Democracy is not broken, it just needs some attention. Insights from a year of action and research on democratic engagement.
- Author: Temi Ogunye, Policy Researcher
We have just witnessed one of the most significant democratic moments in our recent history. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union has shaken up British politics irreversibly: we have a new Prime Minister and Cabinet; we are beginning the process of reimagining our international relationships; dealing with our decision to leave the EU will dominate politics and policy for years.
But the run-up to the referendum was significant too. People gathered in pubs and community centres across the country to discuss the vote. 6,000 people packed into the Wembley Arena to hear politicians debate the pros and cons of membership of EU. Half a million people registered to vote on the 7 June registration deadline alone.
Turnout was the highest for any UK-wide poll since 1992, and participation amongst young people saw a notable increase from the General Election just over a year before. The final result of 52-48 shows the contest was closely fought. If you needed evidence that engaging in democracy can make a difference, this was it.
The EU referendum is only the most recent of a few remarkable democratic moments over the past two years.
The Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 generated energy and enthusiasm on both sides of the debate, leading to turnout of 85 per cent and transforming politics north of the border.
The 2015 General Election campaign saw ‘surges’ of interest in challenger parties such as UKIP and the Greens but resulted in a majority Government few people expected. The post-Election resignation of Ed Miliband triggered the surprise election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and an associated increase in the party’s membership.
It’s hard to believe that two years ago the prevailing narrative was about democracy being broken and engagement with democratic processes in decline.
But there is much more to democracy than formal democratic processes. At Citizens Advice we see how issues of democracy and power play out in people’s lives day-to-day; registration and turnout levels may not reflect attitudes to and engagement with democracy more broadly. Many of the groups in society most likely to be democratically marginalised are overrepresented amongst people who come to our service. We exist to empower people – either by helping them to solve their problems or by campaigning for changes in policy or practice to ensure those problems don’t arise in the first place.
This is why in early 2015, in the wake of the Scottish Independence Referendum, with the General Election fast approaching, and while the Government was in the process of reforming the system for voter registration, we embarked on an ambitious programme of action and research on democratic engagement. Our aim was to ensure democracy worked for our clients in the most literal sense – that people were registered to vote – but also to explore whether people felt democratically empowered in their everyday lives.
Formal democratic engagement: reasons to be optimistic but vigilant
The past two years suggest a changing picture for formal democratic engagement. Before the Scottish independence referendum the narrative was one of declining participation in elections, decreasing support for parties, and record low levels of trust in Government and politicians. While trust remains low, the other indicators seem to be improving. 85 and 72 per cent of those registered voted in the Scottish independence and EU referendums respectively, and the last two general elections suggest early signs of an uptick in turnout. The dramatic increase in the Labour Party’s membership has shown that people are still willing to join mainstream political parties.
But participation is still skewed. More young people than expected may have voted in the EU referendum, but 18-24 year olds were still 26 percentage points less likely to vote than those 65 and over. As the Government moved from household to individual voter registration, the overall proportion of people eligible to vote on the electoral register has stayed broadly the same, but the levels for under 45s and those who have recently moved home have declined.
The role of civil society organisations in this context is key. As the great work from Bite the Ballot over the past few years has shown, it is possible to radically drive up registration and engagement through commitment, invention, and a network of trusted, local advocates and change makers.
The opportunity to ensure that our clients were not blocked from participating in elections led Citizens Advice to become involved in a pre-General Election campaign to drive up voter registration and democratic engagement. In 2015 the Government was in the process of moving from a system in which the ‘head of the household’ was responsible for ensuring that everyone in a property was registered to Individual Electoral Registration (IER) whereby each individual is responsible for registering themselves. It was likely that some people would fall off the electoral register in the transition between systems, and we were concerned those who did would be unable to vote in the General Election. Many of those groups already most likely to be missing from the electoral register – BME communities or private renters, for example – are also over-represented amongst Citizens Advice clients. We wanted to make sure that people had the opportunity to exercise their democratic right.
What did we do?
Citizens Advice worked to increase voter registration before the 2015 General Election. This work had two elements.
- An information drive to explain and increase the salience of registration and voting
Local Citizens Advice offices displayed and distributed materials advising people to register and vote. We wanted to ensure that nobody who entered a local Citizens Advice in the weeks before the General Election left without knowing that there was an election coming, that this was a critical opportunity for them to make their voice heard at the ballot box, and that they needed to be registered before they could. Approximately 115,000 people will have visited a local Citizens Advice office during the period when the voter registration resources were being displayed and distributed.
We ran a social media campaign to promote registering and voting. Our activity reached hundreds of thousands of people, and our content was widely shared.
2 Locally focused campaigns and outreach
Citizens Advice offices across England and Wales engaged in locally focused campaigns and outreach. This activity ranged from running events with local charities and community groups, setting up voter registration stalls in town and city centres, or actively prompting people who visit local Citizens Advice offices to think about registering there and then.
Democracy is about more than just elections
Important though registration and voting are, democracy is about more than just periodic elections. It is about citizens having everyday influence over civic and public life.
At Citizens Advice, we see the challenges people face when things go wrong. We help over 7,300 people to solve problems every day of the working week. We see how frustrated people can be when they are not able to have influence over a local planning decision, or get through to the council on the phone, or get the public or democratic information they need. We know that many people have had a recent poor experience of a civic or public service, but some don’t feed this back because they worry about how the service will treat them afterwards.
At the same time, we also see how willing people are to help each other, to give their time to volunteer, and make a difference in their communities.
Democratic energy and enthusiasm exists, but it is frustrated by poor processes
Instead of focusing just on formal engagement such as voting, we conducted a nationally representative survey to get a richer understanding of people’s attitudes towards and engagement with civic and public life. We wanted to apply our unique Citizens Advice insight to the democratic engagement debate.
We found that the British public is committed to giving back – which chimes with the fact that 7 in 10 people volunteered at least once in 2015/16. And when you scratch the surface, we found a burgeoning and varied picture of the civic and democratic activity that people actually engage in – from standing for election to supporting petitions.
But democratic processes don’t fit with people’s lives. We asked people how they thought it could be made easier to become involved and help to influence decisions and found that the public thinks democracy demands too much time, energy and confidence to engage. We found evidence of two ‘biases’ in the design of democratic processes.
The first is the financial security bias. We asked respondents how confident or optimistic they felt about their financial security over the next 5-10 years, and just over a third of people reported that they are not confident. We explored how a sense of financial insecurity affected attitudes to democracy and found that the financially insecure had notably more pronounced negative attitudes towards democratic processes and public life. The financially insecure feel poorly served by democratic processes, have a lower sense of political efficacy, and lack confidence in their future political representation. Just 7% of those who are financially insecure trust their MP to represent their needs, compared to 38% of the financially secure.
The second is the assertive bias. We asked people about various aspects of their personality and found that most people (59%) do not describe themselves as assertive. When we explored the relationship between assertiveness, influence, and participation, we found that the assertive participate in formal democratic processes more, more often, and are more likely to think that democratic processes and channels for influence are working well. Those who are assertive are twice as likely to believe that the system for making a complaint about a public or council service is working well, for example.
Day-to-day democracy needs to go with the grain
Democracy should be open and responsive to the values and experiences of the public.
Democratic processes and channels for influence should be reformed and reshaped so that they provide easy access to public information, are accessible in the places where people go, and are relentlessly focussed on improving citizens’ experience of engaging. There is no silver bullet, but the following design principles should guide local councils, public services, and democratic institutions in redesigning processes that work for the public.
Design Principle 1 – Information: All public information should be published and presented so that it is as easily accessible and understandable as possible
One of the most important ways to give people influence over the issues that matter to them is to ensure that they have easy access to relevant information, presented in a straightforward and understandable way. Inappropriate presentation of information can put off people who don’t have the time, mental energy or confidence to find and navigate public information that has not been formatted or presented with the public in mind. Nottingham County Council’s income and spending infographic is a good example of how information can be presented to make it as simple and accessible as possible.
Design Principle 2 – Accessibility: Democratic processes and channels for influence should be co-located in the places where people spend time
Those who are financially insecure are less likely to feel well served by democratic processes. This may be because worrying about your finances into the months and years to come means that you have less time and mental energy to engage with poorly designed democratic processes. As one Citizens Advice who we interviewed as part of this research noted:
For this reason, democratic processes should be co-located in the places where people spend time, for example in supermarkets, children’s centres, in local Citizens Advice, or online.
Design Principle 3 – Experience: User experience and journey should be at the centre of all democratic processes
Citizens’ experience should be central to the design of democratic processes to invite engagement, but many people’s experiences of engaging with civic and public services are poor. For example, Citizens Advice clients we spoke to as part of this research expressed frustration about complaining to their local council about poor service, which “becomes a full-time job because [the council] know all of the loopholes and they can twist you back and forward and have you run all over the place looking for your own information.”
One way to improve the user experience of engaging in democracy is to enable people to make their voice heard and exert influence online, where more and more people are spending time. 78 per cent of adults in Britain accessed the internet once a day or almost once a day in 2015, rising from 35 per cent in 2006 when directly comparable records began. The digital tools that mySociety have created to help make getting involved and having influence simple for everyone are a good example of how this can be done in practice.
Improving democracy for our clients
People encounter ‘democracy’ every day when they interact with the state and public life, not just at election time. Many people are frustrated by these interactions and come to Citizens Advice for help and support. Our action and research on democratic engagement highlighted how improving the quality of these interactions is essential for improving democracy more broadly. Most importantly, our work was about making sure our clients have more power and influence over their lives every day.