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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

What do voters know anyway?

Joe Mitchell asks how effectively our democratic process supports citizens to make informed electoral choices, arguing that much more needs to be done

On the day after the EU referendum, the most-Googled question in the UK — perhaps the best approximation of real-time data on the UK’s concerns and questions — was ‘what is the EU?’ At the snap election, the top election-related queries were questions such as ‘what is a general election?’, ‘who should I vote for’, ‘who are my local candidates’, ‘what constituency am I in’, ‘how do I vote’, ‘when do I vote’ and ‘where do I vote’.

This did not come as a surprise to the group of volunteers and the small team at Democracy Club. We’ve been trying to fill gaps in information about the democratic process since 2010. And we know how basic those questions are. There is an urgent need to improve the public understanding of our democracy and political processes.

Some of these questions are not easy to answer, thanks to the way our democratic infrastructure is set-up, and because, until Democracy Club came along, there was a complete absence of open, accurate and comprehensive democracy data. This time, for the snap general election, we crowdsourced and opened data on candidates and worked with hundreds of local authorities to open polling location data to provide datasets that anyone could use to answer the ‘who’ and ‘where’ question. The data was used by the Guardian, Trinity Mirror Group, the Electoral Commission and hundreds of councils and campaign organisations — all of whom used the data to reach voters where they were. We served at least 2 million lookups from the data we were able to track.

We also ran our own websites — Where Do I Vote? and Who Can I Vote For? — on which users were invited to leave feedback. This feedback consistently grounds us in the actual needs of the voter. The main themes from the feedback include confusion over why there were or were not certain parties standing in a voter’s constituency, disappointment or even anger that the candidates had provided no contact details or any online information, and confusion over how the House of Commons was formed.

Such feedback from voters throughout the election period suggests that the UK has much more to do to educate its citizens. We suspect that much of the political class and media, including the BBC, continues to overestimate the public’s comprehension of the system. This matters, because an ill-informed electorate is more likely to lose trust in the system and to take bad decisions.

Investment in civic education can be seen as a necessary insurance policy against future anti-democratic movements or even democratic collapse into autocracy or tyranny. Its for these reasons that Germany has its Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (BpB), or Federal Agency for Civic Education, with 200 staff and bureaus across the country. It helps citizens understand political processes, provides election information and provides guides to policy and topical issues in a non-partisan way. It also fights extremism by educating at-risk individuals and communities through combating myths and rumours and by encouraging engagement in the proper political processes.

What would a UK version of the BpB look like? It would need to be flexible enough to deal with the changing methods by which people are educated or access information in this century. Its finance and governance would need to be separate from government. It would need to be impeccably transparent. A university model might provide the correct approach: something like a national endowment for democracy that funds one or more organisations to ensure the provision of data, tools and services to support civic participation and engagement — for the next hundred years and beyond.

This is only a sketch of an approach that requires greater definition. We can begin by seeking to better understand the current level of UK civic education; to review existing education and information efforts made by organisations like the BBC (whose first public purpose used to be to ‘sustain citizenship’); and to run early alpha projects to test what works. Democracy Club might be a useful vehicle for these first steps, so if you’d like to learn more about our general election work and what we plan to do next, please join us on 6 July for our annual report launch party.

Joe Mitchell is a Director at Democracy Club, a community interest company bringing the UK's democratic process into the 21st century. He tweets @j0e_m.