About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

The role of democratic innovation in shaping the COVID-19 recovery

From democratic institutions finding ways to keep going online during lockdown to teams of fact checkers verifying the legitimacy of health claims made by governments and the media, COVID-19 has strengthened calls for democratic innovation globally. In the space of weeks, communities, businesses and authorities have expedited solutions that were previously resisted, highlighting their potential in helping citizens and authorities to navigate a changing world together.

Back in March, we announced the winners of the Democracy Pioneers Award, recognising 19 projects working in creative ways to shake up democracy and civic participation in the UK. From Community Integrated Care’s campaign to bridge the ‘democracy gap’ for people who access the care sector, to Buckfastleigh's approach to reclaiming power through local collaboration in rural towns, the potential for these innovations was evident long before the world went into lockdown. Just how needed these innovations are is coming into greater focus as we begin to see the impact of COVID-19.

As evidenced we know that those furthest from power will be disproportionately impacted and least able to influence and participate in key decisions for recovery. We need to harness collective power and collaboration between authorities and citizens to tackle complex issues, with new ways of enabling listening, consensus building and inclusion central to this.

Examples are emerging of governments, organisations and communities that have harnessed digital democracy tools in particular to ensure that citizen voices are heard in key choices around COVID-19 recovery. For example, the Scottish Government’s “Dialogue Challenge”, Demos’ People’s Commission, rapid online deliberation (by Involve, Ada Lovelace Institute, Traverse and Bang the Table), and online conversations (‘Challenges we face’ by Engage Britain).

Many of the Democracy Pioneers projects have been affected dramatically, with the organisations using creative methods at pace to pivot their work towards a physically-distanced context. What we are learning from the changes they are making serves as an example of the type of large-scale change we need to see if democracy is to thrive post-COVID.

Democracy Pioneers: 19 organisations pivoting their approach to meet changing needs

The Democracy Pioneers Award has been given to 19 innovative projects that span the informal to formal, grassroots to national level in their approach to revitalising democracy and civic participation. Since the widespread onset of COVID-19 in the UK, we’ve been liaising with organisations that we support to understand how they’ve pivoted their models to address community needs and what challenges they have encountered in the process. The key themes that have emerged from these discussions are as follows.

Re-energising democracy feels more salient given the pandemic and organisations are working creatively under difficult circumstances

Many of the Pioneers we work with have taken their face-to-face programmes online and have developed new programmes to meet changing community needs.

  • Alongside its COVID-19 fact checks and briefings, Full Fact has partnered with Camden Council to produce leaflets in food delivery boxes to spread accurate health information on COVID-19 among the most vulnerable people.
  • Women’s Aid and 17 fellow domestic abuse and women’s rights organisations urged Parliament to reconsider the need for survivors of domestic abuse to attend Parliament to give their views on the Domestic Abuse Bill during lockdown. The coalition of organisations involved called for an extension of the previous ‘hybrid parliament’ arrangements, where individuals could provide evidence to scrutiny committees via videolink. While adjustments were made in response, the last-minute nature of the decisions made engagement by digital means challenging.
  • Shout Out UK’s ‘Media Minded’ podcast and suite of free media literacy infographics have been designed to help individuals stay vigilant against misinformation, disinformation and mal-information that they encounter.
  • The Parliament Project has launched a series of free “Equal Power” workshops online, equipping women from all walks of life and backgrounds with the knowledge, skills and confidence to stand for election or become a leader and campaigner in their local community.
  • Smarts Schools Councils’ ‘Home Debate Club’ aims to bring the classroom into the living room during lockdown. The weekly session invites experts to provide nuanced perspectives and simulates debate for primary and secondary aged children with their families around topical issues.
  • Buckfastleigh have launched a monthly live question time session on Zoom and Facebook Live so that members of the community can pose questions to those leading the Covid-19 response in the area.

Organisations across the spectrum of civic democratic engagement face many of the same challenges and opportunities for change

While each project is unique, now more than before, they are facing similar challenges and see a need for change on similar themes. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Digital Tools: Whilst the uptake of digital tools and methods have supported more democratic means amongst institutions and organisations during COVID-19, organisations have cited concerns around exacerbating existing inequalities and the ongoing efficacy of taking everything online. Blended approaches, that factor in when and when not to make use of tools at scale will need to be tested going forward.
  • Institutions and Governance: Are these fit for our current and future democracy? Where should power lie on which issues and what should be devolved further? What infrastructure is required to support greater local participation? Could different models of organising (e.g community ownership) be the answer - or do we need an impartial democracy institution to monitor and measure the health of our democracy?
  • Supporting those furthest from power: Addressing inequalities in engagement and representation is a concern for all of our organisations who are keen to be more responsive to the needs of less represented groups. How can we embed the value of lived experience and the voices of minority groups in a way that is meaningful and relevant to those furthest from power?
  • Civic Education & Information: While ideas and research are starting to emerge, very little is known about exactly how or why the current information landscape is affecting our civic and democratic actions. What is the role of civic education and ‘good’ information in holding power to account?
  • The role of innovations across the spectrum of civic democratic engagement: Democracy is most effective and impactful when the ecosystem supports different types of initiatives that fill interconnected gaps and work together. In working with the Pioneers, many have called for a network of organisations trying to affect change in order to collaborate and test solutions more effectively.

Supporting our Pioneers to make the case for change and sharing our learning throughout

The challenges and opportunities outlined capture initial feedback and are by no means exhaustive. Between now and October, we will be working with the Pioneers to explore this further.

We will be sharing iterative research on innovation in democracy as we go and hope to gather feedback and input from the broader field in an agile way. This will include an initial framework for understanding innovation in democracy, a more detailed exploration of the conditions, barriers and enablers for demoractic innovation and what will be needed in the future for the field to flourish.

This work is intended to be a practical series of steps, and will be shaped by our Pioneers ideas and experiences. Through our research, upcoming Pioneers Blog Series and scheduled events, we welcome your engagement with our posts, and are keen to hear your thoughts and ideas in the coming months.


Khyati Modgil

Khyati Modgil

Khyati Modgil

Programme Manager, Government Innovation

Khyati was a Programme Manager in Nesta's Government and Community Innovation team. She is interested in democracy. civic participation and nurturing inclusive organisational cultures.

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Rosalyn Old

Rosalyn Old

Rosalyn Old

Researcher, Government Innovation

Rosalyn was a researcher in Nesta's Government Innovation team.

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