Ecosystems of Democracy: Go Deep, Connect and Inspire

Yesterday saw a seismic shift in our representative democracy. And we all wait expectantly to see what change is coming. Yet, beneath the Westminster froth, the pundits, polls and parties, are stark challenges for our democracy and our country.

Changing that will take time, take experimentation and a fresh focus on why so many people aren’t participating, why trust in politics is so low, and what that might mean for us all. A post election blog by Jez Hall.

Waiting for the dam to burst?

There will be a lot of ‘hopers’ following the election. Public sector workers hoping to see their wages catch up with the cost of living. First time buyers and renters hoping for secure, affordable homes. Those on endless NHS waiting lists hoping their suffering might end soon. Activists, farmers and nature lovers hoping to avert the emergency of climate change. The list of hopes is endless.

Like watching a dam wall breaking, there are a lot of cracks, creaks and groans in our democracy. Adding to the pressure locally are major existential global challenges; such as ageing populations, global heating and far-right nationalisms.

What progressive politician, new into office, wouldn’t want to dampen down our expectations, and say something like; ‘hold on a minute, maybe some things will have to wait. Leave it to us.

We’ve got time to learn, time to explore

Fair enough, but whilst we are waiting, let’s do some learning. Let’s try some new approaches, small scale for sure, but able to help show how we can reform our democracy, and reconnect people into it. Making politics personal, engaging and positive.

Let’s not forget that in the 2024 UK general election 40% of citizens didn’t bother to vote at all. Membership of political parties is now under 2% of the general population. And there are more voters over 60 years of age than voters under 40 years old.

Democracy is surely meant to be more than party politics, voting and institutions. Whilst PR, House of Lords reform, and other constitutional change is overdue, what is more urgent is that we connect democracy to the lived realities of everyday people. We need to find different ways to enable people to have a say, think widely, and take action; to shape their communities, towns and neighbourhoods, for the better.

Exploring the ecosystems of democracy

That’s where other forms of democracy can come in. Democracy isn’t one process. Representative democracy, as seen at election time, cohabits with other kinds of democracy. Like an ecosystem made up of diverse lifeforms.

Direct democracy, such as our freedoms to campaign, and hold peaceably protest on the streets, or raise petitions, referenda, or by citizen organising, can put pressure on powerholders to sit up and take notice.

Deliberative democracy, through countless types of citizens’ assemblies and juries, public forums and policy groups can find creative, informed and thoughtful ways to tackle our problems. More creative deliberative process like legislative theatre can change perceptions and give voice to those at the margins of society.

Participatory democracy, and my particular passion, Participatory Budgeting, puts decision making power back into the hands of residents, can build trust and engages new audiences.

A democracy to inspire us

All these approaches, and many more, have been shown to engage, inspire and enable a more active citizenship. We have loads of examples on our website of these approaches in action, and how they tell a different, more positive story about living ‘in community’ with each other.

Globally, and locally, there is a new appreciation that in their diversity these approaches can be complimentary and mutually reinforcing. That there is no one correct way to do a democracy. Its multi-faceted, offering different ways for people to take part, and become good citizens.

Who decides? Maybe you can?

Participatory Budgeting voting at Your Pots, Lancaster 2023.

For one example, take Participatory Budgeting (PB). I won’t explain here what it is, other than to say its been tried and tested across the globe. And where PB has been done at scale and over time citizens find ways to sustain themselves, build social capital, and see that resources can be shifted to fund the things they care about.

Citizens respond by being more willing to pay their taxes or through increased trust in the institutions of democracy. Studies have shown that, at scale and with enough time, municipalities that adopt Participatory Budgeting programs collect 39% more locally generated taxes than similar municipalities without these programs.

PB is not about overturning existing democratic structures. It’s about making our existing structures work better. Political will is crucial, as PB generally spends public money, and therefore the decision over whether to use PB is rightly in the hands of the politicians and senior public servants who manage and spend our taxes for us.

I personally believe that there are a lot of unmet needs in our society because those who are furthest from power don’t have the right opportunities to advocate for those needs. Ultimately PB is a mechanism for improving communication, horizontally between different citizens and communities, but also vertically, between communities and power holders, in ways that traditional representative democracy doesn’t. Its power is in its immediacy, and its focus on money.

No right way to do democracy

But neither is PB some kind of panacea. We need to be thinking about ecosystems of democratic engagement and PB is just one part of that political environment. It is really good for mobilizing people, and bringing a sense of passion and urgency to our democracy. And we also need more deliberative democracy, so the proposals and projects that are funded through PB are well conceived and considered.

If you want to find out more about ecosystems of democracy, and what they might offer, it’s worth reading the new white paper by Josh Lerner, released only last month. Josh, director of the global organisation People Powered, takes a wide view. We have much to learn from his experience.

Hope for democracy, hope for the future

At the start of a long period of rule by a progressive (and hopefully stable) government, now is a perfect opportunity to put some of his ideas for democratic change into practice. Time to explore a more ‘people powered’ democracy.

That’s what we’ll be doing at Shared Future. Since we were established in 2009, we’ve survived one long and rather unstable government, and many years of local austerity. Now, facing a similar long-term government, and hopefully a more progressive one, we will have the time to do more of our own style of people powered democracy; differently, locally, creatively.

So that next time we go to the polls, and the time after, maybe more people take part, not less. And there is a fresh hope in the power of democracy, in all its forms.

Blog by Jez Hall, 5th July 2024.

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