mySociety and Democracy Essay Pt. 1

Despite being strictly non-partisan, mySociety is still indisputibly a political entity that seeks to encourage new and better sorts of things to happen in our democracy. But ‘new’ and ‘better’ are vague words without a clear understanding of what democracy is, or what it could become.

Consequently, mySociety needs a theory of British democracy of the same robustness and quality as the code written by our developers. I am not as good a theorist as my team are programmers, but I will do my best to spell out where we see the weaknesses and opportunities for improvement in the current system.

What I am publishing here is explicity my view, not mySociety’s, and it is most definitely a first draft. I would be very grateful if you would be kind enough to leave comments containing your thoughts and suggestions, so that eventually (perhaps) it can be published as a proper essay or pamphlet and, with luck, enjoy the endorsement of the mySociety developers, trustees and volunteers.

Part 1. Democracy is about far more than voting

Once every four years a majority of all those elegible to vote in the UK make their way to schools and community centres to cast their ballots at the general election. These voters, picking from a range of options usually somewhat smaller than their supermarket choice of canned tuna, put their cross next to their preferred candidate and then make their way home.

The crosses that the voters leave on their ballot papers are painstakingly aggregated to determine the next occupents of 646 prized jobs; few of the jubilant winners understanding at the time what a seismic career mistake they have just made. But the individual constituency results are only the side-show to the main attraction. The real purpose of spending all that time and money on holding an election is to send two bits of information back to Parliament, the public and the Queen: who gets to govern, and how easily. When written down, the main output of the huge logistical exercise of a general election is astonishingly small: Lab 343, Con 196, Lib 63. Just 24 characters to dictate who gets to run the country, and how.

This seemingly esoteric observation highlights of the most remarkable things about democracies: despite the tiny amount of formal instruction given by the public to the political classes, democracies tend to be very different places compared to non-democracies. Clearly these 24 characters (bytes) are very important. With few exceptions democratic states come with a host of other institutions which are rare or unheard of in countries without them: fair courts, freedom of speech, freedom of association and so on.

These institutions haven’t just been created from scratch by democratically formed laws: they’re also the foundations upon which democracies have grown – they’re both the chicken and the egg. But why mention them here?

The answer is that these institutions attempt to provide guidance as to what government should actually do between elections. There are many millions of political decisions that need to be made in between our widely spaced elections, and the 24 bytes of instruction data generated at a general election just doesn’t contain enough detail. The non-electoral institutions of a democratic society are history’s solution to getting as many of those millions of decisions as possible right.

And what a bewildering array there are: from Quangos, to newspapers, to community groups, to industry lobbyists, to PTAs and NGOs to blogs. All ceasely pour out decisions that are vary from pure punditry to powerful statutory judgement.

Collectively these institutions and the decisions they make create a democratic culture which actually shapes our lives more frequently than bellweather issues at elections. Whether a school accepts our child, whether we get to add a skylight to our roof, and whether or not we feel afraid on our streets are determined by organisations that have almost never been subject to elections. And yet these institutions and the decisions they make are normally thought of as ‘democractic’, even though most of them are not formally elected. A community group of a dozen pensioners somehow seems far more democratic than Pravda, despite the latter being read by millions, and neither being elected.

The culture of democratic states isn’t some wishy washy backdrop against which real power politics happens, either. The institutions that shape our democratic culture often act as some of the hardest checks and balances against which politicians bang their heads. Just speak to a politician who has ever been foiled by a concerted media campaign to understand the power of democratic culture.

Where does mySociety fit into this? Well, we build tools that enable people to get better decisions made between elections. Whether that means writing direct to your politicians, or forming a campaign, or keeping politicians on their toes through publishing data on what they say and do, most of the things we build are about enabling our users to get the decisions made that they want to be made.

However, we’re far from alone in the arena of decision-influencing. The next section looks at how it has happened in the past, and how it may change in the future.


  1. Excellent essay Tom – thank you, I really enjoyed reading it.

    “Helping people to get better decisions made between elections” seems a really clear way to explain our aims. I do worry sometimes though about what “better” means. Is it just whatever “better” means to the person using our tools, or do we taint it with our conscious or subconscious values in some way. How would we know and guard against that?

    I also worry sometimes about the power that institutions hold, not because I have any particular feeling that any specific ones are bad, but just because I’m the kind of person who believes in safety features being built in. Sometimes institutions are listened to because they have an explicit mandate, sometimes because they have a lot of members or supporters, sometimes just because they’re perceived to be talking sense.

    It would feel better (less dangerous) to me if that could be quantified in some way, perhaps so that politicians knew that they weren’t being misled. I know the idea of a TheyWorkForYou for NGOs has been discussed a few times both in and outside our team, there’s something in that I think.

    Looking forward to Pt. 2!

  2. Looking forward to Pt. 2!! I love the work that you do, and often when I see an internet project proposal doing the rounds at work I see comments like “like PledgeBank” or “like [insert mySociety project name here]”! 🙂

    I suppose your focus for the moment is the government, MPs and Lords. But I wonder whether (if you could clone yourselves perhaps?!) you might work on the role of the media too, and consider building tools to help citizen media monitoring and campaigning?

    In your essay above you wrote: “The institutions that shape our democratic culture often act as some of the hardest checks and balances against which politicians bang their heads. Just speak to a politician who has ever been foiled by a concerted media campaign to understand the power of democratic culture.”

    …I suppose you may mean the positive examples of citizen-supported media campaigns against corrupt politicians. But what about the times when the media are as bad if not worse than the politicians. MediaLens ( ) and the Glasgow Media Group have done some great research in this area on UK media.

  3. Very interesting. In the interests of democracy I wonder if the government (current) sees it the way you do. Perhaps I’m being overly cynical however the multitude of decisions that happen in between elections at least currently, appears to be covertly and in some cases overtly controlled by our elected majority. I wonder if that happens because of or in spite of the tacit compliance of the institutions filling the gap. The effect seems to be that we don’t quite live in the democracy that we think we do. And as such I think MySociety is probably doing a tremendous job relatively speaking – you should be much better publicised. All the best.