Delivering Democracy: 3 steps to get more people to the ballot box
24 million people didn’t vote in the last UK general election. To me, this means it’s time to accept that what we are doing to increase participation in elections isn’t working. I’d like to suggest a different approach. It’s a formula for working together, and making better use of the many organisations and individuals involved across the campaign ecosystem. The approach is relevant to any campaign, but I have written this specifically to support the campaign for democratic participation.
How can funders and organisations devoted to increasing voter participation have a bigger impact, sooner?
My answer is an approach based on 3 key steps that we can start taking now, and which are mainly the responsibility of the organisation sitting at the hub of the campaign ecosystem. Logically this means funders, but it could be any organisation or collective set up to perform a hub role (a role which no one currently occupies in the democracy sector). The steps are;
- Collate the research. Carry out a literature review, bringing together the relevant research into voter representation, and identify gaps in the research.
- Prioritise the work. Based on the collated research, create a ‘backlog’ — a prioritised list of the voter groups that need to be targeted, and the known barriers to participation.
- Use a framework to support delivery. The hub organisation adopts a support role, offering delivery tools and practices to provide the right direction, environment and support to the organisations doing the work.
The first two steps pose less of a challenge — the research is largely in place (albeit in multiple reports), and therefore some clear priorities should naturally follow with a little extra analysis.
It’s the third step — supporting the delivery of the work — that forms the biggest departure from current practices. It doesn’t mean project managing everyone, it just means providing a framework to maintain collective focus on our vision, collaborate better, and share knowledge. It’s not without challenges, but if done well it offers real potential to increase impact across the whole campaign ecosystem.
Let’s go back to the size of the challenge: In the 2019 general election, 24 million eligible voters didn’t vote. That’s 43% of all eligible voters. Of those, 8.4 million were not registered to vote, and therefore couldn’t vote even if they wanted to.
While that paints a pretty grim picture, there is a plus side. Thanks to a dedicated group of individuals, non-profits, and charities, work is being done to address some of the barriers to democratic participation. Everything from promoting voter registration to tracking political advertising, from increasing political literacy among young people to increasing registration in marginalised groups. Backed by a small number of visionary funders who are also committed to democratic participation, these projects provide the life-blood for our stalled democracy. These organisations are tirelessly trying to fill the gaps so that those who want to vote are able to, and those who are able to vote see value in doing so.
The current approach
I am writing this as someone who runs two volunteer-led services, and who occasionally competes for small-scale funding. And while I have been doing this for 10 years now, I don’t have the same level of experience as those doing this full time. And from what I have seen and from those I have met in the sector, it’s clear there is considerable expertise to draw on.
When I do apply for funding, I make a case for why the work I am planning is important, what beneficial outcomes it will bring, how I will achieve them, and so on. All pretty standard stuff. Then it’s just a case of hoping the proposal matches the more nuanced priorities and preferences of the decision making panel. Funders receive a lot of applications for a limited amount of funding, and have the unenviable job of remaining as open as possible to new ideas, while staying true to the core purpose of the fund. This process is equally time-consuming, and involves making really difficult decisions on each project’s aims, delivery approach and associated risks.
If the application is successful, the work can start. It’s not unusual to then discover other projects doing the same thing (not from the same funder). Some projects may be similar but with a slightly different focus. Others may appear to be addressing newer or emerging issues, and which might appear quite left-field. So even across a small sector, there are a lot of projects — some the same, some different, some overlapping. But they can’t all be addressing the highest priority issues. Unfortunately we’ll never know for sure until we can see what those priorities are.
The same approach, but slightly different…
What if it worked the other way around? What if we had visibility of the strategic priorities for (in this case) increasing democratic participation? Not just visibility of the goal or overarching theme, but detail about the types of issues that need to be addressed and audience groups we need to reach.
If we did, it could be better for funders and service providers alike. In the same way that organisations can see which voter groups or activities are highest priority, funders can be more active in encouraging applications from — or approaching directly — those organisations who already have experience working in the areas where there is most need.
This might not change anything from the point of view of an organisation wanting to apply for funding. After all, lower priority projects can still get funded. But it could mean that organisations adapt their focus to better meet the higher priority goals, or it could even mean they propose working alongside other organisations in that same space. Ultimately, we’re just looking for a more joined up way that funders and delivery organisations can all work from — and monitor progress towards — clear goals, all supporting the core objective of increased participation in elections.
How can we do that? Here are the three steps in more detail.
#1. Collate the research
Right now, we have some great insight into which voter groups are under-represented, from multiple research projects into different groups and issues. The research has been summarised several times in different reports, such as Democracy Club’s Who’s Missing & Why?, and the government’s 2017 plan for Democratic Engagement. Common to these reports is the acknowledgement that there are gaps in our understanding. For example, we know that those least likely to vote include young people, frequent home movers, ‘attainers’, people from BAME groups, and those with disabilities. But we don’t know enough about why they don’t vote or aren’t registered. We need more insight in order to be able to provide targeted services to help each of these groups. And we need to understand the type of messaging that does and doesn’t cut through to voters.
But while it is important to close these gaps in our understanding, they don’t prevent us from progressing right now. By collating the existing research as a ‘literature review’ we can provide a huge amount of value to the sector, drawing together multiple sources of research into a clear, comprehensive, point of reference. A ‘single source of truth’ if you will. And by promoting this to everyone in the sector, it will bring visibility and consensus on the key voter groups and the key barriers to participation that need to be addressed first.
This will provide us with a summary of what we know now, and what we need to know more about. With this, we can move to the next step.
#2. Prioritise the work
In project parlance (especially software projects), a prioritised list of things to do is called a ‘backlog’ (you will recognise this term if you’re familiar with Scrum — a widely used framework based on the Agile methodology). The most important thing goes at the top, the next most important thing goes beneath it, and so on. To some people the term backlog sounds like everything is already late, but don’t let that put you off. In fact, it’s a really simple but powerful delivery tool. It makes decision-making easier, and provides clarity to those doing the work.
In our case, the backlog will prioritise the voter groups that our research tells us we need to reach. The largest and least represented go at the top. In addition, if the research provides insight into specific barriers to participation that voter groups face, those barriers could feature in the backlog too. Over time, we might expect to see greater segmentation as we increase knowledge about the barriers to participation that each voter group faces. For example, we might end up segmenting ‘Private renters’ into ‘Private renters with low awareness of the voting process’ and ‘private renters with high apathy towards voting’ (catchier names pending) and so on. Some barriers may be present across many voter groups (like apathy), and some may be more challenging and longer term problems to solve (also like apathy).
It’s worth clarifying here that the highest priority might not always be what has been identified as the most pressing need. The highest priority might instead be something that is deemed more achievable, and helps build learning and confidence before expanding onto the bigger, more challenging work. Or it could be that more information is required before being able to work with certain voter groups, meaning other work lower in the backlog can happen first.
Who sets the priority? Ultimately someone has to make the final call, but prioritising is about making an informed decision based on the information we have at any one time. When done well it is an ongoing conversation, and largely dependant on the experience of those who actually do the work, or who represent the people the work needs to reach. So rather than being another top-down directive, this is a far more democratic process, based on respect for and representation from those closest to the cause.
So now we have prioritised list of activities, all focussed towards the same goal, and based on the best information we have right now.
The question now is how do we make sure it gets delivered?
#3. Use a framework to support delivery
The term ‘framework’ might be a bit of a turn-off to some, but I don’t know what else to call it, or how else to describe this final, crucial step. Because this is what brings it all together. It’s the difference between lots of people doing lots of work, and lots of people doing the right work and improving all the time.
Supporting delivery isn’t an aspect of campaigning that I have seen funders get involved with, and I have never understood why. In their natural role at the hub of the campaign ecosystem, this additional step is where I see the potential to create the most impact. But if none are willing, it doesn’t have to be funders who take on this role.
Everywhere I have worked there has a been a different process, or a different take on the same process. The process doesn’t need to be the same everywhere, of course — it needs to be what’s right for the organisation, the people doing the work, and the type of work they’re doing. But where multiple organisations are involved in delivering something, there are multiple processes in play. The challenge that poses is getting everyone to work together just enough to deliver the right work as effectively as possible. In other words, where does the direction come from?
We don’t want everyone to be forced to use the same ‘process’, and risk slowing them down. Nor do we want a central organisation to be responsible for what other people are delivering. But we do want to make it as easy as possible for everyone to know what’s going on across the sector, report progress, highlight issues, and share knowledge. So rather than having a common process, this is where a framework comes in.
A framework is simply a set of tools and practices. There are several frameworks to pick and choose from. These tools and practices can then be adopted to support the more detailed process within each organisation. So the framework can be common, but how it is used (the process) can be different to each organisation and team.
Example tools and practices we can use
Below is a list of some of the more common delivery tools and practices I would consider first. These could be just for funders to adopt, or for funders to support organisations to adopt. Or both. As a list it is far from exhaustive, and neither does everything on this list have to be adopted in order to make a difference. It’s more like a menu — and therefore not something I recommend ordering everything from unless you have a huge appetite for change. Keep it simple and start slow (meaning start with what’s most palatable for everyone involved).
- Work from a central backlog. Yes, it’s the good old backlog again. If you’ve got this far you’re already using part of a framework. The central backlog is what the hub organisation (i.e. the funder) is responsible for, but the delivery organisations can also create their own backlogs to prioritise their work.
- Visualise progress — for example, using a kanban board with columns showing the status of each activity (e.g. To Do, In Progress, and Done). Visualising progress in this way often goes hand in hand with creating a backlog, but the key point here is that the status of each activity needs to be visible — whether just to the funder (as the central organisation coordinating the work), or to the organisations involved in delivery (ideally), or to the entire sector and public (once you’re feeling brave). Visualising progress makes reporting easy and consistent, and facilitates better planning.
- Work in cycles of delivery. This is common in software projects (the cycles are referred to as ‘sprints’) but isn’t right for everyone or every type of work. It involves setting shorter term delivery objectives for the next cycle (e.g. for the next two weeks / one month / three months), focussing purely on those objectives during that cycle, and presenting whatever is complete at the end of it. Objectives are then set for the next cycle, and so on. Nothing scary there, yet working in delivery cycles helps teams stay aligned with the priorities, focuses on delivering something of value both sooner and more frequently, and keeps motivation high.
- Demo work regularly. Typically at the end of a time-boxed cycle of work, teams demonstrate the work they have managed to complete during the period. Even if teams don’t work in cycles, running these regular ‘reviews’ is vital for giving meaningful progress updates, sharing knowledge across teams, and of course getting feedback from the people we’re doing the work for. Being able to make adjustments along the way is what increases the likelihood of the right thing being delivered — whether it’s a digital service, a physical product, or a campaign. It’s also a good time to celebrate the work that has been done.
As well as organisations doing this for themselves I’d really love to see funders coordinating campaign-wide reviews — sessions where multiple organisations are able to demonstrate their progress to each other. Imagine how useful it would be able to check in with the other campaign organisations, get feedback, share successes and failures, and generally support each other.
- Reflect on what is and isn’t working — and make changes. This is the one thing I’d adopt from this list above all else. These ‘retrospective’ sessions should be run at the end of every delivery cycle. But even if you choose not to work in cycles of delivery, it’s important to schedule regular time to reflect on how things have been going — to celebrate successes, and make changes where needed. Importantly these are sessions are about how we are working, not the work itself. This tactic alone is what enables continuous improvement, and when facilitated properly, every team in every organisation can benefit from doing this — funders, service providers, third sector organisations. I’d love to see funders encouraging (and coaching) their grantees to do this. It’s powerful stuff.
- Open up the delivery process. This one isn’t actually part of a framework, but for a non-partisan campaign it’s a principle worth considering. While it’s fair to say that not everyone is comfortable opening up their work to scrutiny, there are considerable benefits in doing so. Being ‘open’ could mean just sharing the research that our priorities are based on, or it go as far as publishing progress dashboards and blogging about everything that happens along the way. Or something in between. Being open about the work will build awareness, generate feedback, and invite collaboration from more like-minded people, organisations, and other grant-makers. This is essential for bringing the right people and expertise together to achieve our goals for democracy. It serves no one to do this work behind closed doors. And besides, nobody ‘owns’ this campaign.
It makes sense to me that any organisation that funds work done by multiple organisations should also play a role in supporting the delivery of that work. But it doesn’t have to be a funder who performs this central, facilitative role. It can also be a shared role across the organisations working towards the same goal. How exactly that role is implemented depends on what’s right for the organisations involved. There is no template to offer, but hopefully what you have read will have included something of interest — something you think is worth trying. Whatever happens, it has to be a shared process — something that everyone feels they are in control of, and can input into.
Without doing this, I fear it will be hard to reduce the number of non-voters from 24 million before the next election, with the same resources as we have now.
As an approach this is not radical, but it is has the potential to be really effective. The great thing is it includes ways of working that many organisations will already be familiar with. And even better, we can start now.