Today marks 100 days since I took over as director of Involve.

Over that time we’ve been hard at work to develop a new strategy for the organisation that both responds to the current context – turning the tide back in favour of an open, participatory and deliberative democracy – and builds towards a long-term transformation of our political system.

Below we set-out the highlights of Involve’s new five year strategy. We are keen to hear what you think of it, so let us know in the comments below.

Building a democracy that works for everyone: Involve’s Strategy for 2017 – 2022

Image Credit: Edward Andersson

01. Who we are

Involve works to make politics, government and society more open, participatory and deliberative.  We want to build a democracy that works for everyone – that gives people real power to effect change in their lives, communities and beyond, and helps solve 21st-century challenges.  

Involve was founded in 2003 to “create a new focus for thinking and action on the links between new forms of public participation and existing democratic institutions”.  Since then, we have had significant successes, including:

  • Building world-renowned expertise, skills and resources on public participation, open governance and democratic reform;
  • Developing innovative mechanisms for involving people in decision making, including on youth mental health, health service provision, and science innovation;
  • Leading the UK Open Government Network to secure important reforms on government and corporate transparency and accountability;
  • Helping build global norms and standards of openness and participation, including with the OECD, Open Government Partnership and international civil society.

Despite these successes, however, the general state of participation and democracy in the UK has not improved, and in many crucial respects looks to be in decline.  Over the past three months, Involve has embarked on a fundamental rethink of our strategy and approach to creating change, focused on how we can have systemic impact. 

Here we summarise the key points of our new five year strategy. Over the coming months we will publish the supporting material that sits behind it. This will not be a static strategy, but will be iterated over time. Specifically, we will continually challenge and develop our analysis and assumptions, and make adaptations to our approach as we go. We are keen to test what follows, and welcome feedback on it.

02. Why now

Democracy in the UK and globally is in a state of turmoil.  Involve has long argued that a democracy based on a much greater degree of openness, participation and deliberation is needed to respond to the complex challenges and trade-offs we collectively face.  Our political system has not kept pace with rapid changes in society, the economy, technology and the environment, and has left us unequipped to build a more equal and just society.

In 2016 we saw some of the most direct and obvious consequences of a democratic system that does not live up to the demands of the 21st century.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that large swathes of the population – “Remainers” and “Brexiteers” alike – do not believe the system works for them.

Against some measures, the EU referendum can be considered a great democratic moment – with the largest number of UK voters in over two decades choosing to exercise their democratic will on an issue of national importance. While that must not be forgotten, it is also critical not to ignore the obvious failings of our political system before, during and after the EU Referendum.

The lead up to and aftermath of the referendum vote revealed a broken politics and society – marked by uncivil debate; scare tactics; misused “facts”; ad hominem attacks; broken political promises; voters cast as stupid, incapable and irresponsible; judges branded as “enemies of the people”; rejections of the result; attempts to silence opponents; trolling; hate crime; and a return to behind-closed-doors decision making.

Immediately following the EU Referendum, Involve began to pilot new approaches to addressing the disillusionment, polarisation and disconnection that afflicts our democracy.  We established a network of community facilitators to develop a collective response to the aftermath of the referendum, and supported elected representatives to develop open and inclusive discussions on Brexit.  We are not alone – many initiatives are emerging around the country in response to the fractures in our politics and society, but they seem too isolated to have impact at a systemic level.

We believe that the current context demands the re-envisioning of democracy and the building of a broad movement to transform our political system.

03. What we want

Involve’s vision is of…

A democracy that works for everyone

“A democracy…”

We believe our political system is lacking three essential qualities of democracy:

  • Openness – The public should be able to understand, influence and hold decisions-makers to account for the actions and inactions of their governments;
  • Participation – People should have the freedom, support and opportunity to shape their communities and influence the decisions that affect their lives;
  • Deliberation – A key role of democracy is exchanging and acknowledging different perspectives, understanding conflict and finding common ground, and building a shared vision for society.

“…that works…”

We believe that these qualities are necessary for democracy to be able to solve 21st century challenges, including extreme inequality, the impacts of globalisation, climate change, rapid technological development and the pressures of an aging society.

“…for everyone”

We believe that openness, participation and deliberation are also crucial to achieving political justice – a more equal distribution of political power in society – and in turn economic and social justice.

04. How we’re going to achieve it

Involve’s new approach to change is based on a detailed assessment of what needs to happen to achieve our vision, and a careful examination of where we think Involve can have most impact.  Specifically, our theory of change is rooted in the understanding that achieving our vision requires a change of mindset and culture across our political institutions and society.

Involve’s mission is therefore to:

Make openness, participation and deliberation accepted core values of democracy, and recognised as essential to solving 21st century challenges

Over the next five years we plan to focus our efforts around three key roles:

1. Agenda-setting

We will respond to the current political context and set-out a vision for an open, participatory and deliberative democracy, and how to get there.

  • Vision – We will build a vision for what a “democracy that works for everyone” would look like in practice and how it will solve 21st century challenges.
  • Policy – We will identify appropriate policy asks for decision makers, including small goals on a pathway to greater change and systemic transformations.
  • Innovation – We will identify the innovations in practice most likely to effect and spread change, providing new ideas for other advocates and practitioners.

2. Coalition-building

We will build, support and coordinate broad, unexpected and powerful coalitions of allies.  These coalitions will play a vital role in shaping and advocating for the new vision for democracy.

  • Advocacy – We will build a broad coalition of advocates from civil society, political institutions, the media, and beyond to apply pressure for change.
  • Expert – We will build our links with academics to share our skills and learning, and ensure our advocacy and practice is always rooted in the latest evidence.
  • Practice – We will network and support practitioners of participation, facilitating collective action and joining up initiatives, resources and expertise.

3. Participation practice

We will continue to support world-class public participation practice and research, particularly where it can be used to build the case and pressure for wider change.

  • Demonstrating efficacy – We will use demonstration projects to show the efficacy of public participation, particularly on the key challenges facing society.
  • Sharing expertise – We will expand and make accessible our library of resources to build widespread understanding of good participatory practice.
  • Supporting change – We will support the planning, design, delivery and evaluation of effective participatory processes, mechanisms and strategies.

Our values

Involve’s work will be underpinned by strong values of:

  • Collaboration – We recognise that change comes from broad coalitions working towards a common vision.
  • Equality – We believe that everyone in society has an equal right to be listened to and participate in decisions that affect their lives, and that no one should be held back by societal divisions or prejudice.
  • Purpose – We advocate for participation that makes a difference – which connects people with power and solves 21st century challenges – and reject tokenistic or ineffectual engagement.

05. How you can help

If you support our vision, here are three ways you can help:

1. Tell us what you think

Like or dislike our strategy – we want to hear what you think.  Add a comment below or email us your thoughts.

And get in touch if you are interested in working with us.

2. Join our networks

Involve has a variety of networks through which we share our work and organise activities. Sign up to one or more of them to keep up with our work and get involved:

3. Support us

We’re looking for new sources of funding to support our new strategy – particularly to strengthen our agenda-setting and coalition-building roles.

If you support our vision – of a democracy that works for everyone, with greater openness, participation and deliberation at its heart – please consider supporting us!