Designing for democratic systems

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I was sitting down to prep for my workshop at NotWestminster in a few weeks when I came across the write up I did for my 2020 session and clearly failed to post – oops.

Looking back there is much of this which is alive in the work we are doing at Adur and Worthing and as such I think its still relevant. I’m going to take a look at using the framework to help us work through some governance thinking – a chance to test it in the wild. The bit I want to develop for this year’s NotWestminster is about the organisation’s role in both the democratic system and in the process of system change – and the leadership challenges and opportunities that brings. In the meantime let us step back in time……


This is my write up from the session I ran at #NotWestminster following my lightening talk on designing for democratic systems. The bare bones of what I said was an expansion of my piece from the beginning of the year and explored three main themes; network building, democratic design and power in the system. A basic tenet of what I was discussing was the need for democracy to be seen as a system rather than a single method and for it to be able to be both small and large scale.

In the workshop we tested a framework I have been looking at to support sense making of democratic design and plot successful projects to help understand themes and connections. We have started to use this to look at various work either done by The Democratic Society or work we are aware of and admire. The axis of the framework are:

  • Horizontal axis shows the design of the participation moving from direct participation through to more systemic approaches
  • Vertical axis shows scale of participation

The working hypothesis is that complexity ‘travel’s’ through the diagonal axis with more complex questions occurring at scale and requiring more systemic design of the participation process.

The aim of the workshop was first to plot successful projects on the framework and then comment on them with respect to the three themes. It was a large group so we used the 124 liberating structure to gather ideas and I was ably assisted by Jon Alexander in plotting the results.
The first exercise gave us some really useful content for the framework but Helen Graham then really nailed the problem with the framework calling out the fact that for a systems approach the issue is less one of scale and more one of scope and boundaries. This insight has cleared up one of the things that was feeling uncomfortable about the framework and in its next iteration the vertical axis will be describing the scope and not scale.

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