How to re-energise democracy

As we approach the general election, how can we make democracy real and vivid to citizens who do not feel part of the political process?

Temi Ogunye
20 March 2015

We’re drawing ever nearer to what is likely to be one of the most closely fought and unpredictable general elections in some time. A key issue for Citizens Advice is ensuring that as many of our clients as possible are registered to vote and turn out on 7 May. This is one of the reasons why I have spent some time making various democracy-related visits in south London. In its own way, each visit taught or reminded me of an important lesson in how to make democracy real and vivid for citizens.

Tailor your message to your audience

My first visit was to Streatham Citizens Advice Bureau, where I met dedicated staff and volunteers and explained to them some of the work we will be doing on voter registration and democratic engagement in the run-up to the election. I was there as they opened up the bureau to the many people waiting in the rain for help solving their problems. As they poured into the waiting area I thought that this captive audience of citizens, many of whom belong to the groups who are most unlikely to be registered, provided the perfect opportunity to extol the virtues of voter registration and democratic engagement. How wrong I was.

When I introduced myself and said I was from Citizens Advice, clients thought I might have something useful and important to say. But as soon as I started speaking about the importance of voting, most of them switched off. This is only partly due to a lack of rhetorical flair on my part. It is also because these people had come to the bureau to get their problems solved and they couldn’t see how my contribution was helping in that regard. It may also be that many of those people in the waiting room lacked the psychological bandwidth to focus on many things other than their problems, let alone something as distant and abstract as ‘the importance of voting’.

The lesson here is that if we want people to recognise the importance of voting, we have to make it less distant and abstract and more directly relevant to their lives. We have to show how voting can allow people to have an impact on things that they care about. Part of this is about campaigning to ensure that those we vote for act on the important issues that matter to our clients. But it is also about tailoring the message to our audience. This requires data on the profile of and issues faced by our clients locally. One of the most powerful things about Citizens Advice is that we have this real-time data at our fingertips.

Reset the default

My second visit was to the Citizens Advice Customer Centre situated in a Lambeth Council building called Olive Morris House. I spoke to the Citizens Advice volunteers there who explained to me how they helped to answer questions and provide information to citizens in a way that the council staff were simply too busy to. They were effectively humanising what was otherwise be a cold and transactional environment.

I noticed that there were public computers in the building and it occurred to me that these offered the perfect opportunity for citizens to register to vote. Again, may of the people waiting to be seen were members of groups most likely to be missing from the register, but there was no prompt inviting them to register on the available computers. This seemed like an absolute no-brainer, though after a Twitter conversation with Lambeth Council I now understand that posters and other voter registration literature is on its way.

Another easy win here would be to reset the default home page for all public council computers to This would mean that every member of the public who used a council building would immediately be reminded to register. Given that their very presence in the building presumes an interaction with the state this, again, seems like a no-brainer.

Take democracy to the people

My final visit was to the launch of the Operation Black Vote voter registration campaign in Brixton. The campaign will involve a bright orange bus – called the OBV eXpress – kitted out with computers touring the country to visit areas with a high black and ethnic minority population to persuade and enable the people there to register to vote. This is a fantastic idea and we hope that those bureaux in the areas the bus it visiting will be able to direct clients to the bus to register.

It is commonly said that people are losing faith in politics and democracy. It is not obvious to me that this is the case. It might simply be that people are losing faith with the way that formal politics and democracy is done at the moment, because it hasn’t kept pace with the modern world and fails to reflect real people’s lives. The reason that the OBV eXpress is so striking is that it doesn’t ask what the people should be doing to reconnect with politics, but asks what politics can do to reconnect with the people. Their answer happens to be to ‘drive a bright orange bus to where the people live’, but other answers are possible. The real point is that more people involved in politics and democracy need to start by asking the right questions.

This article was first published at Citizens' Advice's blog.

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