The Constitution Unit has today published a major new report, Doing Democracy Better: How Can Information and Discourse in Election and Referendum Campaigns in the UK Be Improved? Drawing on detailed cross-national research, it proposes a bold set of reforms designed to transform the quality of democratic practice in the UK. In this post, the report’s authors, Alan Renwick and Michela Palese, summarise their analysis and explain their proposals. They argue that a new, publicly funded ‘information hub’ should be developed that gathers multiple information types from diverse sources, all guided by deep citizen deliberation.
The laws governing our elections and referendums are no longer ‘fit for purpose’. That is the stark conclusion of a recent report by the House of Commons Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which calls for far-reaching changes to the regulation of online political communications. This is the latest in a series of reports (see also a recent collection of essays from the Electoral Reform Society) highlighting the threat to our existing democratic practices posed by the digital revolution and proposing measures to address this.
These contributions are important and deserve careful attention. Yet in our own report, generously funded by the McDougall Trust and published today, we aim to go further. We argue that we should strive to strengthen our democratic practice around elections and referendums, not merely protect the status quo from new challenges. Dissatisfaction with the quality of our democratic discourse is not limited to digital communications. Disinformation is propagated not just online, but also through traditional media. Voters and politicians alike are frustrated that reasonable discussions about politics and policies often seem impossible.
We argue that we could do much better. Our report analyses nine distinct strategies for strengthening political information. Through detailed case studies of practice around the world, we examine what does and does not work. We then propose an integrated model that would place the UK at the forefront of democratic renewal, enabling lively, diverse, citizen-led discussion to take place during election and referendum campaigns.
We begin by defining key terms. High-quality information is information that is accurate, relevant, accessible, and balanced. High-quality discussion requires high-quality information. It is also inclusive, it bridges between people of different backgrounds and perspectives, and it is open-minded.
We also identify three broad categories of strategy for improving the quality of information and discourse, which we label confronting misinformation, promoting quality information, and promoting quality discussion.
Our ‘confronting misinformation’ category contains three strategies. The bluntest is to identify misinformation and ban its further dissemination. Some democracies have such provisions – we focus on South Australia and New Zealand. We are sceptical, however, about how much this approach can achieve. It is problematic in the political realm to ban anything but strictly false claims. But a misleading claim can almost always be presented in a manner that is not strictly false, so this approach cannot substantially change the tenor of debate. Furthermore, there are major dangers if campaigners chose to ‘weaponise’ adverse rulings for their own purposes – to shift discussion onto terrain that favours them or to claim they are under attack from the ‘establishment’.
Milder strategies for confronting misinformation are, however, valuable. Fact-checking identifies and exposes misinformation without seeking to ban it, empowering voters to make up their own minds. It has recently developed considerably and has an important role to play in information provision. Transparency is an important prerequisite for identifying misinformation, and lack of transparency is particularly problematic at present in the digital domain. Measures are needed to address this, including ‘imprints’ for all political advertising online and the development of an integrated advertising archive.
Promoting quality information
If we want to strengthen, rather than merely sustain, our democratic practice, strategies for confronting misinformation cannot be sufficient. They are only ever reactive. They do not address the problem that voters are often unable to find information that they trust and can relate to, and that answers their questions. To do this, proactive work to promote high-quality information is needed.
We identify four strategies here. The first focuses on basic information, such as when, where, and how to vote, who the candidates are, or what options are on offer in a referendum. At present, provision of such information in the UK is patchy. Voters receive a polling card and, in referendums, a leaflet setting out the options. The Electoral Commission has developed a website to help first-time voters understand what to expect at the polling station. In elections, however, basic information on candidates can be hard to find – particularly in local elections, when media attention may be limited. Building on practice in Australia, we propose a nationwide website through which voters could find all their local candidates, together with biographical and other information.
Second, voting advice applications (VAAs) are websites that allow voters to answer a range of questions on their own preferences and receive information on which parties or candidates are closest to them. Such VAAs have already been valuable in the UK, but have been shoestring operations. More funding would allow their content, design, and reach to be developed much further. We examine in detail Germany’s ‘Wahl-O-Mat’ VAA, which is used by millions of voters at each election (and discussed in more detail in an earlier blogpost).
VAAs allow voters to find out about party policies or referendum options and compare them to their own preferences. The third strategy adds analysis of policy proposals, which helps voters to work out what they think of the options on offer. In the UK, such analysis is notably carried out by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which examines parties’ tax and spending commitments. There have been proposals for the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to take on a similar task. Official bodies perform such a role in a number of countries, and we analyse particularly the case of the Netherlands. We find there is a strong case for an official process to exist alongside the IFS’s independent work.
Finally within the category of information provision, we look specifically at information in referendum campaigns. Referendums present their own challenges: they focus on a single issue, with which many voters may be unfamiliar. We examine case studies of information provision in referendums in Ireland and New Zealand. We find that the latter offers the optimal approach, with materials available to help voters through every step of their voting decision.
Promoting quality discussion
Our third category of strategies focuses directly on fostering quality discussions among voters. The idea that deep deliberation among citizens should become part of our democratic practice has recently risen markedly in prominence – the Constitution Unit’s Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit offers an example. We explore two ways in which deliberation among small groups of citizens – so-called ‘deliberative mini-publics’ – could be harnessed for elections or referendums.
First, when a proposal to call a referendum is being considered, a citizens’ assembly can be used to set the agenda: to discuss an issue, recommend options that ought to be pursued, and advise whether a referendum should be held on them. We examine the cases of Canada and Ireland – the latter being famous for its use of deliberative processes preceding the recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion. Both countries show that such assemblies, when designed well, deliver high-quality discussions within themselves. The Irish experience suggests that these benefits can also extend to subsequent public debate.
Second, during an election or referendum campaign, a deliberative mini-public can be used to help frame the debate. We focus on Oregon, where, during citizen-initiated referendums, a representative panel of citizens is convened, which hears evidence on the issue in hand, deliberates, and produces a short report that is included in the information pack sent to all voters. This allows voters to see the views of fellow citizens who have had a chance to learn and think in depth. There is some evidence that such information enhances wider debate, and we see scope to expand this kind of strategy much further.
Putting the pieces together
Of the nine individual strategies that we explore, we thus argue that eight deserve to be introduced or developed further in the UK. Only the first – banning misinformation directly – seems to us unwise at present.
But opportunities for enhancing the quality of information and discourse in election and referendum campaigns in the UK will not be fully realised just if eight separate approaches are pursued individually. We argue that a step change in our democratic practice could be achieved by a more integrated approach. Beyond incorporating all of the different kinds of information that we have discussed, we argue that such an approach should have five further key features:
- First, these various information materials should be brought together in an information hub. This should be flexible in structure, so that voters can find their own ways into and through the material. It should be designed so as to be accessible and relevant to the broadest possible range of citizens.
- Second, the material available through the information hub should come from diverse sources: it should be coordinated, but not monolithic.
- Third, citizen deliberation should be integrated into all aspects of information provision. This includes the strategies exemplified in Canada, Ireland, and Oregon, but many further, innovative approaches are possible, integrating citizen deliberation into fact-checking, VAA development, policy analysis, and other elements.
- Fourth, the information hub should receive public funding to ensure it has the resources to fulfil its potential.
- Finally, it should be run by a new independent public body.
We thus advocate an ambitious approach. Phased implementation would be desirable. This would start with a range of independent initiatives promoted by broadcasters, NGOs, academics, and others, as well as official bodies. These would gradually be brought under the banner of the information hub, which would itself gradually develop new ideas on how to promote lively discourse further.
We also acknowledge that there are limits to what can be achieved solely through interventions during campaign periods. While such interventions are our focus, the final pages of our report also highlight the potential benefits of wider changes, notably to the UK’s media culture and to teaching citizenship skills.
Notwithstanding these caveats, we believe that our proposals could help transform the quality of information and discourse during election and referendum campaigns in the UK. We urge politicians, officials, academics, activists, broadcasters, and others to give these ideas careful attention.
About the authors
Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit.
Michela Palese was Research Assistant and McDougall Fellow at the Constitution Unit. She is now Research Officer at the Electoral Reform Society.