Democratic processes need to fit with modern life

Temi Ogunye, Policy Researcher

We are currently mid-way through Parliament Week, a programme of events coordinated by the House of Commons aimed at connecting people across the UK with Parliament and democracy.

Arguably this job has never been harder. The public has rarely been so disconnected from Parliament and Westminster, and even recent surges in democratic energy and enthusiasm – the Scottish independence referendum, for example – have been noteworthy because they are seen to represent a departure from politics-as-usual.

Citizens Advice: the frontline of democracy

But at Citizens Advice we know that there is more to democracy than politicians, parties and voting. Democracy is about citizens having influence over the decisions and services that affect their lives everyday, and having the access to tools and channels which enable this.

We see the challenges people face when things go wrong. Every day we help over 7,300 people to solve problems – that’s almost 2 million people every year through our local community services and millions more online and on the phone. We see how frustrated people can be when they are not able to fix something themselves, or get through on the phone, or get the information they need. This is the frontline of democracy, and improving democratic engagement must involve improving how citizens experience this everyday engagement.

Today we publish Going with the grain: Why democracy needs to fit with modern life, which argues that to build stronger communities, change people’s attitudes towards politics, and improve participation, we need to improve the democratic services and processes that people interact with everyday. To do so, we need to understand how day-to-day pressures, challenges and behaviours are affecting people’s experience, how they want to engage, and how services and processes can be more responsive to people’s needs and go with the grain of modern life.

The British public are committed to contributing but democratic processes feel out of sync

Our research reveals a rich picture of civic participation, which chimes with Government statistics on volunteering and charitable giving. But if citizens are committed to contributing, what explains the disengagement from democratic processes?

Our findings show that the public feel that democratic processes – such as contacting a representative, responding to consultations, or complaining about poor service – are out of sync with their values and lives. The public think that democratic processes need to improve.

Two biases: financial security and assertiveness

We found evidence of two ‘biases’ in the design of democratic processes that make it difficult for many people to engage.

First, the financial security bias: people’s perceptions of financial security are affecting their attitudes to and involvement with democratic processes and institutions. This may be because those who do not feel financially secure lacked the headspace to engage with issues that don’t feel immediately relevant to their own lives, or do battle with overly complicated democratic processes.

Second, the assertive bias: a lack of confidence is a major barrier to people trying to engage with processes and take action. Beyond a conscious barrier, throughout the data we found that those who didn’t identify as assertive were less likely to engage, seek to influence, or complain when things went wrong. Citizens perceive democratic channels for influence as largely public or combative, which turns off a majority of the public.

Parliament Week or democracy everyday?

There is no silver bullet when it comes to addressing the democratic deficit. Devolving power to local communities will be part of the answer but it is by no means sufficient. People will still be alienated if democratic processes and channels for influence remain unresponsive and frustrating.

We recommend that 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. This will look different in different areas, and will involve constant testing and experimentation.

The more general point is that our democratic deficit is unlikely to be solved if we continue to think of democracy simply in terms of what goes on in Westminster. We may currently be in Parliament Week, but our focus should be on improving people’s experiences of democracy everyday.

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