Putting the public back in public policy: discussing the challenges faced by democracy in the 21st C...

18 April 2018


Reported by Helen Brooks, NERC-funded CSaP Policy Intern (March-July 2018).

This month Policy Fellows enjoyed listening to, and engaging with, guest speaker Dr. Henry Tam from the University of Cambridge. The meeting was held in the SKYroom of the Cabinet Office.

Dr. Henry Tam spoke about his new book "Time to save democracy: How to govern ourselves in the age of anti-politics", in which he discusses the current state of democracy and how this influences public policy. Dr Tam outlined four groups of vulnerabilities in democracy as well as some potential ways to deal with such inequalities.

Firstly, there are belief vulnerabilities, which relate to the current 'post-truth' era in which the proliferation of unreliable as well as reliable claims makes it difficult to distinguish between 'real' and 'fake' information. As a result, people's views can be manipulated in many different ways, which then affects democratic voting. Dr Tam suggested a need for legally recognised standards for responsible communication and journalism, as well as the exposure and shut-down of internet trolls.

Procedural vulnerabilities refer to macro-scale challenges and issues in the voting process. As a potential solution, Dr Tam proposed the formation of an independent 'democracy commission' which would have the power to overturn results secured by the breaking of electoral rules, decide changes in voting systems, and assess the impacts of proposed changes such as new forms of identity proof required for voting.

Identity vulnerabilities were also noted. It is common to place people in specific categories to describe their beliefs (e.g. traditionalist or liberal), meaning people in other categories are viewed as having a different agenda. However, in reality, these groups are not distinct. Dr Tam advised more integration between members of society and with people such as local councillors and representatives from public authorities, including the police. He shared powerful examples of exercises which have brought people together to solve issues collaboratively. It has been shown that this allows people to learn from, and value each other.

Finally, Dr Tam recognised flawed engagement in the democratic process and in public life as a vulnerability. For example, with 57% of seats in the UK being a 'safe' seat, many people feel that they have no real influence and therefore no incentive to vote. To address this issue, Dr Tam advocated the adoption of better participatory techniques, to include everyone in the democratic process. As one attendee noted "We need public policy, but the only way to get effective public policy is to have a democratic process and public engagement".

This was followed by a discussion on governance, democracy and policy. Some of the discussion focused on participatory processes of shaping democracy and how there needs to be a balance between engaging the electorate in decisions (e.g. via consultations and referendums) but also the system of representative democracy. Varied experiences were shared from Policy Fellows' roles as parish councillors and school governors as well as from their professional lives.

Image credits: (Accessed: 14/05/18)

Banner image from Emma Ross on Flickr (CC 4.0)