Inclusive Democracy and Participation

The launch of a new Civil Society Strategy

It is heartening that the new national Civil Society Strategy includes a focus on involvement in democracy and participation for people who are more disadvantaged and socially excluded. Even better, it acknowledges the role that digital technology could play.

Democracy and Participation enables People to Flourish

I really value living in a democracy and my right and freedom to vote and to participate in civil society. I can clearly remember the hopefulness and buzz of voting in a general election for the first time and the life experience and insight I gained from my earliest volunteering experience for Shelter still guides me now.

A few years ago I stumbled across the Flourish theory developed by one of the founders of positive psychology Martin Seligman. According to the theory, there are five key factors which enable humans to flourish: experiencing positive emotions, engaging in activities, building positive relationships, feeling life has meaning and a sense of achievement.

A strong, effective and equitable democracy and civil society helps to create the conditions where all citizens have the opportunity to flourish.

Inequality in Democracy and Participation

Not everyone in the world has these privileges and even in the UK there are inequalities in democracy and participation.

Although the percentage of people voting at the last election rose to 68.7%, the highest levels for 20 years, trust in politicians is low, only 27% of people feel like they have control over decisions made where they live and there is significant political inequality.

Claire Ainsley, Executive Director of JRF explains in her blog on poverty and politics, that Joseph Rowntree Foundation Research, highlights that people on low incomes say they are less likely to be interested in politics, have less faith in politicians, feel less in control of their lives and are less likely to vote or get involved in political activity.

The Government Community Life Survey also highlights that people from lower socio-economic background and less educated backgrounds are less likely to volunteer. People living in more deprived areas are less likely to volunteer formally: 14% volunteer regularly in the most deprived areas of England compared with 31% in the least deprived.

Inclusive Democracy and Participation at Good Things Foundation

“At a time of deep division and disconnection, we badly need imaginative and innovative thinking to make democracy work better. But we have to recognise the barriers that exist in our social interactions too.”

Claire Ainsley, Executive Director, JRF

I am hopeful that we do have the collective imagination, energy and resources to lift these barriers inclusive democracy and participation. Indeed there are many existing tools and activities which are already available; New Economics Foundation’s Social Action Toolkit, community organisers, e.g. Citizens UK and NEON, online petitions and campaign tools such as 38 degrees and the parliamentary e-petitions, participatory budgeting and online engagement and listening tools such as Clever Together and Care Opinion.

Over the last few years Good Things Foundation has been on a journey of discovery of how to support people who are more socially excluded to get involved in democracy and participation using digital as an enabler.

The starting point for us is the recognition that whilst digital technology has enormous potential in enabling inclusive democracy and participation, 11.3 million people do not have basic online skills. Our digital nation infographic illustrates how these people are likely to be both digitally and socially excluded.

A digitalised democracy must include digital and social inclusion as a core component to ensure it does not compound current inequalities and disaffection with politics.

Digital has already had a big impact on democracy and participation in recent times from the targeted spread of ‘fake news’ (lies) and trolling (bullying online) to the social media campaigns having a positive influence on public services and society such as #HelloMyNameIs and #MeToo. For a healthy digitalised democracy, we will need to ensure that all citizens have the skills, knowledge and confidence to not only go online but also to understand and manage digital resources effectively.

Through our social inclusion programmes we have learnt that lifting barriers through building confidence and skills using digital as an enabler can begin to help people build connections and get involved in community life, e.g. through our hyperlocal network of Online Centres using our digital learning resource English My Way. we have helped over 20,000 people learn basic English language skills and for the first time be able to speak to their neighbours and get involved in volunteering and social action.

“Then I found out that I can volunteer at the Library at the same time as learning. So I have something for myself now, but even better I can show other people how to have that too. That has made a big difference to me. I can tell people, I was there too. You must be strong. You must keep trying to find a way to do what you want to do, and get where you want to go. You must be confident.”

English My Way Participant.

This year we are celebrating 100 years of women being able to vote in our country through the innovative Voice Box Cafés, which are supporting vulnerable women to learn about and get involved in democracy and participation. Check out our Learn My Way resources and our Tumblr site for the vibrant and inspiring stories emerging from the Voice Box Cafes including a young 18 year old woman in Manchester who felt inspired to set up a period poverty campaign.

We have learnt that the key to unleashing the potential of people who are more socially and digitally excluded to get involved in democracy and participation is building relationships of shared trust and understanding and this is most effectively achieved through hyperlocal organisations rooted in the communities they are serving. The results can be transformational for people, communities and society.

Next Steps

Co-designing innovative and practical learning resources to support inclusive democracy and participation through our network of 5,000 hyperlocal Online Centres using digital as an enabler is a key social inclusion priority for Good Things Foundation over the next two years. We have already begun this journey with Voice Box Cafes and our ‘Use Your Voice’ resources on Learn My Way.

We are keen to work in partnership with others who share our ambitions and who understand the importance of tackling digital and social exclusion as an integral part of building a flourishing and inclusive democracy and civil society.