Disempowered. Disillusioned. Disconnected.
This is how I feel. I would like to not feel that way at all. I would like to feel the opposite. So how would life in the UK have to function for me to feel empowered, fulfilled, and connected, instead? Obviously, the answer to that is far more extensive and complex than anything that could fit neatly into a 1500-word proposal. Still, there is something to be said for a simple, foundational assumption, which can be used as a basis for ideas. The purpose of this proposal is to argue the following:
The foundational assumption in the development of government policy should be that the citizen’s involvement must be at the heart of everything.
In this, I use the more broadly-defined form of the word “citizen” which includes UK residents who are not strictly in possession of UK citizenship, but who are still essential, valued members of UK society. I include them in this definition of citizen, because there is no other simple term which can encompass everyone. A few months ago, while reading the UK’s Net Zero Strategy (2021), I noticed it largely used the word “consumer”. Is this all we are now? At what point exactly had we become so reduced to this?
Within the UK’s Net Zero Strategy the word “citizen” appears 5 times. The word “consumer”? 109 times. The Skidmore Review (2023) is scarcely better in this particular regard. The word “citizen” appears only 14 times.The word “consumer”? 131 times.
Consumers? Is this all we have become? The unconscious domination of this term to describe the individual’s role in society speaks volumes. It is no wonder the climate crisis feels like an impossible challenge to solve, if there is no longer space for us to be anything better than the endlessly consuming creatures that created this problem in the first place. It is no wonder I feel so disempowered and disillusioned and disconnected. It is no wonder so many of us do.
In November 2022, a research brief into political disengagement in the UK (Johnston and Uberoi, 2022) reported that voter turnout has experienced a general decrease since the early 1990s; despite a slight rise in recent years, voter turnout has not returned to the previous levels of the 1950s to 1980s.
There has also been a stark decline in people’s trust in the Government to put the needs of the nation first always or most of the time. In 1986, the proportion of the population who expressed this trust in the government was 38%, with a drop to 15% in 2019. An analysis of various characteristics such as age, ethnicity, social grade, gender, and disabilities suggests structural issues associated with political disengagement. A paper published by the Houses of Parliament (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, 2015) explored the overall decline in formal political participation, driven by increases in mistrust, and the rise in informal political participation, driven by technological changes and the rise of online political activity.
It is not difficult to see that formal political participation presents more friction for the average citizen to engage in than the informal kind. Formal activity requires a proactive approach in which the burden is on the individual to seek out and engage democratic activities, in addition to already busy lives with various responsibilities and commitments. As mistrust and political divisiveness increases, and as various interconnected crises continue to degrade the quality of life for people in the UK, we will be left with even less energy – let alone hope, faith or enthusiasm – left over to carry the burden of responsibility to engage politically. As all things, such a burden is disproportionately felt across those already facing more structural barriers to political engagement, and may further deepen existing political inequality.
This proposal argues that although a rise in the various kinds of informal political participation is perhaps better than a rise in complete political disengagement, it is also subject to the negative forces of social media (such as echo chambers which exacerbate division, misinformation and disinformation, and online abuse). It is therefore important to focus on the effective embedding of formal political activity into the lives of the everyday citizen such that it does not feel like an extra burden or additional activity to take on. The aim should be to make engaging in formal political activities feel as frictionless and easy as engaging in informal political activities. It should be part of the everyday fabric of UK culture and society rather than a thing we might do when we feel we have time, money and energy to do so.
In the next section I suggest a few possible policies that could be introduced to achieve such an aim.
3. Suggested Ideas
3.1 Automatic Electoral Registration
A relatively simple way that could reduce barriers to voting. The electoral commission has already carried out feasibility studies and found that from both a technical and operational perspective, this is feasible using existing systems (Electoral Commission, 2021).
3.2 Citizen Duty
The concept of citizen duty derives from that of jury duty. We already know it is possible to have a system in which citizens on the electoral register can be summoned to carry out jury service as part of their public duty. This opt-out model could be used for citizen duty, which would involve taking part in regular Citizens Assemblies (I refer here to last year’s runner-up proposal for detail on how this could happen), or secondments to various public service or civil service roles. Unlike jury service, selection would not be entirely random as it would need to be representative of the population and ensure each individual has the opportunity to take part in Citizen Duty over the course of their lifetime.
3.3 Futures Duty
There is already ongoing work to embed Futures Thinking (GO-Science, 2017) within government policy and strategy. However, it would be a strong democratic practice for citizens to also be equipped with these tools and given the opportunity to feed into such discussions. Futures Duty would ask citizens to play a role in Citizen’s Futures Assemblies in which difficult long-term issues such as climate change and the development of AI are debated and discussed by citizens. International versions of these could also potentially be coordinated at some point as such issues will have to be managed at an international level.
3.4 Citizen Service
This proposal would differ from Citizen Duty in that it would be longer-term, with a focus on helping citizens build skills. One possible option would be to use Universal Credit for those out of work but able to work as Citizen Service Funding. In this way, those who are involuntarily unemployed can select from a range of possible Citizen Service roles, depending on what is available in their region and what suits their interests, strengths and skills. Citizen Service roles would be designed to help local communities and in turn build skills and experience which could be taken into future roles beyond the Citizen Service. It could also be a route used by young adults who have finished secondary school but are unsure what they would like to do in their careers and don’t feel ready for university, a specific apprenticeship or another kind of entry-level job in the private sector. In the Citizen Service they could have exposure to various kinds of community-critical roles without needing prior experience.
3.5 Citizen Leave
The civil service currently offers 3 full days of volunteer leave to civil servants. Citizen Leave would be a similar concept, except more frequent (perhaps two days a month or one half day a week), and with a focus on engaging in democratic activities such as participatory budgeting.
Practice versions of the above ideas could be implemented in schools to introduce to children from a young age the importance of taking part in these democratic activities, and preparing them to be effective participants as adults.
There are a number of ways in which barriers can be reduced for citizens who wish to play an active role in improving life in the UK but are unable to change the status quo. It should not be the case that an individual must be wealthy and highly educated in order to feel like an active member of UK society. It should be something embedded within everyday life. In order to not only maintain our democratic systems, but improve them, and improve life in the UK, the Government must be willing to embrace the idea that it must prioritise the citizen’s involvement at the heart of government policy, and spread some power back out.
Electoral Commission, Modernising electoral registration: feasibility studies (2021).
Government Office for Science, Futures Toolkit: tools for strategic futures for policy-makers and analysts (2017).
HM Government, Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener (2021)
Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Trends in Political Participation (2015).
Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP, MISSION ZERO: Independent Review of Net Zero (2023
Uberoi, E., & Johnston, N., Political disengagement in the UK: Who is disengaged? (2022).