Can digital help unleash our citizenship potential?


I was prompted to write this post by three events: a simple question, a frustration expressed by a young politician in the making and a national report launch.  

The first was a question from a health activist, who asked me: ‘Where do I go to find out how to get involved in voluntary health activities in Sheffield?’.  I could think of 4 or 5 different offline and online places but none covered all the activities available. 

The second was a bright young Asian woman whom I met at a conference and who explained to me the significant barriers there are for her in reaching her dream of becoming a politician (I sincerely hope she makes it).  

The third was the launch of the digital democracy report, which is well worth a read, seeking to drag democracy in this country into the 21st century and engage more people in democratic activities. 

I see these three events as connected in two ways: firstly, they are all fundamentally about engaging people in taking part and making a contribution to the society in which they live and, secondly, the potential of digital technology blended with face-to-face community development to respond to their challenges.

There is a spectrum of ways we could get involved: from helping our neighbours to volunteering for a charity or cause, from standing to be a hospital governor to becoming a politician, from picking up litter in our local park to helping make laws, from befriending a lonely person to campaigning for changes in laws. All of these contributions matter and make a difference to the fabric of our society.   

If we can understand this as a whole picture, see the connections with and value each contribution, I wonder if we could make a step change in how we interact as a society? Paul Taylor wrote a brilliant blog recently about the breakdown of trust in modern society and how it is related to how we feel disempowered and removed from the infrastructure of our society. I wonder how we could scale up and link up all the different possibilities of getting involved, support people to contribute in their own way and make the connections between small informal to governing roles? Could this help create the conditions for more engaged and empowered citizens, for greater ownership, engagement and ultimately trust in the system?

Digital blended with face-to-face community networks can and, to some degree already do, play a role in building the pipework, the connections, opening up the opportunities, engaging people where they are in their own time in the world around them. 

Some examples include the fantastic ‘Do It’ website, which opens up a huge range of volunteering opportunities across the country, and the inspirational ‘Selfless’, which encourages and connects young people to share their skills and knowledge to improve the well-being of others. Then there is the community-building angle presented by platforms like ‘neighbours can help’ and ‘casserole club’ and there are activities like Tinder Foundation UK Online Centres and Talk About Local, who joined forces to support hyperlocal community groups to build simple websites all over the country. There are also the campaigning platforms like 38 degrees and thunderclap and the crowdfunding and sponsorship platforms like Buzzbnk and JustGiving.  

So whilst we have some brilliant existing and emerging digital platforms and tools which help us to find out about and get involved and contribute to our society, I do still think we haven’t quite joined up all the dots. If we do this we may find more people moving along the spectrum of citizenship as they build confidence, skills and knowledge and feel more engaged and connected in their community. 

Where is that google/wiki/khan academy/facebook for citizenship, the one-stop curated shop for getting involved where we could access all the brilliant platforms and tools in one place and find out about the full spectrum of citizenship from health-related volunteering in Sheffield to getting involved in Parliament?  (And given that it is digital why not make it a global site?) 

Perhaps it does exist but I just haven’t found it yet? Please do share any links you may have on citizenship related platforms. 

Roz Davies

Founder We Love Life