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.

Economy’s vision is of a world in which everybody can shape the economy. Our mission is to support people – particularly those furthest from power – to shape the economy to achieve what matters to them.

Through our news and entertainment platform, we break down economic news in a fun and digestible way. Offline, our Discover the Economy Accelerator has provided public education for young people in schools in London between 2017 and 2020, and our intensive courses and one-off workshops for adults have been held with over 1600 people in communities in North Wales, London, Manchester, the Midlands, and Scotland.

In 2018, we piloted our place-based work in Manchester. Through a media partnership with Manchester Evening News and the support of Clare Lombardelli, Chief Economic Advisor to the Treasury, we used our Crash Courses to encourage community conversation and expand their knowledge of the economy and its impact on their lives. We continued this place-based work with Nesta’s Future News Fund, by focusing on co-produced local economic news. We produced a Covid-19 Our Economy series which explored the economic experiences and views of communities across the UK during the pandemic.

Speakers on stage at the Economic Literacy for Everyone Summit

Making the economy accessible to everyone

Economic decision making in the UK is highly centralised and technocratic. Economics and the economy are construed as “neutral” or “technical” spaces that ordinary citizens cannot engage with. Decisions affecting us all are taken without public input, debate or scrutiny. It’s no wonder then that one-third of respondents in an Economics Network/ING poll reported that they rarely paid attention to economic stories in the media even though four out of five recognised it was relevant to their everyday lives.

This disconnect undermines our democracy. The ‘economy’ was mentioned 74 and 56 times respectively in the 2017 Conservative and Labour Party manifestos. Yet Economy’s YouGov polling found that only one-third of people felt information about the economy in the media around the 2017 election was useful enough to make an informed voting choice.

In 2012, we were part of Rethinking Economics, an international movement to campaign for better undergraduate economics education.

Quite quickly we realised that we needed to go further than just changing university economics education. Our friends and families gave us so much authority because we were economists. People would say to us “You’re an economist, what do you think?” It became clear that economics was a language that few understood, let alone spoke, and this was detrimental to individuals and society as a whole.

This led us to set up Economy in 2015, with the aim of making the economy, which often seems to play such a central role in our individual and collective lives, more easily accessible. The economy as we know it is actually a fairly recent invention and describes a particular form of social organisation and norms that could have been shaped differently then – and can always be shaped differently now; it is not neutral or static. In this way, economics is the continuation of politics by other means and therefore closely linked to our democracy. It is for us to decide what we want it to be through everyday democracy.

We need deliberative economic planning

To democratise the economy, we need to decentralise economic power and build mass participation in economic conversation and decision-making. A participatory and deliberative democracy should develop democratic processes through which collective agreement is reached, first locally and then nationally, on the way society and the economy should be organised.

The result would be that individuals and communities have real ‘ownership’ of local and central government. In this democracy, the line between the state and the public blurs as individuals become more engaged in different parts of government. This means that policy problems are not only the domain of an elite but of much wider parts of the population.

There is also a powerful economic argument for participatory and deliberative democracy. In the 1940’s, economist Friedrich Hayek argued that there was a “fatal conceit” in socialist planning, which was the assumption that it was possible for planners to gain such comprehensive knowledge of the present and future that they could rationally plan the whole economy. Hayek believed that effective economic organisation and progress is dependent on the use of knowledge “which is not given to anyone in its totality” and is inherently imperfect.

A turn towards participatory and deliberative democracy would challenge the technocratic consensus which has dominated both the left and right of politics in the twentieth century. This consensus suggests that society can be designed and shaped according to rational, scientific criteria by experts and elites, usually with the backing of the state. The assumption that economic experts have the necessary knowledge and expertise to successfully interpret, predict and shape the economy should be challenged.

Only diverse perspectives can shape an equitable economy

Today’s economic experts, like yesterday’s socialist planners, govern a system which is unable to take into account the diverse preferences that make up society or incorporate relevant locally situated knowledge and expertise. As a result the decisions made are both undemocratic and, to use economic language, socially suboptimal.

These values are deeply embedded in economics and present a major barrier to change. We need more Public-Interest Economists with explicit social obligations, an explicit ethical framework, transparent and democratic working interests and socially aware research topics.

There is something intrinsically valuable about making decisions for ourselves and having autonomy over our lives. This is at the heart of our idea of freedom. Our modern word ‘idiot’ derives from the Ancient Greek idiotes, meaning private individual, or someone not involved with public decision-making.

The desire to take part in our social and political life is strong and provides the raw material from which we, working closely with partners across civil society, will work to build a set of participatory democratic economic institutions that can underpin everyday democracy in the 21st century.


Joe Earle

Joe Earle is CEO at Economy.