Northern Ireland 12th June 2019

NI Open Government Network Blog – What Does Real Democracy Look Like?

by Connor McLean

Written by Jenny Muir

What does democracy mean to us? Has its meaning changed over time? Which countries are the most democratic? How does good democratic practice relate to activism? What are the barriers to achieving change?

NI OGN Directors Paul Braithwaite and Jenny Muir led a workshop asking these questions – and more –  with 16 participants at the social justice and activism conference Action Changes Things, organised by Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union on 29th May. We were so pleased to be able to be part of this inspiring day that brought together students and other campaigners to examine democratic values and practicalities of working for social change.

Our interactive workshop begun with a Mentimeter question: What does democracy means to you? Rapid and instinctive answers flashed onto the screen, covering issues such as fairness/justice, equality, freedom of expression and ability to participate, such as: “Being able to participate in the making of decisions that affect your life”, “Agreed process for deciding who had power”, “Social justice, equality and freedom of speech” and “No wasted votes”. They set the context for the rest of the session.

But what has democracy meant throughout history? Paul presented a series of quotes showing that “rule by the people” (demos+kratos) has been interpreted variously, and not always included all ‘the people’ such as women and the enslaved. We all know this is an ongoing struggle.

Then we returned to the Mentimeter for a look at the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. First up, what’s the most democratic country in the world? The most popular answer was Switzerland; others included Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, Singapore, USA, Belgium, Australia, Rwanda, and Ireland. The correct answer is Norway, with Iceland, Sweden and New Zealand next – and North Korea last. Switzerland is actually 10th.

We also learned that New Zealand is top for civil liberties indicators; that the USA (at no. 25) is defined as a “flawed democracy” – mainly due to its citizens’ lack of trust in government institutions – and that a mere 4.5% of the world’s population live in countries defined as “full democracies” with only limited problems in their democratic systems. These countries include Ireland (no. 6) and the UK (no. 14 – although most people thought the UK was a flawed democracy). Finally that titles can be deceptive: the Democratic Republic of Congo is an authoritarian state, placed third last on the Index.

After a quick introduction to the work of NI OGN and the global Open Government Partnership, it was breakout time. Small groups discussed two questions, with the help of flip chart paper:

  1. What issues are you passionate about in our society/ world?
  2. How do they relate to open government and democracy? e.g. what barriers are there to achieving change?

The table below shows the wide range of topics our participants are engaged with and what they think needs to change. We could have spent much longer discussing these issues and the flaws in our democratic process, and intend to do so at future sessions.

What issues are you passionate about in our society/ world?


How do they relate to open government and democracy? e.g. what barriers are there to achieving change?

(not aligned to first column)


True representation

Women’s Rights

Food Waste

Education for All

Having a government


Environmental justice

Foxhunting ban

Electoral reform

Welfare reform

Corporate control of government

Immigration control

Vilification of immigrants

Ageing population

Citizens’ Assembly



Politicians don’t represent all of us on all issues

Who gets to speak/ influence government

Access to data

Funding the parties


Transparency x 2


Justice Change



Up to date/ relevant laws

Social/ criminal justice

State accountability


Voting age

Lack of information

Lack of media scrutiny of government policies

To finish, we talked briefly about two practical ways to increase involvement. Paul discussed the Citizens’ Assembly, including a recent example from Northern Ireland; and Jenny outlined the features of Participatory Budgeting including a pilot project on Rathlin Island. Both approaches are gaining popularity across the world and are providing new opportunities for meaningful engagement and decision-making.

We concluded by inviting everyone to sign up to NI OGN – of course! – and by referring to the famous quote from San Francisco gay rights campaigner and Mayor Harvey Milk: “You have to give them hope!” At a time when many despair, we have to find ways to support those who are campaigning for a more democratic world.

The presentation slides from this workshop can be viewed here.