The Art of Engagement: The Practical Democracy Project #7

This month’s blog post (kindly provided by Julia Cushion of the University of Sheffield) provides an overview of a recent event held at the Open Data Institute (ODI) in Leeds, at which several speakers – including our Co-Director, Cristina Leston-Bandeira – discussed democratic participation and political engagement. As shown across the presentations that Julia describes, there are many ways of conceptualising and defining engagement, and a wealth of practical solutions by which engagement could be strengthened at a local and national level.


This was my first time at the ODI in Leeds, and my first time meeting the team at Delib, who hosted this event, and the six other Practical Democracy Project events that preceded it. The trip from Sheffield was absolutely worth it, and not just for the tote bags and notebooks that guests received. Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira from the University of Leeds started us off by explaining that low trust in political institutions and actors is a global problem.

Universally, institutions have to grapple with identity and voice; by their nature they are representing multiple and opposing voices and agendas. Cristina gave us the example of the SNP members having an increasing presence within the Westminster Parliament, an institution they don’t believe in. Where does this leave the apolitical communication channels run by officials? In Cristina’s experience and my own, officials usually start at the ground floor, trying to explain the fundamental difference between Government and Parliament.

Within her short 15 minute presentation, Cristina gave us four examples of when Parliaments have attempted to move from engagement as simply communications to engagement as meaningful participation, but I’ll touch on two of them. Last year, the Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry into Personal Independence Payments used a web forum to allow over three thousand individuals to tell their stories, and then, contrary to what often happens, integrated these into their report and recommendations.

The more recent inquiry into people with disabilities’ experiences of abuse resulted in Katie Price giving oral evidence in a Portcullis committee room, as well as reflecting on the experience in the ITV Loose Women studio. Cristina concluded by arguing that although committee staff are making great strides to reach diverse publics, it seems that there are still institutional hang ups about treating engagement as ‘evidence’. Centering the engagement process around issues is making the process more accessible, however to move forward there needs to be far greater political will on the part of MPs.

Huw from the Northern Policy Forum then addressed the thorny issue of who counts as a young person? Huw’s rule of thumb is 18-35 — much more generous than other accounts I’ve come across! The Northern Policy Forum aims to link up young people interested in policy through workshops, panel discussions and other engagement events, and their members come from a host of backgrounds including local councils, the third sector, the private sector, and students.

Huw made the case that in order to engage young people effectively organisations need to do three things differently:

  1. They need to make it relevant; championing lived experience and celebrating examples.
  2. They need to make events and activities accessible. If at all possible, make your events free, and make lunch free too! As well as considering the rural and urban divide, we need to remember towns; for example, the Northern Policy Forum will be holding an event in Huddersfield in the near future.
  3. Huw’s final point was to ‘make it yourselves’; in other words, there is no better way to engage young people than to hire them.

This call for engagement to move beyond University spaces and towns was picked up by the final speaker, Emily from the Good Things Foundation. In their Voicebox Cafés Project, funded by the Women’s Centenary Grant Scheme, they had three overarching aims: to educate, to participate, and to celebrate. Emily gave us some incredible statistics; that over 1200 people had participated and of those 70% were from BAME communities. 68% had a greater understanding of the history of women’s voting by the end, and 57% said they were more likely to participate as a result. As well as talking us through some of the barriers they faced, Emily gave some cheering examples of what worked. Tip number one – don’t call it digital democracy! Chiming with Huw’s early points, Emily encouraged accessible and relevant language. I loved that one of their projects was called ‘Manchester Women Making History’.

The VoiceBox project was successful because it showed people how to do their own research, and invited local speakers to help bust the myths around who is “supposed” to take part. I highly recommend the video that the Good Things Foundation made about the project, as it really highlights, in Emily’s words, the “magic people” who help to make these projects happen.

Questions at the end of the session highlighted strategies to avoid participant drop out (online spaces and free food), and many audience members highlighted their enthusiasm for embedding many of these principles into their existing work channels, be that in the third, public or private sector. There was a final consensus from all of the panellists that there was a thread of accessibility, relevance and the importance of language throughout their work.


Julia Cushion is an MA student at the University of Sheffield Methods Institute and Training Officer at Hope for the Future, a climate change charity based in Sheffield. She previously worked for the UK Parliament Outreach and Engagement Service.


Find out more about the speakers and the host: