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Design principles for democratic innovation

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  • Picture of Ed Cox
    Ed Cox
  • Deliberative democracy
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In January 2020, the RSA is hosting a series of events at the People’s History Museum in Manchester under the banner: the International Week of Democratic Innovation.

Events include an Innovating Local Democracy conference run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and feature a number of local citizens’ assemblies on issues such as climate change, knife crime and social care.

Towards the end of the week, 80 international delegates from over 30 different countries will arrive in the city for an annual convention of ‘Democracy R&D’ that will be addressed by Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor.

This blog is adapted from the opening keynote speech given by Ed Cox.


The People’s History Museum – the national museum of democracy – is the ideal venue for a week of events being hosted by the RSA in Manchester. In many ways Manchester has always been home to campaigns for democratic reform. In the last couple of years it has run programmes commemorating both the Suffragette movement, started by Emmeline Pankhurst in Nelson Street just a mile or so away in Moss Side, and the Peterloo Massacre which took place barely 5 minutes’ walk from its front doors.

Manchester: home of democratic innovation

Just as Manchester is known for its industrial and technological innovation, so it should be remembered for the innovations it has wrought within the British democratic system: fair representation for all parts of the country, a free press, and crucially votes for women and the working classes.

But you could be forgiven for thinking that democratic innovation in Britain stopped in 1928 when women finally got the vote. You could make a case that there has been very little substantive democratic reform in this country since then. In fact, if anything our democratic rights have receded in recent decades, not least because a century ago we had a far more healthy and dynamic local democracy where local councils had both the power and resource to ensure that cities like Manchester and Birmingham, Sheffield and Newcastle, were thriving hubs of municipal dynamism and known the world over for their economic and social innovation.

In recent decades, governments of every hue have slowly but surely stripped councils of powers and centralised resources to the point where the large majority have become heavily dependent on Whitehall decree, and local elections are seen by most as little more than an opportunity to express an opinion about the general state of party politics in the nation at large.

The public is well aware of this. In a recent poll that the RSA has carried out with Populus, less than one in five people believe that the balance of power is right between central and local government. And on every issue other than climate change and healthcare, people think that local government should have more power.

But before we get too gloomy about the state of democracy in Britain, perhaps we would be wise to look up and recognise that democracy is in peril all around the world.

Democracy in peril all over the world

In the past couple of years there has been a slew of new books considering what some people have called national populism that has taken place in countries right across Europe, North and South America, Australia, Turkey and of course Russia. Countries where just 20 years ago we thought liberal democracy was putting the world on a path to unending progress seem now to be adopting increasingly illiberal and authoritarian practices.

Since 2008, it seems the whole world has been gripped by what some people have called the 3 Ps – populism, pessimism and polarisation. This is not the place to rehearse some of the grand narratives and theories as to why the world has found itself questioning and undermining some of the basic tenets of the democratic society that has enabled, in many parts of the world, some sense of peace and prosperity for nearly 80 years. But the winds of national populism were blowing long before 2008.

In my opinion the roots of our contemporary democratic crisis lie in the very narrow ways in which we have come to conceive of our democratic rights and activities.

I believe that as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, our ability to find ways to transform our democracy is a challenge just as great as that of our ageing society or our need to reverse the climate crisis or to seize the opportunities provided for by big data and tech.

In fact, I believe these monumental challenges that face us in the 21st century, can only be solved in tandem: we will need radical democratic innovations – in our neighbourhoods and our towns and cities and regions, in our nation states and even at a global scale –  if we are to find a way to save our planet and harness the tech and AI that could transform our lives for the better.

And so what might democratic innovation look like?

Design principles for democratic innovation

Well thankfully we’ve all come to the right place to find out. Over the next couple of days we are going to learn from one another some of the most interesting innovations in democratic thinking that are around today.

We’ve got lots of examples of local government experimentation, we’ve got speakers from overseas to inspire and stimulate our future innovation, and we’ve got sessions designed to give us the space to discuss and design ideas that nobody has even thought of yet. This is why I’m so excited about this conference – we simply don’t know where it might lead.

But if we see the next couple of days as a bit of a design lab for democratic innovation, I’d like to use the rest of my time to spell out four design principles to guide our work together.

1. Democracy as a system

First, we need to think of democracy as a system rather than an institution or an event. Casting votes in national or local elections – or indeed referenda – have become synonymous with the exercise of our democratic rights. Of course, voting will always be a critical element of a democratic system, but it is just one tool in the democratic toolbox. Our recent poll showed us that over half of the population feels they have little say over what central or local government does.

The deep sense of disempowerment that so many people feel today is not only a result of our over-centralised government. In so many aspects of life, the market presents us with all kinds of real time choices. And yet when it comes to matters of public life it seems we get one vote and from then on we find that a relatively small proportion of the population have locked us into a set of rather vague prescriptions for 5 years.

This needn’t be the case. There are so many other tools in the democratic toolbox. Participatory appraisal, participatory budgeting, community engagement processes, citizens juries, deliberative polling, citizens inquiries, focus groups – there are literally hundreds of different forms of participatory and deliberative democracy. And that’s before we think about the opportunities created by digital and direct democracy.

And let’s not forget the fundamental importance of a free press and a just legal system as the foundations of a healthy liberal democracy.

The legitimacy of any democratic system is surely founded upon the interaction of these different tools or processes. Over-reliance on any one form of democracy is likely cause dysfunction in the wider system.

2. Combining different democratic tools

Secondly, we need a good combination of democratic tools and approaches to support a flourishing democracy. It is of course impossible to stipulate what that combination needs to be. It will vary from context to context and according to history and tradition. But we are depending far too heavily on elected representative democracy.

Not only is there widespread scepticism about just how representative our elected representatives seem to be but our political parties and our voting system were more attuned to the industrial age in which they were formed than the digital age in which we now live. Of course, the 80-seat majority held by the new government is likely to foster a level of democratic complacency for at least another 5 years but the disenchantment of the general public with elected representative democracy has not gone away and it seems to me that the choice is a stark one: a move towards greater democratic innovation and decentralisation, or the steady narrowing of the democratic imagination as we creep towards ever more illiberal and authoritarian practices.

I remain optimistic that our populist moment will ultimately give way. Elected representatives all around the world, however populist in their persuasion, are more aware than ever that they are simply unable to unlock some of the biggest challenges we face without a different relationship with the public. When it comes to climate change, for example, it is no great surprise that so many elected bodies are looking to citizens’ assemblies to help them identify and design politically acceptable approaches to reaching net zero carbon reductions in the shortest possible time.

This points to a third design principle: we must make democracy real.

3. Make democracy real

It is a well-worn joke that enthusiasts for democratic reform tend to be a bunch of anoraks. There should be no shame in wanting to transform the processes upon by which we make the decisions that shape our lives together, but democracy enthusiasts should be acutely aware that most people seem to care far more for the outcome of decisions than how they are made.

For all our enthusiasm to hone the latest participatory technique, we should remain very mindful of the real world challenges people are facing today. The rash of citizens’ assemblies on climate change may well be a good thing, but let’s not forget a wide range of other challenges that affect people’s everyday lives that our elected representatives seem to find so difficult to deal with.

Big infrastructure projects, planning and Greenbelt issues, paying for adult social care, addressing crime and punishment, fair pay and taxation, benefits and welfare issues, access to new drugs and healthcare treatments, the use of AI and data. There is a very strong case to ensure public service reform is underpinned by good deliberative processes.

These are huge issues which elicit varied opinions in different sections of society. Unless we ensure our democratic innovations are trained on trying to solve these issues – and not become ends in their own rights – we will forever find our concerns in the shadows and our enthusiasm will be unrequited.

What links together so many of these issues is the weakness of short-termist party politics to move quickly enough or decisively enough to bring about the lasting change that each issue needs. To address them we need to reach deep into the democratic toolbox to pull out techniques that a best-placed to address long-term complex challenges.

4. Prioritise deliberation

The final design principle then is to prioritise deliberation. There is a lot on the RSA blog about the principles and practices of deliberative democracy so here I will highlight just two of the numerous benefits associated with deliberative methods.

  • First, they place a real premium on taking the time to weigh evidence, to discuss and debate the issues, to explore options and very often to find some kind of consensus. Unlike so much political decision-making which is based upon making quick decisions based on personal opinion, deliberation creates the space for people to make far more considered judgement. It allows for all that we know about the ‘wisdom of crowds’ to come to the fore.
  • Second, deliberation allows the general public to understand and engage with the tensions and trade-offs that so often lie at the heart of political decision-making. It enables a level of empathy between ordinary citizens and their elected representatives. Indeed, evaluations of citizens’ assemblies and juries regularly report that participants take up an active interest in different forms of social action as a result of taking part.

Just like electoral representation though, there are better and worse ways of doing deliberation. There’s growing interest in setting some standards and principles for good practice in deliberative public engagement and I hope that our conference will generate plenty of discussion on these matters.

But let’s not miss the wood for the trees, innovation necessarily requires experimentation and the deliberative experiments that many of you are involved with form a vanguard that I hope will make deliberative democracy a defining characteristic of 21st century social change.

I genuinely hope that people will look back this series of meetings in Manchester as a defining moment in the evolution of British democracy. From the Pankhurst’s plotting in Nelson Street, to the peaceful protests in St Peters Square, this might now seem far too ordinary a conference to cause the seismic shifts of the Suffragettes or Peterloo, but from tiny mustard seeds do great mustard trees grow and in their branches do many birds make their nests.

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  • Anthony Constantinou completely agree with your statement that we have to think of democracy as a system instead of an institution or an event.

  • Whilst we should view democracy as a system, this blog fails to mention universal transparency and accountability - why?  Without them, plus a clear understanding of participation, the democratic deficit will persist. These are prime areas crying out for innovation and the basis not only for restoring trust in democracy but also to underpin democracy for generations to come. This blog is all the more surprising because Ed/RSA has been presented with an innovative methodology, known as Informed Choice - ic!, which always makes the best choice, on any subject and for any number of people.  And it is to be freely available on a website devoid of commercial influences to ensure it is beyond reproach (unlike ‘comparison’ sites).

    Moreover, to test ic!'s efficacy in politics, a visit to www.eunicorn.uk was suggested to see how ic! could have handled the referendum so much better.  Every aspect of the democratic deficit (and much more) can be resolved by ic!

    How does this blog stimulate innovation?  Rather, it seems to promote deliberative democracy, with all its shortcomings, wherein choices still have to be made (and, we hope, transparently!) whilst unity and commitment can only be achieved by proving the best choice has been identified after everyone’s views have been taken into account.

    Then we can realistically achieve government of the people, by the people, for the people - democracy incarnate.

  • This most interesting article by Ed Cox covers a number of important subjects. In the WEF essay,  Managing the Rising Influence of Nationalism, Dr Niblett discusses the transfer of more decision making to areas within a country that are distant from the capital, which would increase accountability. Having been involved with local enfranchisement and lobbied for infrastructure projects, large and small, I have seen people going to vote for the first time and facilities like railways, large-scale housing developments, health centres and universities coming into being in areas that are no longer left behind. And isn't  an initiative for the regions at the proposal stage.

    Just to pick one point from a packed agenda, it would be good to see adult social care being tackled in a new sub department with various ministries participating. There could be input from consultations around the country because this is not only about people, carers and facilities, vital though that is, it's also about funding and debating how to raise it on a permanent basis. Design Principles for Democratic Innovation covers a considerable number of important topics. Hope the meetings go well.  

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