects to access information has changed as a result of the digital revolution, with the majority of information we refer to now easily accessible via an online search. Electoral Commission research shows that a lack of information about candidates is a leading reason for not voting - we know that if this expectation isn't met, we risk people switching off from the democratic process.

At Democracy Club, we try to remove the barriers to participation presented by a lack of election information available online. We crowdsource election information (with some help from robots), allowing everyone to take part in providing and accessing nationwide open data on elections, candidates and results, for all elections at a local level and above. For significant elections, we also provide polling location information. Our trusted partnerships with hundreds of local authorities and the Electoral Commission help make all of this possible.

Phone showing Democracy Club app

The promise of democratic digital tools during COVID-19

Democracy isn’t just elections. Better open data on all aspects and processes of our representative democracy, such as elected officials, voting decisions, agendas and meetings, and so on, could all lead to an enhanced experience for all involved. Whilst digital technology creates the opportunity to get information to people where they are and to inexpensively scale good nationwide services, if we don't get the digital infrastructure right - the basic data - we can't have any of the new services or innovation.

The response to COVID-19 has already led to significant changes: the postponement of all local elections, sweeping new government powers and remote voting in the UK Parliament. I don't think we'll see online voting (it's not secure), but we might see renewed efforts to test some of the digital democracy platforms that have been popular overseas. For example, Engage Britain is a new project to involve the public in policy-making and is possibly the first significant UK test for the Polis platform.

The recent boom in citizens assemblies or panels or juries — attempts at more deliberative approaches to democracy — has been exciting. Covid-19 measures have forced these online, helping us learn whether it's possible to have quality conversations and decision-making when you can't get people in a room together, sharing food, and having chats where they don't have to remember to unmute themselves. It's important to make the case now for public participation and deliberative methods in the inevitable public inquiries into Covid-19.

Shifting the dial on our democratic culture in the UK - democracy is everyone’s responsibility

Whilst the above data-led and digital measures are notable, the need to critically examine how we approach democracy in the UK cannot be ignored and underlines all of this work. Democracy frequently gets overlooked and nobody seems to have responsibility for defending and strengthening democratic processes and values. This also means that democracy doesn't get the attention it should, nor the funding necessary to protect it or test new approaches.

This could be due to our history: we assume Britain invented modern parliamentary democracy and is a model for the world, etc etc. This made us lazy and complacent. In turn, we've lacked awareness of risks and we've missed opportunities to improve it. It's a perfect storm for a collapse in trust and efficacy.

And this is doubly a problem when there's so much to do: from big national conversations about the state of the union, to our relationship with the European Union, to the power of Westminster and Whitehall versus local authorities or English regions, to considering community governance and what happens to all those mutual aid groups that sprung up to help neighbourhoods cope with lockdown. We're going to need to try things and see what works.

There's often a focus on stopping misinformation, but the flipside of that is to ensure that there is more easily accessible, quality, trusted information. For example, we need someone like the BBC to step up: their very purpose is to inform, educate and entertain, but when we've suggested working with us to do more digital products to help voters, they shy away. We all need to ramp up the pressure on other players too: media companies, particularly the digital giants.

Reimagining the role of public institutions, civic education and a thriving democratic network

Looking forward for Democracy Club, if the basic open data on democratic processes is eventually provided by public institutions, then the role of a crowd of volunteers and some tech is to keep experimenting and adding value on top of that data. In the short term, I hope we’ll see The Electoral Commission take on some of the basics of Democracy Club's work. Ultimately, that work needs to be publicly funded and they are the obvious owner. They have some work to do in building up their digital capacity, but perhaps by the next general election the pieces might be in place.

In addition to this, I am now thinking about a range of actions that I think are needed to support democracy more broadly in the UK.

  • Developing a way to define and measure democracy, so we can be better at analysing threats to it, and understand if experiments to improve it actually work?
  • Connecting those working on improving or innovating in democracy, to share information, ideas and efforts, to coordinate and collaborate better in future — the Democracy Pioneers project is helping to do this!
  • Exploring the role of civic education. Even if better information exists, do people have the skills and knowledge necessary to benefit from it? If democracy is about having equal power (one person, one vote) and if knowledge is power, then a good democracy will ensure that people have equally good understandings of policy and processes. Of course this is about schools, but it’s beyond that too: how do we ensure lifelong learning about all aspects of our democracy?

The ultimate goal is a world where there is always accessible and interesting information provided to people where they are, making it easy to participate in our democracy in an informed way.


Joe Mitchell

Co-founder of Democracy Club and now working on new projects