Lack of quality political debate putting health of UK’s democracy at risk
7 March 2019
A new approach to providing information during election and referendum campaigns is vital for the health of the UK’s democracy, according to a major new report by the UCL Constitution Unit.
The report calls for a new, publicly funded ‘information hub’ to be developed that gathers multiple information types from diverse sources, all guided by strong citizen engagement.
The report titled ‘, explores three broad categories for improving and promoting quality information and discussion: confronting misinformation, promoting factual information, and supporting quality discussion.
The information hub would give voters ready access to information during election and referendum periods. It would include everything from basic information on where, when and how to vote through to verified policy analysis and factual information on candidates.
Key elements of the ‘information hub’ include:
- basic information on where, when, and how to vote
- factual information on who the candidates are in any given area
- ‘voting advice applications’ that help voters compare their policy preferences to parties’ positions or to referendum options
- policy analyses exploring, for example, how policy proposals would affect the state of the economy or the health of public services
- evidence from exercises on what ordinary citizens think about the issues at stake when they have the chance to learn about, discuss, and consider those issues in depth.
The authors argue that, to ensure quality and sustainability, the information hub should be publicly funded and run by an independent public body. This body would gather information from diverse sources, vetted for quality and impartiality.
The information hub would be categorically different to initiatives such as BBC’s ‘Reality Check’ and Full Fact, where they are primarily reactive to information put out by others. The authors argue that fact checking sites alone cannot offer a complete solution to the problem of poor information and discourse, but are one important building block.
The report, funded by the , has been developed in response to widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of political discourse and the information available to voters during recent election and referendum campaigns.
It builds on extensive research into democratic practices in the UK and elsewhere, especially Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand, exploring what does and doesn’t work.
The report proposes an integrated model that would place the UK at the forefront of democratic renewal, enabling lively, diverse, citizen-led discussion to take place during election and referendum campaigns.
The integrated model consists of six parts:
- High-quality information - this should be available to voters during both election and referendum campaigns spanning every type of information, from the most basic procedural information about a vote, through factual, positional, comparative, and analytical information, all the way to evaluative information designed to help voters work out their own concerns and priorities.
- Information hub – the material should be brought together in an information hub that is flexible in structure, accessible and easy for voters to navigate. It should primarily exist online, backed up by leaflets and extensive advertising. There should also be materials in other formats for voters who are not online.
- Diverse sources - the material available through the information hub should come from diverse sources: it should be coordinated, but contain multiple voices. The website would be a one-stop portal, and organisations could register to have their information certified and included.
- Citizen engagement – this should be integrated into all aspects of information provision. This includes strategies demonstrated in Canada, Ireland, and Oregon, US but many further, innovative approaches are possible, integrating citizen engagement into fact-checking, development of a voter advice website and policy analysis.
- Public funding - The information hub should receive public funding to ensure it is co-ordinated and has the resources necessary to fulfil its potential.
- New independent public body - Existing bodies, such as the Electoral Commission, are designed for different functions. A new independent public body dedicated to making democracy accessible is needed.
Dr Alan Renwick, report co-author and Deputy Director of the UCL Constitution Unit, said:
“Several recent reports propose ways of defending our democracy from threats posed by the digital revolution. But our report is different. Disillusionment with the state of our democracy runs deep. We need to strengthen our existing democratic practice, not just sustain it. Our proposed information hub would empower voters by helping them find information they trust on the questions they want answers to. Over time that could transform how our democracy works.”
Michela Palese, report co-author and formerly Research Assistant at UCL Constitution Unit and now Research Officer at the Electoral Reform Society, said:
“We considered a number of strategies that might work to improve political discourse and information in the run up to elections and referendums. A ban on misleading information is the only strategy that we don’t propose taking forward. We didn’t think this would work in a UK context, where politics and media are particularly adversarial, and the positive gains from banning misleading information are limited. Ensuring voters have access to high quality information and can take part in quality discussions are much more likely to improve the quality of debate.”
- 'Doing Democracy Better: How can information and discourse in election and referendum campaigns in the UK be improved' report
- Doing Democracy better blog post
- UCL Constitution Unit
- Dr Alan Renwick's academic profile
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E: n.downes [at] ucl.ac.uk