Concerns over democratic health are a global phenomenon, often triggered by crises or events that result in public pressure for reform. Iceland’s near-economic destruction after the Global Financial Crisis, for instance, instigated wide-ranging reforms to their democratic system. In Wales (and the wider UK) discussions around the health of our democracy have traditionally focussed narrowly on the problem of low electoral participation. Little wonder when turnout has never reached more than 50% in Senedd elections, with local government faring even worse.
But while turnout is important and easy to measure, it is far from being the only litmus test of a nation’s democracy. We also need to consider participation in democratic processes beyond elections, awareness and understanding of how democracy works, and the trust and confidence in democratic actors and institutions. Related issues include political rights and liberties, transparency in democratic processes, and the availability of good quality information from a range of sources – something the expert panel on the devolution of broadcasting is currently exploring.
Who gets involved is important
A common thread throughout all these themes is the idea that a healthy democracy is an inclusive one: all groups, but especially those who have historically been under-represented, should be able to participate. Recent work in Wales has found that engagement in democracy is currently unequal, and that tailored approaches to engaging under-represented groups – particularly women, young people, those from racially-minoritized backgrounds, and those with low education levels – are needed. Improving understanding of the drivers of democratic health will help focus efforts to increase the engagement of these groups in democratic processes.
Data on democratic health
Some data on democratic health are collected in Wales, but they mostly relate to elections. For example, we’ll soon know from the latest National Survey for Wales how people voted in the 2022 local elections (such as by postal vote or in person), and there is evidence on attitudes towards the elections from the Electoral Commission and the Welsh Election Study. However, data about elections is patchy given the UK’s ‘electoral data deficit’, and while there are ways to measure democratic health in a broader sense, none have yet been applied to Wales. Democratic Audit have been assessing democratic health in the UK for over 20 years and look at aspects of democracy such as electoral integrity and participation, social media and civic participation, and decentralisation of decision making to communities and public services.
Further afield, V-Dem collects data on more than 450 indicators related to five principles of democracy: electoral; liberal; participatory; deliberative; and egalitarian; for countries across the world. Efforts have already been made to synthesise from indices like these, with one example concluding that a strong democracy contained five elements: empowered citizens; fair processes; responsive policy; information and communication; and social cohesion.
Measuring the democratic health of Wales
With elections having been devolved to Wales since 2017, and a raft of work to improve our democratic systems since (from votes at 16, to the flexible voting arrangement pilots in the 2022 local elections, to the recently-established Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales), this is a good time to think about how to improve how our democracy functions and grows. On the request of the Counsel General, over the next few months the Wales Centre for Public Policy will be aiming to identify how Wales’ democratic health can best be defined, measured, and monitored. This work will help focus efforts to increase participation and engagement in national and local democratic processes in Wales, especially among currently under-represented groups.