Digital technology has transformed the way we access information and interact with services. Democratic services have not kept up, risking a situation where democracy is seen as out of date. Joe Mitchell argues that it’s time to dream big: the UK has an opportunity to create a new digital-first office of civic education and democratic information, to restore trust and grow public understanding of our democracy.
What’s the biggest threat to democracy in the UK? Interference by foreign powers? Disinformation? Fake news? Micro-targeting of voters on social media? Or is it more simple than that? Is itt is just that engaging in the democratic process no longer fits with people’s lives?
Digital technology has transformed the way we live. It has changed our expectations of how we access information, how we communicate, how we bank, shop or access government services. It should not surprise us then, to learn that people expect to access information on the democratic process digitally. For example, Google News Trends published the top ten searches on Google UK on the day of the 2015 general election; these all related to the election. The most popular question was ‘who should I vote for’ — a genuinely complex question, but the following searches were straightforward: variations on the theme of ‘who are the candidates’ and ‘where do I vote’.
Worryingly, the democratic process has been left behind by digital transformation. A gulf has emerged between the way we live our lives now and the way we participate in democracy: it can feel like something from a bygone age. Notices of elections are posted to a noticeboard in front of a council building and (not even in all cases) uploaded as a PDF to a webpage buried in a council website somewhere. While the digital register-to-vote service is welcome, no state institution has taken responsibility for meeting the digital demand for even the most basic information: when are elections happening, who is standing, what was the result? How to vote is covered by the Electoral Commission’s website, but with research on voter ID showing that only 8% of voters know the voting rules, clearly not enough is being done.
The lack of accessible, accurate, transparently produced information on democratic processes, available equally wherever you are in the country, is a problem. Even more so if we accept that democracy is threatened by those who would promote and encourage disinformation. A good way to mitigate those threats is surely to produce quality, transparent information from an official source that can help displace any deliberate disinformation, simple rumour or misunderstandings. The giant American tech monopolies that captivate so much of our attention are willing to do this, but they need to be provided with the information in a format they can use.
Readers of this blog will presumably agree with the premise that a democratic system is better than an undemocratic one. As a society, we must pay more attention to the risks of our system failing. The rise of authoritarian populism and the fall in commitment to democracy among younger people — along with the constitutional chaos brought about by the EU referendum — shows us that there is no guarantee that the UK will remain democratically governed. Any opportunity to bolster the system, particularly a relatively inexpensive, uncontroversial opportunity, should be seized. Making basic information about democratic processes accessible digitally is a quick win, benefits everyone and could help shore up trust in democracy. It’s time to do the work to meet people’s changed expectations.
Democracy Club has demonstrated that the digitisation of this information is possible. We create nationwide datasets of elections, candidates, polling locations and results, with the help of thousands of volunteers and council electoral teams. These areas are only a few examples of factual data that must be easily accessible if everyone is to take part in democracy. Others might include: lists of representatives, meeting agendas, upcoming votes, divisions and budgets. It would not be unreasonable to imagine information beyond simply factual data, too, towards positional, comparative, analytic or evaluative information, as outlined in the Constitution Unit’s recent report, Doing Democracy Better.
Democracy Club also runs simple information websites for voters. We take the data mentioned above and make it easily accessible via a postcode search at WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk and WhereDoIVote.co.uk. But our biggest reach comes by partnering with other organisations to get the information to where the voters are (typically on a platform owned by Facebook or Google). These partnerships are just the start. Democratic process data, structured and machine-readable, makes it possible for all kinds of digital apps to use the data to provide their users with additional information: think Google Maps or Citymapper pointing to your polling station on election day, or your favourite news app reminding you that there is an election tomorrow. Outside elections, and outside even online tools, your local shop or library might stick up a notice about a local planning application, because they found it so much easier to access the information online. Digital extends access to people not on the internet too.
A good deal of work goes into Democracy Club’s projects. We’ve mobilised thousands of volunteers to collect data on elections, candidates and results, and the team puts in thousands of hours to liaise with councils, to clean and aggregate polling location data. There was no reference or identification system for elections in the UK, so we had to create ‘election identifiers’ in order that the correct information could be stored against the correct election. To know which area is covered by which election, we have had to lobby for better electoral boundary data and address data.
Established in 2015, we have expanded our coverage and depth of data every year. That first year, we covered only the general election. Today, we cover every local by-election and for this year’s May elections, crowdsourced the details of over 25,000 candidates across the country. Unfortunately, voters often leave us feedback that they are frustrated by the limited information on candidates, many of whom do not provide information about why they are standing or how they can be contacted.
We are a tiny company and there is much to do. We ask how the UK can build a democracy that feels accessible, modern, even attractive to take part in. We know that partly this depends on systemic reform. But part of it is as simple as voters understanding what is happening, when, and what their options are.
We imagine a country with tools that provide election reminders and explainers, make the nomination process straightforward, host online hustings, host video introductions from candidates, notify voters of the results, offer opportunities to keep in touch with representatives, to ask them questions, join digital surgeries, and to deepen participation, such as through participatory budgeting, in which local people can directly influence decisions about public spending. Some of these might not work, some might take off, and there are undoubtedly products and information areas we have not considered. The potential and need for experimentation and innovation for democracy is vast. There is a large community of civic-minded, technically skilled people ready to seize it. If we fail to do so, our democratic process will come to be seen as an anachronism, something only fit for the Victorian era.
It seems unlikely that philanthropic or voluntary activity will get us there. We have tried to fundraise for a much expanded Democracy Club, to build our community of volunteers, experiment with new products, collate new datasets and to partner with organisations with audiences to ensure the information gets to people where they are. We have tried and largely failed. Philanthropy for democracy is minimal in the UK, partly because participation is not a charitable purpose in law.
Some elements of basic information should be taken on by the state, whether by the government or the Electoral Commission. At elections this information should include the when, where and what of elections, the list of candidates with party affiliation, polling location and results information.
An independent actor might be better placed — and more trusted — to provide information beyond the very basics above. This could include broader biographical information on candidates, or provide the platform upon which other information can be added, such as questions-and-answers to candidates or representatives, hustings events (online and offline) or media mentions and communications from candidates.
Our experience suggests that while the BBC might fit the bill — an independent, well-funded public institution with digital experience — it is neither willing nor able to take on this role. It provides precious little basic information to voters via its News website, indeed, it has provided wrong information in the past, and has rejected our offer of data provision for accurate, localised information. It is extremely risk averse, in a digital era in which risks must be taken in order to learn and improve. In its pursuit of ‘neutrality’ it fails to recognise that doing nothing is as political as doing something. Infamously, it will not even inform its users about the voter registration website.
And perhaps an organisation nearly a century old, designed for broadcast rather than interaction, is the wrong place to start. Perhaps there would be advantages in starting from scratch: what would a 21st century public service digital body, tasked with producing the information necessary for participation in democracy, look like?
We can draw inspiration from Germany’s Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, or Federal Agency for Civic Education. With a budget of €50m and a staff of 200, the agency produces traditional print materials for schools and young people, but also a range of digital materials, from partnering with YouTube stars to reach new audiences, to, perhaps most interestingly, a digital voter advice application: the Wahl-o-Mat, or ‘Vote-o-Matic’. This online tool is carefully prepared months before elections, with questions developed by a representative sample of young voters. It is used by tens of millions of German voters to learn about the parties and their policies. It is not directly transferable to the Westminster system, but we could borrow from its ambition and its understanding of civic expectations.
The UK has a unique opportunity to create a digital-first civic education body that could benefit from governance innovations like citizens’ assemblies to direct its work and from digital innovation to support millions of people’s participation effectively and inexpensively. For a relatively small investment, it could powerfully shore up support for democracy, boosting trust, improving public understanding, and perhaps the quality of debate and decision-making.
We are keen to hear from people interested in this concept — or who might have relevant experiences in the early stages of designing new institutions. Please get in touch.
The views expressed here expand on some of the points Joe made at our recent seminar If there is a snap election, what can we do to improve the campaign?, which you can watch in full here.
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About the author
Joe Mitchell is a director of Democracy Club. He tweets as @j0e_m.