Over the past year whilst we’ve been rocked and rolled by the pandemic along with the rest of the world, we’ve been spending some time thinking about where we’re going as an organisation and what we should be focusing on in the future. Alongside establishing the foundations of our climate programme we have been working on redefining the core principles around democracy and power that inform what we do.
This is the first of three posts where I wanted to get a bunch of this thinking out in the wild so we can start to get some feedback as we incorporate this into our day to day work.
Where we started was by defining our why, how and what:
Why: We believe people can and want to work together to build a fairer society – the web can help do this at scale.
How: Our role is to repower democracy: using our digital and data skills to put more power in more people’s hands.
What: We work in partnership with people, communities and institutions to harness digital technology in service of civic participation.
We’ll unpack those in a moment, but before we get too far into looking forward it’s worth looking back to mySociety’s beginnings.
Where we started
In 2003, when the internet still had a shiny new glow, it was viewed by many as the saviour of democracy (and much else besides). Sadly, this vision was more common amongst developers and democracy wonks than those in positions of power, and even today genuine democratic participation is limited. Government still doesn’t really know how to respond when people do want to get involved.
Outside the halls of government, it was becoming clear that the real potential of the internet was not just in propping up existing power structures, but in driving much more radical change. Industries and institutions were being revolutionised – people were able to self-organise and form new communities around the ideas they cared about.
A different model of democracy and society was possible.
It’s useful to refer back to an article by one of our former trustees James Crabtree from 2003, Civic hacking: a new agenda for e-democracy which was one of our founding inspirations. It translated this challenge to the political sphere, providing the spark for the group, led by Tom Steinberg, from which mySociety emerged.
The mySociety project
The mySociety project was animated by a series of shared questions:
- What if technology enabled people to come together and help one another meet civic challenges?
- How might the internet transform civic life and what might a transformed democracy look like?
- How might we create digital spaces and tools which people would want to use?
That original group of volunteers and friends has grown into an organisation capable of exploring these questions in the UK and around the world for millions of people.
By bootstrapping our work over the years, we’ve shown how people could and would contribute to a democratic society – given the opportunities, tools and spaces – and demonstrated an alternative vision to that provided by mainstream government, quickly building services that worked.
We’ve enabled the fixing of streets, the freeing of information, the accountability of parliamentarians. We gave ordinary people more of the tools they needed to participate in more everyday democracy.
We have so much to be proud of. But our work is not finished and our fundamental belief remains unchanged – that people want to work together to build a better, fairer future — and that technology can be harnessed to help do this.
Today’s problem: dual crises of democracy and climate
At the time of writing we’ve just come to the end of COP26 in Glasgow; which depending on your point of view was either another wholly underwhelming summit, where promises and commitments fell woefully short of what is necessary… OR it was an important snapshot of the current challenges facing each nation and a stepping stone in their journey towards making the necessary changes.
Either way, the crisis of the climate continues to be fuelled by the crisis of democracy — in its current form our democratic experience is just not up to the task of responding to the emergency.
The need for change across the whole of society is urgent, but it needs unprecedentedly bold leadership to build the consensus for necessary changes to happen. The scale and nature of the action required is really daunting.
With power concentrated in the hands of a few, rather than equitably shared throughout society, today’s model of decision-making fails to take into account what’s good for people, the planet and society as a whole.
From our perspective, representative democracy in its current form is proving inadequate to the task. In the UK our voting system is flawed and unrepresentative; often distant and unaccountable politicians work within a system that has resulted in polarisation, cynical division and disenchantment. What’s more our core democratic institutions are actively under attack by people who seek to undermine their effectiveness still further.
It’s not a lack of science that’s driving the climate crisis, it’s a lack of democracy.
We need a new democratic settlement — one that recognises the shortcomings of the current approach and seeks to put more power in more people’s hands.
It must be a repowered democracy that allows us to be better at taking decisions together — locally, regionally, nationally and internationally — reducing and mitigating the worst impacts of climate change effectively, and supporting transparent and accountable decision-making.
Combatting the climate crisis demands that we reconsider every aspect of the way we live our lives: the way we work, the way we travel, how we build and heat our homes – nothing short of imagining an entirely new form of society.
We need to collectively address these demands in the face of decades of predatory delay from established institutions and corporations, all the time beset by wilful and skilful misinformation, with leaders incapable or unwilling to advocate for how we can all gain from urgently reimagining our lifestyles and communities. The poor health of our democracy increases the risk of further delay at best, and a further erosion of our liberty at worst.
Repowering democracy means finding new and better ways to collectively tackle the problems in ways that work for society as a whole; creating space and permission for our leaders and politicians to make the difficult decisions that will be needed in years to come with our full support and participation.
Repowering democracy means improving the legitimacy, effectiveness and resilience of representative democracy so that it is better capable of incorporating, supporting and embracing the outcomes of participatory democracy — creating the conditions for citizen and community power to thrive and flourish.
The belief that animates mySociety is that the internet can shape a new politics where people solve their own problems together; not just make it easier to take part in existing politics.
Fundamentally we believe people can — and want to — work together to build a fairer society.
Repowering democracy demands that here at mySociety we reconsider our role in ways that help more people work together to build that fairer society:
- We’ll seek to evolve our portfolio of existing services to become hubs of motivated and empowered community building and action; developing new models of action to directly address the most urgent crises facing society; and expand the ways we operate, bringing in new skills and expertise beyond our core tech, delivery and research staff.
- We’ll look to adopt a model where we spend more time enabling participation and collaboration between people, communities and institutions — increasing participation and prising open institutions.
- We’ll increasingly seek to support others to deliver more meaningful impact with our help; adopting our shared technology and open approach, convening and enabling new communities of practice.
- We’ll help people understand and influence how decisions are made; not just provide better tools by which to choose and challenge politicians.
In summary, we believe that people can and want to work together to build a fairer society, to tackle the most pressing crises of our age. mySociety’s role will be to use our digital and data skills to help this repowering of democracy.
Next: The three shifts we need to make as an organisation to better repower democracy.
Image: Yuvraj Sachdeva