Putting Innovation in Local Democracy

Jonathan Bradley wraps up the recent Innovating Local Democracy conference held in Manchester, UK.

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a two-day conference on innovations in local democracy, held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and Luminate.

During the event in Manchester, on 27-28th January, the lessons from Public Square and the Innovation in Democracy Programme were shared with participants and we had a jolly good time talking about how local councils are using participatory and deliberative democracy, including citizens’ assemblies, to involve residents in decisions that affect their lives.

group with speaker at conference Keynote Speaker Ruth Ibegbuna

I made some notes and had a few light bulb moments which I’d like to share with you and hopefully get more people involved in changing the way we do democracy. Not surprisingly my focus was on the role online participation should play in innovating local democracy. 

Citizens’ Assemblies Need to be More Innovative

During the conference, we heard a lot about the great work going on across the UK getting people involved in Citizens’ Assemblies. This is all wonderful stuff and it’s really exciting to see these deliberative methods gaining traction in the UK. But Citizens’ Assemblies have been around for a long time and asking people to get together to talk turkey without integrating digital engagement is surely a missed opportunity? We’ve written about this before but put briefly benefits include:

  • creating online learning spaces where participants can access information in varied formats
  • enabling people to carry on the conversation between face-to-face meetings,
  • allowing people who can’t/or don’t want to meet up to be involved
  • reaching out to a more representative group of participants
  • engaging citizens in the assembly even if they are not participants

You can read more here, 9 Reasons EngagementHQ is Perfect for Citizens’ Assemblies 

So my thoughts from the conference on this matter are that when we are talking about innovating local democracy, we should always be considering how to incorporate online participation into deliberative methods like citizens’ assemblies.

Surfing the #DeliberativeWave

You may or may not know it but there’s a deliberative wave going on out there. During the conference, we heard that across the world governments in all shapes and sizes are worried that traditional representative democracy is a tad broken. So, they are turning to deliberative democracy as a way to address this and bring more citizens into meaningful decision making.  Again, my thoughts are that there is an important role for digital engagement to play in the deliberative wave, especially by creating safe places for online participation, where people can:

  • Have access to learning widgets (like video, infographic, document and podcast libraries)
  • Ask questions via a Q&A tool
  • Take part in informed discussions on moderated discussion forums
  • Deliberate other people’s ideas (on ideas boards) and share stories

You can explore this issue more in our submission to the Parliament Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies (pssst make a coffee it’s a long read). And I’m hoping that all those people involved in the conference and others participating, around the world, in the deliberative wave can learn from our arguments and those submitted by other people and organisations to this important inquiry.

People Are Really Worried About Inclusive Deliberative Democracy

post-it brainstormPeople are worried about making deliberative democracy inclusive and this was the focus of one of the breakout sessions. The topic we were asked to discuss was, How Do We Make Deliberative Democracy Truly Inclusive? You can see from the picture below this was a well-debated issue and many topics were covered.

What stood out for me is that a lot of people focus on digital exclusion, whereas when you look at many of the problems we talked about they can be addressed by better digital engagement, aka digital inclusion. For example, we can provide information to people in multiple formats and not rely on the written word; shy or vulnerable people can participate more freely in online discussions; moderated platforms mean that people feel they can express their views without fear of harassment or trolling; people can dip in and out of conversations without having to take time off work or miss an important meeting; and it goes on. Plus, whether you like it or not, let’s face it, people are killing time scrolling and staring at their smartphone for hours a day. We may as well give them a place to deliberate whilst they are at it and thereby make deliberation more inclusive. 

So, my thoughts are that for all of us who care about innovating local democracy we need to start being more mindful about how a digital-first approach can promote inclusivity and encourage more representative participation. Otherwise, the deliberative wave may break prematurely and come crashing down because ordinary people decide it is a hoity-toity exercise and not for the hoi polloi, the likes of them.

Online Deliberative Democracy Needs to Get Thicker

I noticed from the conference discussions that people tend to think that online participation is superficial that it lacks the depth of face to face dialogue. In Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement, and the Future of Politics, Matt Leighninger and Quixada Moore-Vissing talk about three types of engagement, conventional, thick and thin (see diagram below).

types of engagement Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement, and the Future of Politics – Created by Matt Leighninger and Quixada Moore-Vissing

The authors argue that: 

Thick participation opportunities are more likely to be face-to-face, and thin ones are more likely to happen online. However, many thick processes include both online and face-to-face elements, and some examples of thin participation (signing a petition, for example) certainly existed long before the Internet. 

I think our challenge, as people who care about innovating local democracy, is to demonstrate how online participation can be thick (not just thin) as well as involving conventional engagement. This is something we are already doing at Bang the Table through our resources, including  frequent blogs, vlogs, podcasts, case studies, webinars, guides, academic research, expert commentary, and practice strategy  

My invitation to people, some who may be skeptics, is to open their mind to the possibility of thick online participation and the benefits online deliberation can bring to democracy, especially in the face of more destructive technologies like Facebook and Twitter who are accused of undermining the public sphere and manipulating the public discourse. It is, after all, our job, as one delegate put it, to create the democratic systems for the people to “turn up and play their part.”


There’s A Hunger for #NotAnotherSurvey

Another thing I noticed from talking to people is that there is a real hunger for alternatives to online surveys. Now, this isn’t to say that surveys don’t have their place in public discourse, of course, they do. Rather, that in 2020 with all this tech at our fingertips, if your local council invites you to take part, to get involved, to have your say, to influence decisions they must offer you more than just another survey. As more and more public participation moves online we have to recreate (as best we can)  the sense of involvement that people get from face-to-face engagement online. And we can do this already by hosting online forums, ideation sessions, mapping exercises, Q&As, storytelling groups and so on, all in a safe moderated environment.  But a survey on its own just leaves everyone disappointed. So join me and others involved in the deliberative wave by shouting out #NotAnotherSurvey whenever you see your council or national government falling short of providing alternative means of online participation.   



At Bang the Table our mission is to promote well-functioning democracies. Robust democracy requires real public participation. Our mission is to enable this participation as a fundamental pillar of well-functioning 21st century democracies by forging constructive relationships between communities and the institutions of government.

Learn more about how we support innovating local democracy.

More Content You Might Like