Welcome to the final section of our Lost Voices report. Over the last 3 sections, we have analysed the relationship between charities, MPs and the public, concluding that there has been a gradual breakdown of trust between all three. We have delved into the impact that this breakdown of trust is having on those with the lived experience, and we have started to take a look at some of the elements of digital campaigning that assist in driving this wedge of mistrust between charities, MPs and the public. The previous section of the report delved into the question of metrics. This section will focus on another driver that has contributed to the gradual erosion of trust: the use of tech.
Of the many discussions had with representatives of the charity sector, parliament and tech providers, one key phrase was repeated: “digital campaigning is stale”. One campaigner went as far to say that there is a ‘crisis of imagination’. By this, they meant that the use of email and petitions has become so normalised that there is little room for innovation. But who is responsible for pushing the boundaries in campaigning strategy, tools and techniques?
Is there more than just email?
It has been long established that the role of email is limited. One organisation interviewed commented that they cannot directly email those most directly affected by the issues they campaign for, ‘because that group is least likely to have access to email’. This organisation recognised that “the current ways that we do digital campaigning is a bit regimented” and another campaigner said “I don’t believe much in email anymore” and that “we’ve fallen a little bit into doing things for the sake of doing things”.
Of course, to target MPs, email is one of the fastest and most accessible methods of communication. But there is an underlying danger that comes with the continued use of these tools in a saturated manner as our research has shown.
This became clear when one campaigner who also ran to become an MP said in an interview: “MPs have automated messages in accordance to which inbox they are filtered into…responding to people’s automatically generated emails comes to the bottom of the pile of MP’s things to do.”
There is an underlying question about how organisations use email for impact. Many organisations acknowledged the limited role of email in campaigning. One organisation interviewed commented that they cannot directly email those most directly affected by the issues they campaign for, ‘because that group is least likely to have access to email’. This organisation recognised that “the current ways that we do digital campaigning is a bit regimented” and another campaigner said “I don’t believe much in email anymore” and that “we’ve fallen a little bit into doing things for the sake of doing things”.
Despite these acknowledgements, our research revealed that regardless of the size of the organisation, email is still the central tool to campaigning. Is this the time to put this down?
Who needs to unclog the system?
The digital tools that an organisation employ largely dictate what sort of digital campaigning that an organisation will do. The tools that organisations use have a huge impact on which voices are elevated to speak to power, and who is left behind. Technology is tool not a tactic, but ultimately, campaigners can only use what technology there is – effective or not. But who is innovating in this area, and are their practices being shared across the sector?
Our research revealed that, unsurprisingly, organisations with more resources were able to explore this area of innovation around tactics much more. One large organisation spoke of exploring the use of Virtual Reality as a campaigning tool, offering people the chance to put themselves in the shoes of someone with lived experience of the issue in order to gain support for a campaign . Similarly, other organisations have had tools built bespoke for them and their needs.
However, the organisations that were able to do this had the resources and budget to spend on innovation. Many of the smaller organisations we interviewed were using tools that were free and accessible, which were mainly email based. Do the tools that allow for imagination and innovation in this field exist in an affordable and accessible manner? If there is an unequal distribution of resources, where does the responsibility of innovation lie and who funds it? These are questions yet to be explored.
What about the technology providers?
It’s interesting to see where tech providers see themselves as part of the wider system of digital democracy and importantly, whether they part of the problem, or part of the solution.
The technology providers in this space are the key to the system of digital campaigning, and as part of the project we have spoken to some of the largest technology providers spanning the UK, Europe and the US.
While most technology providers understood the need for campaigning to move away from email, they all also recognised that their tools were based primarily on email. Our research revealed a key question about the role of technology platforms: are they responsible for pushing the boundaries of campaigning, or should they merely deliver according to market need?
Brian Young, CEO of Action Network commented on his understanding of the role of tech in campaigning: “it’s about using technology to build communities in a way that is meaningful to the people in those communities, providing opportunities to leverage their collective power into political outcomes.”
Brian touches on something essential here: it’s not the just tools that are the problem, it’s how organisation’s understand their role in the system of digital democracy. Therefore, is it the responsibility of bigger charities to co-invest in new products in this space and to provide skills training, for the good of civil society?
Interestingly, two of the prominent technology providers interviewed, pointed towards an ideal future, which entailed local organising as meshed with mass mobilising. One tech provider said: “the challenge with our technology at the moment is that it’s making it harder, not easier to organise locally. The issue with email based activity is that you need a critical mass to be effective…but we want to be able to build tools that are necessary for long term organising”.
This is an interesting distinction between mobilising and organising that Harie Han also points to in her book ‘how organisations develop activists’. Essentially, Harie explains, organisations should look to develop those they mobilise into organising. Right now, it looks like the traditional tools are geared towards to mobilisation model, but there are less tools supporting the organising model. Is this the space for the innovation?
There are a number of questions leading on from this that will form the basis for much of the hackathon. As we have explored over the past three sections of this report, there are layers of intersecting factors that have led to the erosion of trust between charities, MPs and the public. From measurements of success to the use of tools, to a commitment to honesty and transparency, and let’s throw data in there for good measure. It’s up to us to untangle this web of mistrust and begin working towards the solution, because, as this research project has revealed, the impact of this breakdown of trust is hitting those with the lived experience the most.
We hope the past few report chunks have sparked your creative thinking around this topic, and we greatly look forward to seeing you on Thursday to unpick this even further.
If you haven’t already, you have one final chance to book your spot on the Lost Voices hackathon here.