Upgrading democracy: open access participation

Opinion: Stephen Bediako, Executive Chair, The Social Innovation Partnership

Brexit, Trump and the resulting crises gripping the UK and USA indicate we need a new kind of democracy. After this current government changes (whether sooner or later), the next one should explore three key concepts for urgent and innovative updates to our democratic models. These concepts need to be driven by a set of core values by which we run our society, and drive society for the better.

Firstly, it’s time to ask citizens to lean in on democracy. I first discovered the concept of Deliberative Democracy and Citizens’ Assemblies through the work of Professor Jim Fishkin: the basic premise being that democracy should be about more than just casting votes, but also deliberating and debating policy with a stratified set of a population. People, here, are systematically encouraged to actively grapple with facts and policies, rather than being passive recipients via the media. With the current Brexit situation, more and more people are talking about the importance of Citizens’ Assemblies, in news articles, high profile letters to the Editor, and on social media.

Since then, I have looked into the important work being done by Involve, The RSA and MySociety in driving its adoption in the UK: raising awareness, bringing key people together, and designing the digital technology that can help make it happen. There is further work to be done to bring deliberative processes to the UK in a systematic way. Some work that TSIP is doing with Shoreditch Trust, the Greater London Authority, Hackney Council, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity and other partners hopes to contribute to this, inspired by Civic Hall in NYC and others. I believe making it a habit, the same way we shower every day or make time for dinner, needs to be our future — I envision a world when we all can say, ‘I just did my Deliberative last week.’

A key learning and emphasis we’ve had is that authentic deliberative processes must bring lived experience and diverse views to the table, and open up our definitions of equality. In my view, one of the potential pitfalls for deliberative processes is if it becomes a play thing for the chattering classes, rather than creating the kind of sweeping and systemic change in thinking that Marxism created, or NeoLiberalism or #metoo has created. While it’s not an ideology, it is a fundamentally unique approach to running a system and aligns with the democratisation of knowledge and true data driven changes we are seeing in our society. While current markers of quality obviously work to an extent, we are no longer getting the kind of return on investment we need from only giving opportunities systematically to the educated privileged. Not only are these groups lacking the full representation of lived experience, they are far less likely to be ethnically diverse — meanwhile McKinsey and Deloitte research is indicating that mixed and diverse teams perform better.

At TSIP we’ve moved into the world of design to complement our impact measurement history — we decided we needed to change and move closer to driving systemic change, rather than just helping to measure it. Thinking human first is key to our future. I believe that fostering deliberation and inclusion in a way that puts humans and data first as a human right, rather than a human output monetised by a few, will change our path. A friend and ex-colleague introduced me to the concept of a data collective: a futuristic time ahead when we will be able to capture our data, organise it, understand it and monetise it ourselves, if we so wish. I completely reject the need to automate as much as possible, or the suggestion that people should only do creative jobs or nothing.

Underpinning all of this is the need for positive and value-driven leadership. We can do this we just need to take the step and try.