We are launching a service called GADA, which will turn civic engagement on its head by giving citizens the power to discuss, develop and disseminate their policy ideas - and then start campaigns to realise them, together. Join us.
It is old news that anti-establishment sentiments have grown among the general public. Political dissatisfaction, apathy and lack of representation are widespread feelings that find resonance on the internet and other media. The raise of protest movements and fringe parties in the UK, the US and across Europe, are often seen as symptoms of this ‘malaise’, and young people are pinpointed as the main sufferers. Whatever one’s view over such events is, democracy, as the Economist put it, seems to have run into troubles. The political class is unable to address the structural problems that are creating such great discontent, and new models of civic engagement are badly needed. We can no longer tinker about in the margins: it’s time to be bold.
Old Democracy v New Democracy
Luckily, at the same time as showing sings of weariness, civil society is already indicating how it wants to reformulate the terms and conditions of its engagement in politics. Some have noted that the electoral democratic model we know is evolving into a system of collective problem-solving, where the separation between the political class and civil society is narrowing. Three trends seem to support this idea:
Political ideology is giving ground to issue politics - that is, public interest focused around individual causes without a coherent unifying narrative and disconnected from structured political agendas.
The internet is changing political communication: it is eroding the old monopolies of information (thus encouraging awareness and free-thinking) and giving people a permanent stage to make their voices heard (thus allowing a more fluid and dynamic association of people for political ends).
Public policy is miles away from the user-centred system we are becoming accustomed to (where we can decide what we want, change if we don’t like it, and review products and services in real time), and the resulting lack of control or influence is making old-style political participation look increasingly anachronistic. On this subject, I suggest reading Matthew Taylor’s blog posts about the policy presumption and the RSA Journal which focusses on policy and its changing role to address important societal issues.
As citizens are veering towards issue-focused and participatory engagement, appropriate tools must emerge to help them get the influence they want, on the issues they care about, through the means they choose.
I spent almost 15 years roaming between the frontline of activism, the lofty halls of government departments, and the dusty bookshelves of universities, trying to find solutions to great collective challenges. Although I wasn’t blind to the fact that elitist decision-making was driving people away from political engagement and drying up the well of social innovation, as a cogwheel in the system, this seemed a distant issue - a distraction from the real problems that only those in the know could solve. Talks about e-democracy and democracy 2.0 had always sounded exotic and terribly new age to me. But as I kept searching for alternative ways of addressing these problems, the potential of an instrument that connects, informs and gives voice to billions dawned on me. Before long, the idea of GADA was born. (If you want to know who I am and how I decided to embark on this project, you can read this blog post).
GADA is a free service that will make it easier for people to connect and use their knowledge, passion and creativity to shape the policy agenda, together. Using advanced internet technology, it will turn civic engagement on its head – from your local community to the halls of Westminster – and tackle the social, economic and environmental problems that matter to its users. GADA builds on the experience of well-established petition websites (such as Change.org and 38degrees), open-source political platforms (e.g. DemocracyOS) and tools for consensus decision-making (see Loomio), to engage with a vast audience in an interactive and transparent way. Using a method called Idea-to-Action Process (ITAP), it invites citizens to develop innovative policy proposals, brokers collaborations, builds critical mass and helps organise effective campaigns both online and offline. There is no pre-set agenda, users are in the driving seat. This, to me, is a revolution in civic engagement.
Fellows, we need help!
GADA can work, and we are determined to learn how. In October we will begin testing, and during our first year we hope to; engage with our key user group (university students); get some ideas through our ITAP method; and learn what must be improved before launching on a national scale.
In the journey we just started, we hope to be joined by other Fellows. You can help us in many ways:
Join the team: we are building a team with skills in research, political activism, PR and communication – if you have an expertise and/or interest in one of the above, please get in touch;
External support: we will hugely benefit from your advice and your networks (in government, academia, the media, political parties and NGOs) – whether you help us as a one-off thing or to take on a formal advisory role;
Fundraising: Despite great support from the RSA's Catalyst programme we still need additional funds to test the service and scale it up – so if you can help us raise them you would make a massive contribution.
GADA fits squarely within the RSA’s work on Public Services and Communities and the RSA is giving us great support through their Catalyst Programme which supports people to test new ideas and projects. I’m going to talk about GADA at the next RSA London Engage event on Monday 7 September in the RSA’s iconic Great Room. I’d welcome the chance to hear your thoughts, accept your support and answer any questions. Tickets are available via the event page.
As Professor McGinnis stated “the dynamic of modern technology could as easily lead to a nightfall of civilization as to the dawn of a far better world”. For us, a better world is one where public policy is shaped by the collective creativity, knowledge and energy of people. We are working to build it and we will not stop until we do.
Dr Mattia Fosci