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.
mySociety uses digital tools to empower people to become informed and active citizens. In the UK, 11 million people use mySociety services every year, and our open source code is used to power online transparency and accountability services in over 40 countries.
Through research and user-centred design, we ensure citizens can access the information they need to make informed political decisions, participate effectively in shaping decisions, and evaluate the actions of their political representatives. For example, our platform TheyWorkForYou.com, makes it easy for people to find out how their elected representatives make decisions on their behalf. We pioneered simple, powerful features, like email alerts when an MP mentions something you’re interested in, or summaries of MPs' voting histories, showing how our democratic institutions could keep pace with the modern digital era.
Recently, through Public Square, the Innovation in Democracy programme, and Climate Assembly UK, we’ve worked on addressing the ways in which digital tools can be used in support of innovative democratic participation around processes like citizens’ assemblies and participatory budgeting to find solutions to difficult decisions that face us.
Going forward, we are keen to see the use of digital technology in tackling the climate emergency. Our focus over the next six months will be in supporting citizens, civil society and local government by using digital technology to hold councils to account for the promises made in their climate plans and supporting active councils to deliver.
In the UK, access to information held by public authorities is enshrined in law and the government has committed to open government reform. However, information about the activities and decisions by the public sector and government is often inaccessible and impenetrable.
Improving access to relevant, clear information on how decisions are made, and what data they are based on, is a fundamental part of this, and we want to work with institutions to ensure that citizens and civil society have access to that data. Real solutions also require the sharing of innovative ideas and learning from efforts in other places. We can see this in the wave of public authorities using deliberative approaches to address complex problems, as well as in the way cities are taking the lead in tackling climate change.
We’ve also seen that digital tools and data can play a role in support of building a stronger, more open and accountable democracy, as seen in the innovative vTaiwan system. They can be used to support outcomes like better proactive publication from institutions, scrutiny and sense making from public interest journalists, improved democratic mechanisms, more inclusive policy making, and better local data driven decision-making. In tackling some of the bigger policy issues ahead, whether climate change or COVID-19, the best decisions will only be reached if they are supported by the pillars of transparency, accountability and inclusivity.
However, whilst we believe that civic technology has a role to play — the time of investing in and building tech for tech’s sake is past. Trust in governments and democracy is falling in many countries, and the increase in opportunities for citizens to get involved using digital tools and services hasn’t prevented that decline.
For the civic tech field to tackle these challenges requires an honest, reflective and collaborative practice, where the role of technology within wider systems of change is clearly defined, and the needs of underrepresented groups are properly understood and catered to. This will require continued research and working around how best to deliver democratic outcomes, and to work in partnerships with civil society and public organisations to combine transparency with measures that strengthen people's capacity to act upon information.
These are huge challenges, and there are no easy solutions. Transparency itself does not bring about democracy on its own; it does not explain institutions and decisions in ways people understand, or give them enough practical power to effect change and hold those institutions to account. This will require civic education that teaches citizens about political systems and their ability to contribute to them. We believe that informed, active citizens must play a central role in addressing these issues, which at their core are products of a system where power is concentrated in the hands of a few.
Despite progress in digital service design the last 20 years, our most important democratic institutions - parliament, central and local government - still don’t present themselves, online or offline, as decision making bodies that are designed to be comprehensible to citizens, let alone open to input from them. Transparency isn’t enough here: we need a commitment to being accessible in the broadest sense, and a willingness to share power. We’re watching closely how these institutions respond to the current crisis, as an indicator of how capable they are of meeting this challenge.
Along with rapid institutional evolution we need to see design for democractic outcomes across digital and in-person democratic processes, and a serious commitment to the measurement and improvement of those outcomes. Measuring the health of our democracy will mean we can develop targeted solutions to problems more effectively.
To ensure the pursuit of robust ways to develop tools that contribute to the positive democratic outcomes that we want to achieve we need to address the lack of funding for democracy and digital democracy compared to the huge amounts of money available to develop digital services, whose only measured outcome is profit. There also needs to be a serious consideration of who gets to develop digital tools. If this is limited to those who already hold power and privilege, it risks deeply entrenching existing inequalities.
A thriving democratic movement spanning government and civil society needs shared goals but a diverse toolkit of approaches. Online technology has developed and parliament is catching up, but it will always need the spur of external organisations, unswayed by party politics. There will always be a place for civil society in democracy, as a means of keeping it on the right course, fighting corruption or misinformation where it arises, and blazing a trail with a nimbleness that our traditional institutions can't match.
Our vision is that our work, and that of other civic technologists, will mean that the movement will be able to use digital tools focused on citizens’ needs to support improved access to the political process and meaningful participation.