European Union
Democracy Day: Scared Of Simple Answers

A few months ago populism was surging in an unstoppable increase. This week it is collapsing in terminal decline. Neither picture is completely true, though both provide useful hooks for newspaper commentators, writes Anthony Zacharzewski.

No insurgent political movement can be successful unless, at its heart, it has a message that resonates with people. The resonating message of populism is “take back control”. That slogan, the centrepiece of the anti-EU campaign in the Brexit referendum, will be seen as one of the most successful political slogans of the 21st-century.

It was successful because it was vague, not because it was precise. Theresa May and the British government are now discovering the price of signing up to promises that mean different things to different people. In the struggles of the British government to find a workable Brexit position, you see the flaw in the populist logic – they have promised something that they cannot deliver. They have made the complicated simple.

The challenge for democrats, and for those who think government is more than slogans to rally against common enemies, is to deliver for real what the populists can only promise: a government that is more responsive to the citizens, that delivers the goals that communities seek, and that makes lives clearly better. In doing this, democrats have to manage within the framework of budgets, laws and rights that have been handed down to them. They can´t just be wished away.This is not an easy task, it requires imagination and hard work combined with rigour in assessing successes and failures.

Towards a European league of local democracy innovators

The current world of democracy innovation needs to change and grow if it is to measure up to the challenge. Too many initiatives are small, disconnected and stuck out on the edge of institutions. Initiatives need to be system-wide, their organizers learning from each other and transforming governments as a result. In local government in particular, the same old idea is being reinvented over and over again, reaching the same problems and sticking points but without the design and thinking resources that can unlock the solutions.

The problems that initiatives come across include how to find and listen to representative audiences, how to inform people so they can be confident participants, how to bring the right attitude and cultures to administrations, and how to help people stay engaged for the long term. None of these are easy problems to solve. A project budget from the city council will not be enough. Cities have to work together, but I know from personal experience that is easier said than done. I managed the partnership between the different local authorities in Sussex, a few years ago, and although we got on well, it was hard to find the time for issues that weren´t the immediate priority of our politicians at home. If it´s hard just within a single English county, imagine how much harder it is, then, at a European scale.

To answer some of these problems, The Council of Europe, in partnership with my organisation The Democratic Society and a number of other democracy innovators, has created the City Democracy Incubator, whose next phase launches in November. The idea behind it is simple. Reduce the burden of democratic innovation on city government budgets, and decrease the risk of failure, by identifying common problems, grouping cities that want to solve them, and providing them with expert support and connections so they can work together. The goal is bigger. Not just a set of new initiatives but collective action on the most significant local democracy challenges that Europe faces.

Between now and November, we are running events in Antwerp, Messina and first today in Falun in Sweden where we are testing and discussing methods to bring together innovators in cities across Europe. Welcome to keep in touch and participate.

Anthony Zacharzewski is the founder and chairman of the Democratic Society and a speaker at International Democracy Day in Falun, Sweden.