For International Day of Democracy, we’re sharing a post from our trustee Julia Keutgen, who is also Senior Transparency Advisor at the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
In it she makes a case for supporting democratic innovations that put the citizen at the centre of decision-making, whilst at the same time strengthening and improving the democratic institutions we’ve got.
Deliberative democracy is based on the idea that an entire population has a stake in political decisions, especially when they can help to break political deadlocks. This is especially true when members of parliament feel unable to develop new laws or policies due to fear of voter retribution. It offers a way to breathe new life into governance because political work is seen as a shared enterprise, not just among professional politicians but also with citizens who are offered an opportunity to participate.
This does not mean that deliberative democracy processes should replace members of parliament’s responsibility to represent and oversee. Deliberative democracy complements representative democracy to enhance certain policy outcomes but should not be seen as competing against existing political authorities. If deliberation and representation clash, they can create a self-defeating environment where citizens feel their process has been sabotaged and members of parliament feel their authority is being handed away. This was seen to some extent during the French Citizens’ Convention for Climate: many members of parliament were not in favour of the assembly and argued that deliberative democracy would never be able to replace proper parliamentary debates by elected representatives.
Deliberative processes can also be a powerful tool in pushing back against executive obstinance. Many countries are experiencing increasing centralisation and executive dominance, with legislatures often marginalised and their recommendations ignored. A legislature’s intervention, backed by the direct feedback and support of citizens, can be much more powerful than one from a parliamentary committee or individual member of parliament alone.
As more parliaments are initiating deliberative democracy processes around the world, there are several considerations to bear in mind. Among them are the need to build coalitions of like-minded members of parliament; the need to involve the media and civil society; the need to pay attention to key design decisions and trade-offs; and the extent to which parliament should be involved in the deliberative process – many of these have been discussed in our blog series so far.
Read Marcin Gerwin’s outline of the factors that make for a successful citizen’s assembly
But one of the major considerations is to identify from the outset how the parliament will be involved in implementing the recommendations that come out of the process. Members of parliament have a wide range of constitutional tools at their disposal to support the implementation of outcomes from these deliberative processes. It is useful for the participants in deliberative processes to understand from the outset what role parliament can play in following up their recommendations. It is also important for participants to get an understanding of the framework in which members of parliament operate. For example, whilst a deliberative process can be conducted in a few weeks, it takes parliament months to pass a new law. This rigorous process is important as it allows the parliament to balance the actions of the executive, and members of citizens’ assemblies need to understand this.
As more and more members of parliament are convinced of the benefits of deliberative democracy, some parliaments are starting to embed these processes into their decision-making structures. This ensures that deliberative processes become fully complementary. But institutionalisation can also help to consolidate trust in decision makers and members of parliament and lead to increased efficiency and cost saving.
Consider the Belgian example: two of the most prominent examples of institutionalisation of deliberative processes are found in Belgium.
Firstly, in February 2019, the parliament of the German-speaking community passed a law to establish a permanent citizen council to set the agenda and a citizen assembly. The main objective of the assembly is to issue recommendations to the parliament. Although the recommendations are not legally binding, the parliament is compelled to engage in debate with them.
Secondly, in December 2019, the parliament of the Region of Brussels in Belgium amended its rules of procedure to establish deliberative committees composed of a mixture of members of the regional parliament and randomly selected citizens. Members of parliament and citizens suggest agenda items for up to three deliberative committees each year, and a committee can arise from citizens who can gather 1,000 signatures on a proposed issue. The deliberative parliamentary committee is composed of 15 members of parliaments and 45 citizens to draft recommendations on a given issue. These recommendations must be considered by the standing committee within 6 months and presented at a public sitting of the standing committee in which the randomly selected citizens are invited.
Speaking about the process, Magali Plovie, President of the Francophone Brussels Parliament has said “there are also huge challenges headed our way — from climate change to lasting social injustices that increase every year — and we need to adapt our decision-making processes to this reality. Citizens need to contribute to these decisions, as they will be impacted first and foremost. Institutionalising citizen deliberation will contribute to building lasting trust between citizens and the parliament.”
Whether institutionalizing such processes will lead to stronger take up of recommendations remains to be seen. As the Belgian constitution grants legislative power to the parliament, the power that deliberative democracy holds within parliament remains dependent on the representative institution and its members – in complement, not competition.
Originally published by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
Image: Social Cut
Suddenly, even the non-political are talking politics. Let’s make sure they know about https://t.co/3vRiFGbgG9 & https://t.co/82TARXSJGl.
— mysociety (@mysociety) June 27, 2016
That’s the tweet we put out on Monday, after a few days of the fastest-moving politics the UK had seen in years. Little did we know that there was plenty more to come.
And it’s true. Everyone is talking politics — in the street, in the pub, on Facebook. Everyone wants information; everyone wants to express their opinions: which means that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are pretty useful right now.
This has been an interesting week for us here at mySociety. As well as engaging in the same scrolling through fast-changing news stories as the rest of the nation, we’ve been dashing to make a few changes to our sites.
In general, our working methods favour considered actions. We ticket ideas, we discuss them, we prioritise and schedule them, we peer review them, and then they go live. It’s an excellent system for ensuring that work is both necessary and robust. It’s not quite so ideal for working on a new feature you need, like, yesterday, so this has been a change of pace for us.
Information is key
Here’s our first significant addition. Before you email your MP on matters concerning Brexit, it’s useful to know where they stand, so we quickly created an infobox for MPs’ pages on TheyWorkForYou (based on data from the BBC):
Neither of our parliamentary sites needed structural changes: fortunately, they are built robustly and hosted on servers which cope with increased visitor numbers when they occur.
And they are occurring. In a week that has seen the referendum, the resignation of the Prime Minister, mass shadow cabinet resignations, and Conservative leadership nominees, you have had plenty to research and plenty to write to your representatives about.
Here’s what visitor numbers for TheyWorkForYou look like — five times the usual traffic:
And six times as much as usual for WriteToThem:
Increased traffic is no problem (quite the contrary; we love it!), but there were some things that needed our attention. More users means more user support, so we’ve spent more time than usual answering questions about who we are, how we generate our data, what to do if a confirmation email doesn’t arrive, and so on.
Oh, and about that data:
All these resignations- will nobody think of the people who maintain parliamentary monitoring websites?
— Myf Nixon (@mockduck) June 27, 2016
Lots of what’s published on TheyWorkForYou updates automatically, but not necessarily immediately. Parliamentary roles, for example, are only scheduled to update weekly.
That doesn’t allow for the rate of resignations and replacements that we’ve seen in the shadow cabinet this week, so our developers have had to go in and manually set the update code running.
We wanted to remind people that TheyWorkForYou is a great place to research the facts about those standing in a leadership contest. In particular, our voting record pages set out clearly and simply what each MP’s stance is on key issues.
So we’ve been tweeting and Facebooking reminders like this:
At times, the news moved too fast for us to keep up:
Oops! Meanwhile, we also have another useful source of information: the Conservative party speeches that were removed from the internet in 2013 and which we republished on our SayIt platform:
See all the archived speeches here.
(Oh – and don’t forget to let us know if you have great ideas for using SayIt)
We’re working on improving the way that TheyWorkForYou pages look when you share them on Facebook and Twitter, which seems sensible given that they are being shared so much right now.
And after that? Well, who knows…. let’s just keep an eye on the news.
Image: Megan Trace (CC)
What impact do mySociety sites actually have? We could lose a lot of sleep over this important question – or we could do something concrete, like conducting academic research to nail the answers down for once and for all.
As slumber enthusiasts, we went for the research option – and, to help us with this commitment we’ve recently taken on a new Head of Research, Rebecca Rumbul. Watch this space as she probes more deeply into whether our tools are making a difference, both in the UK and abroad.
Even before Rebecca came on board, though, we had set a couple of research projects in motion. One of those was in partnership with the University of Manchester, funded by the ESRC, which sought to understand what impact our core UK sites (FixMyStreet, WriteToThem, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow) have on their users, and specifically on their level of political engagement.
Gateways to participation
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that, while our sites appear, on the face of it, to be nothing more than a handy set of tools for the general citizen, they were built with another purpose in mind. Simply put, each site aims to show people how easy it is to participate in democracy, to contact the people who make decisions on our behalf, and to make changes at the local and national levels.
Like any other online endeavour, we measure user numbers and transaction completions and time spent on site – all of that stuff. But one of the metrics we pay most attention to is whether users say they are contacting their council, their MP or a public body for the first time. Keeping track of this number ensures that we’re doing something to open democratic avenues up to people that haven’t used them before.
But there are plenty more questions we can ask about the impact we’re having. The University of Manchester study looked into one of them, by attempting to track whether there was a measurable change in people’s political activity and engagement after they’ve used one of our sites. On Monday, researchers Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch and Silvia Galandini presented their findings to an attentive audience at King’s College London.
The project has taken a multi-pronged approach, asking our users to complete questionnaires, participate in online discussions, or keep a 12-week diary about political and community engagement (thanks very much to you, if you were one of the participants in this!). The result was a bunch of both qualitative and quantitative data which we’ll be able to come back to and slice multiple ways in the future – Gibson says that they haven’t as yet managed to analyse all of the free text diaries yet, for example.
In itself this study was interesting, because not much research has previously been conducted into the impact of digital civic tools – and yet, as we know from our own international activities, people (not least ourselves) are launching sites all over the world based on the premise that they work.
Some top-level conclusions
The research will be published in full at a future date, and it’s too complex to cover all of it within the confines of a short blog post, but here are just a few of the takeaway findings:
- A small but quantifiable uplift in ‘civic participation’ was noticed in the period after people had used our sites. This could include anything from working with others in the local community to make improvements, to volunteering for a charity.
- No change was found in the level of political influence or understanding that people judged themselves to have. This was a surprise to the researchers, who had thought that users would feel more empowered and knowledgeable after contacting those in power, or checking up on their parliamentary activity.
- As with our research back in 2011, the ‘average’ user of mySociety sites was found to be white, above middle-aged, and educated to at least degree level. Clearly this is a userbase which we desperately need to expand, and we’ll be looking carefully – with more research and some concentrated outreach efforts – at how we can do that.
- Users tended to identify themselves as people who already had an interest in politics. Again, here is an area in which we can improve. Of course, we’re happy to serve such users, but we also want to be accessible to those who have less of a baseline interest.
- Many users spoke of community action as bringing great satisfaction. In some cases, that was getting together in real life to make improvements, but others saw something as simple as reporting graffiti on FixMyStreet as an action that improved the local area for everyone.
Thanks to the University of Manchester researchers for these insights and for presenting them so engagingly. We’ll update when the full research is available.
Image: Phil Richards (CC)
Are you a teacher who might be able to help us with a new project?
mySociety volunteers help us in all kinds of ways, and not just with coding stuff. This time we need skills and experience that only teachers can bring.
Here’s the thing: we’ve often heard from teachers of subjects like Politics, Citizenship and Social Studies that they’d love to integrate TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem – and maybe even FixMyStreet – into their classroom activities.
We’d love it too. Our remit is to make democratic processes more accessible to all parts of society, and if this means that a whole new generation see contacting your politician as a perfectly normal and easy thing to do, well, that’d be a big win.
We want to provide downloadable lesson plans and resources – but we are not experts and we want to make sure that we get this right. Obviously, materials need to fit in with the present curricula, and be genuinely viable for classroom use.
There’s another possibility here, too – some of our software could be used in the classroom for students interested in coding and creating a new wave of online democracy projects themselves.
So: if you’re a teacher with a particular interest in democracy or digital technology, and you’d be willing to have a quick chat and then prepare some materials that we could provide for schools all across the UK to download, well – we’d love to hear from you. Or if that sounds like too much commitment, but you just have some ideas, let us know. Please mail us on email@example.com.