Is the Freedom of Information Act ‘working effectively’?

Wall with the words 'Freedom Street'

Image by Kevan via Creative Commons

 

By Steven McGinty

In July, Parliamentary Secretary for the Cabinet Office, Lord Bridges, announced that there would be an independent cross-party review on Freedom of Information (FOI).

The UK’s FOI Act was introduced in 2000 (in Scotland, FOI legislation came into force in 2005). The Act requires public bodies to publish certain information about their activities and to respond to requests for information from the public.

Since its introduction, the FOI Act has facilitated the release of information from across government. The most high profile releases have involved MPs’ expenses and correspondence between British diplomats ridiculing the notion of a widespread increase in migration from Poland to the UK, once they joined the EU.

Lord Bridges explained that the review would focus on three main issues:

  • whether there is an appropriate balance between having a transparent and accountable government and the need for sensitive information to be protected;
  • whether the Act adequately recognises the need to have a ‘safe space’ for policy development and implementation;
  • whether there is an appropriate balance between the need for public access to information and the burden on public bodies of providing this.

However, is this review really necessary?

Over recent years, a number of public figures have voiced their concerns over the Act. Even the man who introduced it, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, has stated that he was a “naive foolish, irresponsible nincompoop” to introduce it. He also suggested that it undermined “sensible government”.

Similarly, the former head of the Civil Service, Lord O’Donnell has argued that the requirement to release Cabinet minutes risked preventing “real discussions” between ministers.

There has also been discontent from local government, struggling to shoulder the financial cost of the Act. For instance, Ken Thornber, leader of Hampshire County Council, stated that:

We spent £365,000 in 2010 answering freedom of information requests. What else could I do with that money? More social workers, more school inspectors, more spent on road maintenance.”

Although clearly frustrated by the Act, he doesn’t suggest withdrawing it. Instead, he proposes the idea of a £25 charge. His hope is that this would deter individuals from making ‘frivolous requests’.

In the 2010, University College London’s (UCL) Constitution Unit estimated that the cost of FOI requests for local government was £31.6 million. It also highlighted that civil servants spent 1.2m hours responding to nearly 200,000 requests.

Safeguards already exist

However, the review also has its opponents. For example, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, has attacked the government’s decision. In particular, he criticises the UK Government for using its position at the top of the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer (annual worldwide survey of open government) to justify the review.

Anne Jellema, Chief Executive of the World Wide Web Foundation, has also added her disapproval. She explains that the UK’s position at the top of the Open Data Barometer should not be an excuse to undo the progress that has been made. In addition, she claims that the government is behind European countries on other transparency and accountability issues, such as state surveillance and freedom of the press.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information has raised concerns over the review panel. It highlights that there are no panel members with a proven commitment to transparency. Currently, the five person committee consists of high profile political figures, such as former Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard and former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

The Act has been praised for holding public bodies to account. For instance, the Daily Telegraph discovered that local authorities spent £2m on hotel bills over just 3 years, including stays at the Four Seasons in New York.

There are also those who maintain that safeguards are already in place. For example, section 35 of the Act provides a qualified exemption, which limits the release of information to the public. This safeguard is explicitly aimed at protecting the policy-making process.

A key challenge for any state is to strike the appropriate balance between effective governance and public accountability. Yet, with so many differing views, universal agreement is unlikely.  Therefore, no matter the outcome of the review, it’s likely that this debate will continue.


Further reading:

Idox Elections: delivering modern democracy

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by Stacey Dingwall

It was impossible to avoid: the UK held a General Election on 7 May 2015. Voting aside, the election experience was somewhat different for myself and a team of colleagues from across the company. This time, we joined the Idox Elections team for the period leading up the election in order to help deliver the company’s Postal Vote Management System (PVMS) in local authorities across the country.

PVMS is one of the key products delivered by Idox Elections. It works by comparing voters’ original Postal Vote Application (PVA) with the Postal Vote Statement (PVS) they complete at the same time as their ballot paper. The software compares the two forms using two unique identifiers: signature and date of birth. This ensures that the postal votes that go forward to the count on polling day are authentic.

Postal voting: a brief history

Postal voting ‘on demand’ became possible for the first time at the 2000 General Election, following the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report of the Working Party on Electoral Procedures. The Working Group, chaired by then Minister of State at the Home Office George Howarth, recommended that:

  • Absent voting should be allowed on demand.
  • The application and voting procedures for absent voting should be simplified.

The first recommendation was implemented by the Representation of the People Act 2000, and the second by the Representation of the People (England & Wales) Regulations 2001. Prior to this, those wishing to vote by post were required to state a reason for applying for an absent vote, or to obtain proof of illness, for example, from a medical practitioner or employer.

The 2000 Act also made it possible for local authorities to apply for permission to trial new methods of voting for local elections, including all-postal voting. According to a review of these trials by the Local Government Association, all-postal voting was the “only new electoral arrangement to have significant potential for increasing local election turnout”.

Despite concerns over abuse of the system and fraud, the Electoral Commission maintains that there is no evidence of widespread and systematic abuse, and that it would not be ‘proportionate’ to scrap postal voting. There are many indications that postal voting has led to increased electoral turnouts, with the Post Office reporting that the number of postal votes issued increased by over 1.6 million between the General Elections in 2005 and 2010. Written evidence submitted to parliament by the Electoral Commission also highlighted that at the Police and Crime Commissioner Elections, where turnout was notoriously bad, postal votes accounted for 48.9% of the vote. During the Scottish Independence Referendum, some local authorities reported postal vote return rates of almost 90%.

Countdown to the election

For those of us new to the Elections team, work started the week beginning 27 April, almost two weeks before polling day. From the Monday, we started to arrive on-site to set up the system and meet the temporary staff employed to open and scan the PVS and ballot papers. The scale of this operation varied from one local authority to another: some of the smaller ones had 8,000 voting packs to get through before election day whereas sites like Glasgow (with an anticipated 66,000 packs) would sometimes process more than that in one day.

Polling day

On the actual day of the election, work in Glasgow began at 6pm. This was due to the fact that postal votes can legally be handed into polling stations until 10pm – we had a long night of verifying votes ahead of us. In Glasgow, we had moved from the council building to the Emirates Arena for the count, where our work continued as media outlets from across the country prepared to report the events of the night ahead.

Of course, we didn’t let the pressure get to us and the last of the postal votes were safely delivered to the council to go forward to the overall count around midnight. While the days were sometimes long, I thoroughly enjoyed my ‘sabbatical’ from the Idox Information Service team and the chance to be involved in the delivery of something as important as democracy: roll on the Scottish Parliament elections in 2016!


 

Our recent white paper ‘Democracy and voting: key organisations and individuals‘ is an overview of who is influencing thinking in elections research.

Idox Elections is one of the premier election service providers in the UK, providing outstanding expertise and knowledge across all areas of election management.

Will voter advice technology affect turnout on 7 May?

Polling_Station_2008

Image: Man_vyi via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Licence

By Alan Gillies

In the run up to the last General Election in 2010, there was talk of declining turnouts in elections, disillusionment with politicians and fears that the 2010 turnout could be the lowest ever. But in the end the 2010 turnout (65.1%) was up slightly on both 2005 and the all-time low of 2001 (59.4%).

It will be interesting this year to see whether turnout continues to recover, perhaps to over 70% as suggested by some, or resumes a downward trend since 1950.

Turnout

The Scottish Independence referendum, which had a turnout of 84.5%, perhaps gives hope that people can still be engaged in politics, when they feel that issues are important to them and affect their lives. The referendum also highlighted the role of social networks, social media and technology in political engagement, particularly for young people.

In November 2014, our blog by James Carson looked at the rise of voter advice applications (VAAs), which pose a series of questions about election issues and uses the results to advise the user on which party is most closely aligned to their views. Since then these applications have proliferated in the UK, as shown by a list on the mySociety blog, which initially (20 March) identified six such apps, and to-date added a further thirteen!

There are concerns about potential negative aspects of such sites, for example that the ‘advice’ generated is dependent on a series of methodological choices made by the creators. But they do seem to engage and encourage people to vote. A study in the Netherlands estimated that that VAA usage accounted for about four per cent of the reported turnout in the election, and that it particularly affected groups typically less likely to vote, such as young voters and those less knowledgeable about politics.

A study of the impact of VAAs on actual voting behaviour indicated that “the patterns of usage and impact appear to cancel each other out, in that those who most frequently use VAAs are least likely to be affected by their vote advice”. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing? Users become engaged in the issues involved, but still make up their own mind.

And engagement in the political process is not just a ‘good thing’ for democracy. For those more interested in the ‘bottom line’, and what politician isn’t in this time of austerity, recent research has suggested that, at the local level at least increased public participation in the process of public decision making increased tax revenues.

Of course many issues affect turnout levels and VAAs can only play a small role. ‘The weather!’ it is often said, is the deciding factor – if it rains turnout will be low, sunshine and it will be high. The current long range forecast for 7 May is fine and 17C in the south of England, heavy showers and 13C in Scotland. But be wary of reading too much into that – evidence suggests that in the UK at least the link between weather and electoral turnout is an urban myth!


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on democracy and voting, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Our recent white paper ‘Democracy and voting: key organisations and individuals‘ is an overview of who is influencing thinking in elections research.

Who’s influencing thinking on democracy and voting in the UK?

ballot box

Ahead of next week’s general election, the Knowledge Exchange has published its elections white paper, Democracy and voting: key organisations and individuals.

The white paper provides an overview of the following key themes in elections research:

  • Accountability and transparency
  • Representative groups
  • Voter participation and engagement

It highlights areas of overlap across these themes, and the different organisations which are producing research in each area:

Elections-briefing-info

The paper highlights different democracy campaign groups, and provides summaries and biographies of think tanks, research institutes, government departments and individuals involved in UK elections research.

The briefing also includes summaries of a selection of recent publications on democracy and voting from some of the organisations listed, which are available on our Idox Information Service database.

We’ve written blog posts on a range of issues in relation to democracy and voting, which you can view here. We’ll also be publishing more elections material in the coming week.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on democracy and voting, to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Is our electoral system going through the biggest change in a generation?

By Steven McGinty

The biggest change in a generation? Quite simply: yes.

Last year, we saw an unprecedented focus on the democratic process, with high profile votes such as the Scottish independence referendum, as well as revolution in the way in which citizens vote through the introduction of the Individual Electoral Registration (IER). It’s likely that this degree of interest in the political system will continue as we move towards the general election in May, with a number of related topics being up for debate.

I’ve therefore decided to highlight some of the most notable election and referendum-related issues, as well as look at which might come up in the general election campaign.

Individual Electoral Registration

The introduction of IER in June 2014 was a major step in the delivery of digital government services. It was implemented to provide a more modern service and to help combat electoral fraud. The IER system is essentially a hub that was built by the Government Digital Service. The hub links up with the Electoral Management Software (EMS) in each local electoral area. There is no central database of voter details and the data has been received and saved locally, and is deleted from the Hub within 48 hours.

Yet although these changes have been introduced to improve the system, Dr Toby James, Senior Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics, suggests that they could have the opposite effect, and lead to reduced levels of voter registration.

Political engagement

The Scottish independence referendum was described by some as a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, which would have permanently changed the political landscape of Scotland. The plebiscite saw 84.6% of the population voting, the highest turnout a nationwide election has had since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918. The election also gave 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote, which resulted in 109,533 young people signing up before polling day.

It will be interesting to see if this high level of political engagement and the lowering of the voting age will be reflected across the UK in the future. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has already accepted proposals by Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to lower the voting age in Holyrood elections permanently; although a House of Lords committee has raised concerns over these plans.

European referendum

The referendum on Europe could potentially be the big issue of this year’s general election. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Conservative Party have promised to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union if in government. However, the Labour party, at the moment, are against the idea of a European referendum.

Due to the fragmented political environment, it is quite possible that there will be another coalition government. In this scenario, parties will negotiate and smaller coalition partners may change their stance. At this stage, other parities including the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Green Party and the SNP may also have an impact.

The latest polls are too close to call: with Ipsos MORI showing the Labour Party leading the Conservative Party by 1 point and YouGov showing the Conservative Party leading the Labour Party by 2 points. If the Labour Party win, it’s unlikely that there would be a referendum on Europe; however if the Conservative Party win, it’s likely that there will be.

Boundary changes

Boundary changes, although not as high profile as the debate on Europe, could also figure in the next parliament. In 2013, a Conservative backed plan to reduce the number of constituencies was rejected by their coalition partners and the opposition parties.  However, there are currently a number of electoral reviews being carried out by the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. For example, North Dorset Council will make changes to their boundaries that will come into force at the local elections in 2015.

Devolution

Greater devolution within England is also expected to be a major general election issue.  Although directly elected mayors have been part of the political landscape since the early 2000’s, not many cities have chosen to introduce them due to low voter turnout. However, in November 2014, the chancellor, George Osborne announced that Greater Manchester would have a directly elected Mayor, who would have a host of new powers for the region. This increase in powers, alongside a greater desire for more local decision making, may lead to a higher voter turnout than has previously been seen. It will be interesting to see if this triggers demands for mayors from other regions.

Police and Crime Commissioners

The spotlight will also be on the role of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC). Similar to the mayoral elections, turnout has been very low for PCCs elections, with the average turnout approximately 14.7%. If the Conservative Party wins the general election, it is likely that PCC elections will continue across England and Wales, despite their low turnout. Conversely, if Labour wins the election, it is likely that they will scrap PCCs, arguing that the Conservatives have wasted millions of pounds on PCC elections.

Whatever the result of the UK election, 2015 looks like being another big year for all aspects of elections management and voting.


Idox Elections is one of the premier election service providers in the UK, providing outstanding expertise and knowledge across all areas of election management.

The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on elections, democracy and political engagement. To find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further Reading:

Living in a democracy, it’s easy to forget how fortunate we are

voting what's the point

Photo: Rebecca Riley

By Rebecca Riley

A week ago I was invited to a private view of “Election! Britain Votes” – a bold and experimental new exhibition developed by the People’s History Museum in Manchester as we prepare to go to the polling station. Having read the recent review by New Statesman, where the exhibition is described as “candid and sincere… far removed from the complacency we often get when museums try and do politics”, I was looking forward to visiting one of my favourite museums.

As a big supporter of democracy and people having the right to actively participate in the decisions which rule our lives, I couldn’t help but wonder at the number of attendees (it was a ‘good turn-out’) and whether the innovation and impact of the exhibition will ever reach the people it needs to, the disaffected voters.

Opened by Jon Snow, he made some interesting opening statements –  his enthusiasm for the exhibition was obvious but he highlighted some key issues we face as a democracy:

  • “It’s time to start running the country in a different way… we are a country of London” – a tip of the hat to the devolution options now being discussed, within cities and across devolved nations.
  • It “cannot be right, that there are not more women in parliament” – pointing out a thought-provoking statistic from the exhibition, that there haven’t been enough women in parliament so far, to fill the whole House once!

The exhibition is pitched as a place to debate, discuss and reflect on the importance of our vote in 2015. Through the most amazing and immersive infographics I have seen (created by @AJGardnerDesign) the exhibition takes you through the history of voting; the mechanics of it and what goes on behind the scenes.

It lays down the gauntlet to Russell Brand by answering the question “voting: what’s the point?” and finishes with a terminal which allows you to register online to vote. The visitor is challenged not to, having witnessed the struggle others went through to enable you to have the right!

Having visited, the prevailing memory of the exhibition is summed up in the title of this blog – we take for granted the privileges we have as a result of living in a democracy. Taking it for granted means we risk losing its benefits:

  • Reducing inequality by preventing the capture of power by elite groups – power is spread wider and in a more representative way;
  • Representing diverse opinions and needs of individuals across government, and ensuring government money helps those in need;
  • Having greater control and power over our own everyday lives;
  • Countering extremism from either direction; and
  • Maintaining local decision making and accountability.

As Jon Snow said, the exhibition shows us “how we got to where we are… but we don’t know where we will be”. But one thing was very obvious from the voter turnout figures presented – fewer and fewer people are exercising their right to shape what we will be, as a country and community. The voting population is disillusioned and feels excluded from the decision making; and political parties, individual politicians and the government should take action to re-engage the electorate.

If you are wondering why you should vote, I would highly recommend a visit!


Further reading

We have previously blogged on voting and democracy:

Other resources which you may find interesting (some may only be available to Idox Information Service members):

A programme for effective government: what the party manifestos must address in 2015

Civic participation and political trust: the impact of compulsory voting

Elections: turnout (House of Commons Library standard note SN/SG/1467)

Voter engagement in the UK: fourth report of session 2014/15

Britain’s cities push for more powers

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Manchester Town Hall: (Photograph, James Carson)

On 9 February, leading politicians, decision makers and academics will meet in Glasgow to discuss how more powers can be devolved to the UK’s cities. The meeting is being organised by the Core Cities group, which advocates a bigger say for Britain’s major cities outside London.

The Glasgow gathering is the latest sign of a growing appetite for financial freedom for the UK’s cities and regions.  The movement picked up pace during the Scottish independence referendum campaign with the pledge by political party leaders at Westminster to give more powers to the Scottish Parliament.  The subsequent publication of the Smith Commission’s recommendations  prompted Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council and chair of the Core Cities UK cabinet, to respond:

“What’s good enough for the Scottish Parliament should be good enough for big cities across the UK. Today’s commission report unveils significant fiscal devolution for Scotland and the power to retain more of the tax revenue it raises. This is something that Core Cities UK strongly advocates for cities on both sides of the border, giving us the power to make a difference on the ground and unlocking their full potential.”

But even before the Smith Commission had reported, devolution for cities was rising up the political agenda, and the major Westminster parties had already started setting out their proposals:

  • In November, the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, unveiled a plan to give Manchester new powers over transport, planning, housing, police and skills. Similar packages are proposed for Leeds and Sheffield, part of the government’s commitment to build a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ as a counterbalance to the ‘London super-region’;
  • The Labour Party has promised that, if elected to government, it will pass control of business rates to the major cities, and that the House of Lords will be replaced by a senate of elected regional and city representatives;
  • The Liberal Democrats have called for devolution on demand to be offered to any part of England with a population in excess of one million.

Politics is one factor driving the demand for more city devolution; another is the economic situation. As the Centre For Cities recently observed:

“From a public finance perspective, there is an increasing realisation that future reductions in public sector expenditure will be impossible to deliver without changing the way public services are designed and delivered, and this requires more to be done at the local level.”

For many, the moves to cut the purse strings held by Whitehall and Westminster are long overdue.  The City Growth Commission noted in October that the UK has the most centralised system of public finance of any major OECD country, with sub-national taxation accounting for only 1.7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), compared to 5% in France and 16% in Sweden.

The Commission argued that more powers for the cities would build on the momentum of the government’s City Deals by creating stronger, more inclusive and sustainable growth in the UK, and suggested that London, Manchester and West Yorkshire are already equipped to take on the risks and benefits of fiscal and funding devolution.  While some, including the Prime Minister, welcomed the report, others, such as Stephen Brady, leader of Hull city council felt short changed:

“I’m really, really disappointed that Hull once again has been overlooked in favour of the bigger cities. We’re like the forgotten city, despite being strategically so important. We’ve won the City of Culture 2017 bid. What else can we do to prove that we want to be given the chance to run things ourselves?”

His response is a reminder that establishing a comprehensive devolution settlement that covers all of Britain will prove challenging.

Ultimately, the real prize of city devolution could be a fairer society. A report from the International Monetary Fund in April 2014 found that decentralising government expenditure and revenue can help achieve a more equal distribution of income. But the authors stressed that this would require several conditions to be fulfilled, including comprehensive decentralisation on both the expenditure and revenue sides.

During its Glasgow meeting in February, the Core Cities group promises to unveil a ‘Charter for Local Freedom’ setting out the powers  it wants central government to devolve down to cities. And with cities set to play a key role in shaping the outcome of the general election, it’s clear that this is one issue that will continue to build. As Alexandra Jones from the Centre for Cities observes:

“The debates about devolution and the city regions have not always had political momentum; there’s no shortage of that now.”


Further reading

We’ll be attending the Core Cities Devolution Summit on 9 February – follow @idoxinfoservice for live tweets and this blog for follow-up commentary.

Devo-City: a short guide to Britain’s devolving city regions in words and data

Tales of the cities

Economic growth through devolution: towards a plan for cities and counties across England

Charter for devolution

Abstracts and access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

Democracy, at the touch of a button

Polling_Station_2008

Image: Man_vyi via Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Licence

It’s been described as “astonishing”, “incredible” and “phenomenal.” But perhaps the best word for the 84.5% turnout in the Scottish independence referendum is “historic”. The figure was a record for any election or plebiscite held in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918.

Various explanations have been offered as to why the turnout was so high, from the unsurprising to the unexpected. But it has come at an important moment, when many people were becoming disaffected with the democratic process.

Just a month before the Scottish referendum, a vote to elect the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands attracted just 10.3% of those eligible to vote. And in UK general elections, turnout has been falling since the 1950s, with the most recent figure a disappointing 65.1% in 2010.

Declining turnouts should ring alarm bells for democracies.  If they signal disenchantment or indifference, the results may not accurately reflect the will of the people and can lead to unequal representation.

Which is why there is increasing interest in the use of online tools to re-engage disaffected electorates. One such device is a Voter Advice Application (VAA), which poses a series of questions about election issues and uses the results to advise the user on which party is most closely aligned to their views. VAAs are relatively new to the UK, but in the Netherlands, the Stemwijzer VAA was consulted by 40% of the electorate in the run-up to the 2006 Dutch parliamentary election, and similar applications are now attracting growing numbers in Finland, Belgium, Germany and New Zealand.

Recently, Demos, the cross-party think tank joined forces with Bite the Ballot (a voter registration campaign) to develop a VAA for UK voters. The arguments for the move are persuasive. In 2007, two of five survey respondents in Switzerland said they were motivated to vote because of their use of a VAA, and in Finland VAA use boosted the likelihood of citizens voting by more than 20%. Demos has now launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund the design of its VAA, which will be focused on encouraging more young people to vote.

But political engagement is not just about what happens during election campaigns. And that’s where DemocracyOS may make a difference. Developed in Argentina, this online application translates issues into easy-to-understand language and allows people to informally vote on them.

One of the developers of DemocracyOS is political scientist Pia Mancini. In a recent TED Talk, she articulated the challenge facing democracy in the 21st century:

“My generation has been good at using technology to organise protests, that have overthrown totalitarian governments and changed unpopular laws. However we have not yet used the technology to change the system itself. If the internet is the new printing press, then what is democracy for the internet era?”

DemocracyOS presents one possible answer, and as a gesture of faith in the application, the developers formed a political party in Buenos Aires, with the promise that, if elected, their candidates would always vote along the same lines as the online voters from DemocracyOS.  While the party has so far failed to win a seat, interest in the application is growing. The federal government in Mexico is using the tool to gather feedback on a proposed public data policy, and in Tunisia, a non-government organization has adopted it in an effort to give the people a stronger voice. Back in Argentina, political parties are agreeing at least to take account of DemocracyOS votes.

One politician who has already demonstrated her confidence in online decision-making is Anne Hidalgo, the new mayor of Paris. Elected in March 2014, she recently gave residents the chance to vote on 15 environmental projects to improve the city. Over 40,000 voted, most of them online, and the winning projects include a €2m project to create “vegetation walls” to improve biodiversity, and mobile rubbish collection points to facilitate recycling.

The mayor set aside €426m for this first “participatory budget”, the largest sum of public money ever allocated for such a project, and she expressed confidence that it was a radical way give citizens a voice in their future:

“Democracy is not only a word in the dictionary, it’s something that must actually be practised.”

That said, even though anyone in Paris, regardless of age or nationality, was eligible to vote, only 4% of the population took part.

There are further stumbling blocks on the road to online democracy, such as concerns about security, verification, anonymity, and ensuring those with limited access to technology can participate. Since 2001, Estonia has held legally binding general elections using an internet-based voting system. Although the country’s election officials have declared the system to be a success, computer security experts have raised doubts, providing examples of breaches where votes were changed or erased.

In spite of these concerns, it’s likely that we’ll be hearing more of, and possibly making more use of, applications that help us re-engage with those making decisions in our name.

Further reading

The Idox Information Service has a wealth of research reports, articles and case studies on democracy and representation. Items we’ve recently summarised for our database include:

Putting electronic voting under the microscope, IN Political Quarterly, Vol 85 No 2 Apr-Jun 2014, pp187-194

Should the UK lower the voting age to 16?

Engaging young voters with enhanced election information

Audit of political engagement 11: the 2014 report

The ‘personalisation’ of the European Elections: a half-hearted attempt to increase turnout and democratic legitimacy? (EPIN Paper No.37)

Elections: turnout (House of Commons Library standard note SN/SG/1467 )

How lowering the voting age to 16 can be an opportunity to improve youth political engagement: lessons learned from the Scottish independence referendum

N.B. Abstracts and full text access to subscription journal articles are only available to members of the Idox Information Service.

5 things we’ve learnt from Scotland’s indyref

SG referendum date announcement

Image from Flickr user Scottishgovernment via a Creative Commons license

By Stephen Lochore and Morwen Johnson

As the consequences of Thursday’s referendum result continue to reverberate across the UK, we look at what the indyref tells us about political engagement and public policy in 2014.

  1. The public will vote, when they feel the issue is important and affects them

The indyref voter turnout of 84.5% was a record high. And this was based on over 97% of the eligible population registering to vote. This contrasts with turnout at other referenda, general elections and particularly local government and European parliamentary elections.

Turnout for the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2011 was just 50.4%. In the UK, in the 2010 general election it was 65.1%. The Scottish devolution referendum in 1997 (which provided the yes vote which created the Scottish parliament) had a turnout of 60.4%; the Welsh devolution referendum the same year had a turnout of 50.1%.

At local level, turnout is even lower. The 2012 Scottish local elections had a turnout of 39.1%; the turnout for the English local and mayoral elections in May 2014 was estimated to be around 35.3% (with the 2014 European Parliament election being held on the same day).

New initiatives such as the 41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) elected across England and Wales in November 2012 have failed to engage public interest, at least at the ballot box. Turnout was below 20% in most areas – with an average turnout of 15.1%. This despite the fact that the PCCs are responsible for a combined budget of £8bn, and were set up specifically to hold Chief Constables and police forces to account to communities.

Many people have said that they cast a vote in the indyref ‘because they felt it would mean something’ and it was to be expected that more people would vote in a referendum with significant implications and a clearly discernible difference between the two sides. But it’s quite depressing that in elections for political administrations which control the delivery of local services, the perception of representation and accountability seems to have been lost.

The question for political parties, public servants and policymakers is how to communicate about policy choices in a transparent and accessible way, and embed public engagement in day-to-day processes. And that is more difficult to do than when its about campaigning for support for a Yes/No vote on one question.

  1. Young people are capable of exercising their franchise

For the indyref, 16 and 17 year olds had the vote extended to them for the first time. Many campaigners, on both sides of the indyref debate, claimed that voters should consider the potential impact of the decision on future generations.

Across Scotland, there were 109,533 people on the young voters’ register, according to official figures issued on 19 September. This represents just under 90% of 16 and 17-year-olds estimated to be eligible. Issues that were reported of high interest to young voters included tuition fees, but perhaps surprisingly also welfare and pensions.

The Electoral Reform Society has pointed out that young people receive citizenship education at school but face a delay before they can put their knowledge about democracy and rights into practice. The 2006 Power Inquiry emphasised the need to include young people in the political process as early as possible in order to create a basis for greater political engagement in later life.

The question about voting age often hinges on the argument that younger people are not mature enough to think through voting decisions. Engagement in schools during the indyref suggests that this isn’t the case. Campaigners also thought it important due to the perceived potential impact of differences in voting choices by age. This research suggests older people would be more likely to vote No – and the Ashcroft Poll of 3000 people on the night of the referendum showed nearly three quarters (73%) of those aged 65 or over voted No.

Perhaps the indyref can set the precedent for lowering the voting age … with the next reform being votes for prisoners?

  1. Grassroots campaigning and social media brought the debate into the public consciousness

With an office in the centre of Glasgow, we experienced first-hand the very visible campaigning from grass-roots supporters. You may have also noticed that, although we’re focused on knowledge sharing of public and social policy, we didn’t blog on the referendum – there being good, balanced sources already out there such as the ESRC’s Future of Scotland and the UK site.

It’s been clear that there’s been huge interest in the indyref. According to research from the University of Strathclyde, the referendum inspired more than 10m ‘interactions’ on Facebook over a five week period – one of the highest levels of activity that the monitoring company had ever recorded. These types of interactions include comments, campaign group activity and sharing videos and images relating to the referendum.

Although there is the potential for engagement with the referendum to translate into ongoing engagement in local politics or with public policy, there’s probably a larger risk of disillusionment. How will organisations and grassroot movements calling for change sustain momentum after the No decision?

  1. Democracy will always leave some people’s views unrepresented

There was a lot of angst, as the referendum date grew closer and the polls tighter, about the fact that just a one vote majority would be enough to win. Within our first-past-the post electoral system, sometimes described as ‘winner takes all’, it is often the case that the governing party or parties do not have a mandate from the majority of the population. In fact, at UK (Westminster) parliamentary level, no single party after WW2 has won over half the popular vote.

The binary nature of the indyref increased the proportion of voters on the losing side – though conversely, a greater number of options would reduce the mandate of the winning option.

The No campaign might argue that part of democracy is accepting the will of the majority – including at UK level. The Yes campaign alleged that UK politics and governance has systematically failed to respond to the needs of the Scottish people, although we would highlight the fact that people’s needs are rarely homogenous across Scotland, the UK or indeed in any locality.

  1. Evidence is always context-specific and open to interpretation

For any undecided voter, the big decision in the indyref was who to believe. Our team of researchers here at the Knowledge Exchange were sourcing material every day purporting to be ‘evidence- based’ and it was a good reminder that research is rarely impartial. From the design or framing of research questions, to the interpretation put on results, there are numerous opportunities for bias to be introduced. How findings were reported in the media was also a big issue throughout the indyref.

This was exemplified by differing forecasts of the economic strength of an independent Scotland, reflecting different assumptions about key factors such as the future price of oil and the extent of accessible reserves, the transfer of a share of UK debt to Scotland and trends in business investment. One downside of the No vote is that we’ll be deprived of seeing who was proved right!

Concluding thoughts

Society is sometimes characterised as politically apathetic, but the Scottish referendum emphatically refutes that. A simplistic assumption is that people are fed up with politicians and the increasingly similar manifestos of mainstream political parties. A more nuanced conclusion is that campaign-based politics, which encourages people to express their support for a cause or issue, and then allows them to become as active or inactive as they prefer, is a more natural fit to the networked and fractured manner in which people increasingly communicate both at work and in their personal lives.

Indyref witnessed a proliferation of grass-roots groups, particularly among those favouring independence, often organised through social media, for example the Facebook group Scottish Pensioners for Independence. Or the contrasting women together and women for independence networks. The challenge for governments across advanced democracies is how to develop and deploy the interactive tools, digital knowledge and responsive legislative and civic processes needed to tap into informal, fragmented and often transient group activity, while avoiding the danger of only listening to those who network the loudest.