#ukvotecamp: an update

attendees at the first ukvotecamp meetup

My last post, on the idea for an unconference aimed at increasing voter turnout, generated a lot of attention and conversation. It feels like there’s a groundswell of interest in, and concern about the impact of low voter turnout.

Around 15 people turned up to our first brainstorming/planning session (picture above); a mixture of digital democracy old hands and new faces. I was particularly pleased to see there were some actual young people joining the conversation (although it later turned out they were there by mistake, having turned up for MySociety’s regular hack night).

The conversation covered a lot of ground. Everyone felt low youth turnout was problematic, but had widely varying opinions on what the reasons for this were, and what can be done about them.

One theme was a belief that one’s vote isn’t worth all that much. This is of course true, but as this clever app from the most recent parliament hack shows, collectively the votes of all the young people who don’t normally turn out could return a very different House of Commons. So there is a job to be done to convince the non-voting public of their collective theoretical power.

This is tempered by the voting system that we have – a vote in a swing seat is worth more than one in a marginal. But short of a revolution, to change the system you need first to engage with it, and that means voting – and then doing more than voting, but campaigning and helping to shape the policy agenda.

And that brings me neatly on to the next theme – that civic engagement is about more than turning up once every five years. The focus on elections alone is part of the problem, so efforts at voter engagement need to be sustainable, and aim to keep people informed and engaged about the ways they can participate in-between general elections.

The young people who attended talked about how they and their peers weren’t registered to vote – some because they weren’t sure how, and others because they believed registering would make them liable for council tax. With the introduction of individual voter registration from June this year, this could become even more confusing, so there’s work to be done to let people know why and how they should register. Because if you’re not registered, you can’t take part at all – it’s like a civic bouncer telling you “if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in”.

And there’s simply a lack of excitement. Voting isn’t sexy, and nor are most of the candidates on offer. Unlike the older generation, none of us have lived through a time when democracy was ever under threat, and perhaps we take it for granted. So we need to find ways to make democracy interesting again.

That, however, is a big ask. There’s a lot more we need to understand about what would make participation more appealing.

I’ve since spoken with a handful of organisations about how we can take this work forward, and we’re busy putting together a plan for first a research phase (exploring the reasons why engagement is low) and a means of getting people together to identify and develop some solutions.

The next step is to take this idea to a bigger group of people. James, Alex and I will be holding a session at UKGovCamp this Saturday, 24 25 January where we’ll aim to make this a more solid plan. Come along, join the debate via Twitter or the live blogs, or leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Can we fix democracy? #ukvotecamp

Following the latest in a series of policy announcements which favour the old (who vote) over the young (who don’t), this morning I wondered: what we can do to engage non-voters? If the people who don’t currently vote turned out, how different would our policy choices be?

It’s clear many of us care about democracy and the need for mass participation, yet too many of us feel it’s just not delivering in its current form. Too many of us think it’s not worth us taking part, or aren’t sure what we can do to engage people with politics. So I asked:

The reaction on Twitter was overwhelmingly positive. It’s always best to strike while the iron’s hot, so I briefly caught up with James Cattell and Alex Blandford after work, and together we came up with a vague plan for UK Vote Camp – an initiative aimed at increasing participation in the 2015 General Election.

The idea, in a nutshell: We believe that by bringing policymakers, geeks and citizens together, we can better understand why democratic participation is low, and find ways we can use technology, online engagement and other strategies to engage people with the democratic process.

We’re proposing a series of unconference-type sessions in the year leading up to the 2015 general election, with the end goal of increasing turnout amongst those groups who generally don’t normally come out and vote.

So how do we do that?

I don’t know. That’s kind of the point. I care so much about voting that I honestly skipped down to the polling station to vote for the first time in the European Elections 1999. Yeah, really. But I’ll concede I’m atypical, and I can totally understand the reasons why someone might not turn out. Some of them are structural; in a constituency based system someone might legitimately feel their vote doesn’t count. Short of reforming the voting system, there not much I can do about that. But there are plenty of people who simply feel the current system could somehow be better. Plenty of people who feel that if they had something to vote for, or better understood why their vote mattered, then maybe they would. That, I think, we can do something about.

Can we help people understand the power of their own vote? Can we improve democracy? I reckon we can.

polling station sign

So let’s talk

First, we need to understand what it is that makes people think it’s not worth turning out. Some issues are to do with our voting system. Others are to do with improving understanding of what we vote for, when  and why. Data could help; insight into voter turnout could help people see the potential impact that those who previously didn’t vote could potentially have. Voter engagement matters, too. There’s plenty we can learn from successful peer engagement campaigns like Obama’s.

I’m proposing we kick off with a day to discuss why participation is low, and what we can do about it.

Then let’s make some stuff

Once we know why people don’t vote, let’s use our collective talents to try and bridge some of those gaps so voting becomes a more worthwhile proposition for more people. Not with a lets-bring-the-tech-we-already-built-to-show-it-off hack day, but by defining some requirements and working together to make one or more things – apps, sites, engagement programmes, whatever – that help people to understand why voting matters.

Once we’ve made stuff, let’s iterate it. Let’s use what we know, and what we hear from others, to make democracy better, meeting every few months to improve what we’ve done. We have over a year until the general election – that’s enough time to make a real difference.

No, I don’t think it’s the answer to all the reasons why voter turnout is low, but we have to start somewhere. And if that somewhere is bringing together clever people who give a shit to come up with some decent ideas that we can iterate from, then imho that’s an excellent place to start.

Interested? Good. Come to the MySociety open hack this Wednesday, 8 January, at MOZldn at 5.30pm and let’s talk ideas. If you can’t come then, give me a shout – you can find me all over the internets.

Photo credit: secretlondon123