What role do charities have in the process of democracy?
13 December 2019
There are reasons to worry about our democracy. We’ve been hearing about fake news, foreign interference, dark ads on Facebook, and political parties breaking electoral law. In the run up to the general election, headlines have been flooded with tactical voting, youth disengagement and millions of people missing from the electoral register. People feel they have no influence over national decision-making. They don’t vote because they don’t believe it will change anything. More and more people say they are not interested in politics or government.
But democracy matters to everyone. Democracy enables people to have their voice heard. It should ensure that decision-making takes into account all evidence and perspectives. It should ensure that power in our society is distributed more fairly.
All social purpose organisations have a vested interest in protecting and promoting democracy. And there is plenty of great work being done across the sector—organisations like Involve, Electoral Reform Society, Voting Counts, Unlock Democracy, mySociety and Shout Out UK, to name just a few, are dedicated to democratic reform, improving education and awareness, increasing engagement, and strengthening accountability.
Yet there is also much more that the sector could do. Yes, there are valid concerns about the Lobbying Act—charities recently called for an end to the ‘gagging law’ and greater freedom to speak out and campaign for positive change. But democracy is about more than campaigning. It is about understanding and representing the views of people, providing better evidence for improved decision-making, ensuring everyone can participate in democratic processes, and ensuring that those processes serve us effectively.
Here are a few things many charities could do to make democracy work for everyone:
Understand and represent the views of people
50% of people say that political parties and politicians don’t care about people like them. Social sector organisations have an opportunity to understand what’s really going on by talking to people and listening to their views—Groundswell is a great example of how organisations can conduct peer research. Karin Woodley of Cambridge House has outlined useful thoughts on ‘radical listening’. It might be about convening people and facilitating discussions to make sure issues are fully explored. Many organisations find it beneficial to co-design their services with the people they support. Or it may be useful to consider direct, single-issue campaign tools such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees to enable people to express their views. The sector has a crucial role to play in ensuring people’s voices are heard and their priorities are represented accurately.
Share information about issues relating to your cause
Non-profits play a key role in providing information to people in ways that are accessible to them, so they are better informed, better able to make decisions, and more motivated to act. Democracy Club crowdsources information from volunteers and creates nationwide datasets of elections, candidates, polling stations and election results. They develop websites and Apps like WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk and WhereDoIVote.co.uk to make the information accessible to voters. This model could be applied to other issues and sectors.
Share information about democratic processes
Without making assessments on political parties, organisations can support people to engage with democratic processes and explain why it is in their interests. Alzheimer’s Society posted a blog outlining the right to vote for people with dementia. They outlined some of the barriers voters may experience and offered guidance on how to navigate registration and voting processes. In response to low levels of voter registration among Muslim communities, the Muslim Council of Britain collaborated with Migrants Organise to run a day of activities aimed at promoting voter registration. Renters Vote, a campaign run by ACORN, aims to mobilise those who are often excluded by running voter registration drives, developing a renter manifesto, and highlighting where parties stand on big issues affecting renters.
Hold others to account
The charity sector plays a vital role in holding the public and private sectors to account. Full Fact seeks to half the spread of misinformation and disinformation. They check facts and provide educational tools to help ensure that people have reliable information, encourage participants in the public debate provide full and accurate information, and increase awareness of how unsubstantiated claims arise and are spread. But you don’t have to be a dedicated fact-checking organisation to contribute. Organisations can identify where statements about their work and cause are false or misleading. Those that work with the media may be able to help build the capacity of their partners to find and share accurate information.
Charities in the UK are, by definition, not political. It’s the foundation of the trust the public have in them and it’s a fact that gives them the power and perspective to fairly represent people and causes that are often overlooked. But while they are not political, they are civic institutions, just as much a part-of and involved-in our democracy as any other. Some might find it a difficult line to walk, but charities mustn’t shy away from their role in the democratic process. We’ve had an election but big questions about our democracy remain and charities must be more involved.
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