Never try to find a picture about strategy, they’re all awful. Here’s a picture of Zita in Yorkshire
Democracy Club has grown enormously in both members and scope since 2015. Having just come through a period of extraordinary electoral instability and uncertainty, we’ve not had much time to look above the parapet and think about our organisational strategy and long-term goals.
For this, our first blog of 2022, we take stock of where we are and where we want to be in a few years’ time. Next week we’ll discuss the practical challenges we face as an organisation, both immediate and long-term.
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” isn’t an easy question to answer. The last time we tried to make a five year plan, events (dear boy) got in the way.
What we managed, however, was to realise the ambitions we started with in early 2014: we cover every election in the UK, have a really solid well used polling station finder, and have a profile for every candidate that stands. We have partnerships that have led to over 200 million election notifications being sent. We’ve proven the need for our data and services, many times over. See our impact page for more detail on this.
We’re not “done” but we’ve come far enough that we thought it was time for a review.
To recap, Our vision is of a country with digital foundations to support everyone’s participation in democratic life.
Our mission is to create those foundations by: Identifying areas for improvement in democratic engagement; Ensuring everyone has access to quality information on democratic processes, particularly on elections; Mobilising a non-partisan movement of volunteers for democracy.
These statements are still true, but we wanted to get into some more detail about how to go about doing these things. Here’s the plan to help us achieve our vision and mission in the medium term:
Focus on local government
We want to remove barriers to interacting with local government.
Out of all the areas of UK democracy we could focus on, local government is the place we can contribute to best. Any project aiming for comprehensive coverage of UK local government is much harder than national parliaments. You can’t plonk a reporter on Cromwell Green in order to report on local government, you have to work with almost 400 different organisations (or 10,000 if you want to look at parish councils too!).
We think fragmentation results in a local government that is much harder to understand, scrutinize or engage with.
The irony of this is that local government might be the best layer of government for most people to work with: it holds lots of power, councillors are accessible and fairly small campaigns can make a huge local difference.
Because of this, we will focus our efforts on the activity of local government. The aim is to make local government easier to work with, and in turn improve interactions with and trust in local democracy.
Through our election work we’ve already proven that we have the understanding and capability to solve the problem of fragmentation. The practical next steps are for us to create a database of all elected representatives in the UK. This dovetails nicely with our existing candidates and results work, and will provide a strong foundation for future work on local politics, issues, decisions, and other activity of local government.
Work on the “information layer”
We are an information services organisation.
There are many ways to deliver our vision. We could write educational packs for schools, or build reporting and auditing tools like mySociety’s excellent FixMyStreet. However most projects need a foundation; a data and information layer that underpins everything.
Our core skills are in collecting, cleaning, aggregating and distributing high quality information via data, APIs and our own websites. An example of this is our polling station finder data, which we collect and publish to a high level of comprehensiveness and accuracy.
This information can be used by others to build an ecosystem of tools, services and reports. Without us, these things would be harder to build.
So we will make it our job to make sure that these foundations exist, and let others build on them, rather than trying to build everything ourselves.
The practical next steps are for us to improve access to our data, especially on past elections. This looks like researching the needs of our API users more. We also have a growing archive of data that we can open up to researchers and others interested in studying elections over the last few years.
Help others work better
We make our impact by enabling others to work better.
Information on its own is useful as a foundation. However, in order to make it effective, we either need to be excellent at publishing and contextualising it for different audiences ourselves, or find others that are able to do so. Waiting around for the data to be used by third parties without any input ourselves (“if you build it, they will come”) isn’t an option.
Consequently, although we will continue to maintain some public-facing services, our main focus will shift further towards proactively seeking out and working with third parties who can provide a narrative context, audience, or some other need for the information we provide. For examples, see the work we’ve done with The Fawcett Society on gender. We have the data, but they have the platform to talk about gender issues. Together we produced better work than either of us could have done alone.
More broadly, this also looks like us focusing on being good at what we know (elections, data, local government), and working with others when they need our expertise. We know that newspapers don’t have a team working on local elections, for example, so they can benefit from our accessible APIs without having to think hard about all the edge cases.
This also means that public facing services are not our main aim. We will continue to build and maintain our voting information websites, mainly because we know there is demand for them. However, if we can distribute our information better by working with a third party, we will do that.
The practical next steps are for us to work harder in finding long term partners and to understand their needs. If you’re reading this and are thinking that you might want to chat with us about this, do get in touch.
Maintain and sustain
Last but not least, we need to recognise the existing work we do, and ensure it can continue.
In the short term this looks like us maintaining our work on the elections, polling stations and candidates services. That’s no small effort, and needs a highly skilled team in place who can focus on, Red Queen-like, running to stay still.
In the longer term we hope to find other partners to help support this maintenance work, in some form or another. We’re not precious about who runs the services, as long as they don’t go away. As part of this, we hope to extend our partnership with The Electoral Commission.
We’ll also be constantly checking for opportunities to expand this work and integrate it with our new projects.
In short, over the next few years we will focus on providing information about local government and elections to partners. This will enable them and the public to understand local government better, and help us achieve our vision.
Democracy Club exists to provide reliable and essential information about UK local government, published in an accessible format for others to use.
We will be making more detailed plans using this strategy as a guide, but in the even shorter term, we have a set of elections this May to work on. More about our plans for them in the weeks to come. Can we meet our goal of 100% coverage for our polling station finder?
As ever, feedback on this strategy and all our work is very welcome.