The UK Democracy Handbook

The UK Democracy Handbook will be a collectively created online space to inform and connect people working for a better democracy in the UK. It is being set up by Ed Saperia (Newspeak House) with a project team of James Moulding, Joe Mitchell, Jonny Chambers (Koreo), and Michelle Man (NPC) - with seed funding from Nesta.

On 20 January, as the poetry of Amanda Gorman rang out over a locked-down Washington, it was easy to feel optimistic about the state of democracy in the US. President Biden announced that ‘democracy has prevailed’. His words were printed across front pages of newspapers around the world. It might be true, for now.

But we can’t leave democracy to chance. It has been increasingly clear over the last decade that democracy in the UK, like in the US, faces multiple and serious threats. And it’s also true that there are new opportunities for a better democracy.

One of the best ways to help secure and strengthen democracy is to ensure that the community of people working towards that goal are connected, that it’s easy to share information and ideas, and easy to collaborate. The UK Democracy Handbook, which launches in alpha mode today, aims to help people working on democracy to share information and to connect with each other - helping everyone to be more effective and efficient.

Anyone interested in learning more about efforts to improve our democracy - or with information to offer - can hop into the Handbook, and start adding or editing information, or using the videocall function to chat with their peers and colleagues. As people get involved the content will grow and evolve. We'll be hosting a virtual co-working session on the Handbook on Friday 29 January at 3pm. Just join the Handbook at that time.

There’s no better time than now

In 2020, I interviewed a range of actors in the space and wrote Networking for Democracy. The report outlines the problems the sector faces and what the people in the sector wanted from any kind of networking body. People recognised that the space is small, lacks funding, isn’t well-connected internally or with other sectors, doesn’t talk convincingly to the public, and that the structure of funding can drive competitive behaviours that exclude more productive joint approaches. So there’s work to be done.

Happily, the same folks knew what they wanted: more connections, better comms, opportunities to share and collaborate and potentially even shared back-office functions.

The report made 41 recommendations for efforts to support networking, from a directory of actors in the space, to regular standing catchups, from shared calendars to joint projects on better communications.

Recommendation #2 was to “collaborate on an online democracy sector handbook, which could include: a directory of organisations; links to research; links to data; case studies; lists of funders, press contacts, political roles; upcoming democracy ‘events’; and policy tracking”. This was inspired by the online collaborative model pioneered by Newspeak House, most famously around Covid-19 with the Coronavirus Tech Handbook.

Solving exclusion and duplication through collective sourcing

The Handbook is an obvious second step for any better networking efforts, the first being to identify who you’re trying to network. The Handbook aims to provide a foundational information source for the sector to use and for all networking efforts to build from. But the foundation source can’t be the job of one person, everyone has to chip in some time to co-create it, to ensure it captures everything that everyone thinks is important.

Because the Handbook is live it can be edited at any time by anyone, like a wiki. It becomes a living document that changes to meet the needs of its users. At the same time, it helps strengthen the community by allowing people to see who’s working on what, to reach out and connect and potentially to work together, or at least avoid duplication.

To take one example, there are already many WhatsApp groups used by different groups of people in the space, with varying degrees of membership overlapping. Efforts to improve networking can’t just create another WhatsApp group and claim that ‘this is now the group where all information is shared’  because there’s no way we know everyone to put in that group. But we can invite people to list all the WhatsApp groups they are in already, allowing people to see what they’re missing or whether they’re in the right groups, whether certain groups could be merged or have a clearer theme, and whether there needs to be any new groups created in response to certain projects or opportunities.

The Handbook is for anyone working on improving any aspect of our democracy. That’s a broad range of actors - from people trying to reinvent local news media so that you can learn what’s going on in local government and hold your local politicians accountable, to civic educators working on ensuring that every child leaves school with a good understanding of democracy. From open data campaigners making Whitehall more transparent to academics building better data on the gaps in voter turnout. And let’s not forget funders and politicians. Anyone looking to understand what’s happening across the space will find the Handbook a vital resource.

Over time, we hope to see the Handbook being edited by hundreds of people and used by thousands of others. It will be the place to go to keep up-to-date with what’s happening, to learn about new projects, to check nobody’s working on *that issue* before they go launch a new campaign about it. It should build trust, excitement and interest in working on improving democracy and, of course, to actually bring about a better democracy. Join us here.


Joe Mitchell

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