Democratic Innovation and Beyond the Vote (Guest Blog by Dr Wendy Russell)


Thanks to Max for having me as a guest on his blog. It’s been a pleasure to know and work with Max overthe years, as I know it has been for a large number of people.

I want to talk today about innovation. Innovation is one of the over-arching themes of Open State, this exciting event that’s being held in Adelaide in October. It’s also a central theme of an Open State workshop I’m helping to organise: Beyond the Vote. Democratic Innovation in Australia.

Innovation is a thing I have a mixed relationship with. Having done research on emerging technologies and science and technology governance, I’ve studied innovation. I also worked for several years in the federal Department of Innovation (it always had other things in its title, which changed over time). Like other people, I’ve used the term innovation or innovative to make something I’m doing sound better.

On the other hand, I am something of a neo-Luddite and a late adopter. I do now have a smart phone, but I’m still weighing up whether to sign up to Facebook. This is partly because I am a highly sensitive person and deeply reflective. I’m not risk-averse, as such, having made some brave (possibly crazy) choices in my life, but I’m easily over-stimulated and I actively seek to keep my circle of concern close to the bounds of my circle of influence.

So, for me, new is not necessarily good; new can be and often is stressful, so the good it brings has to be clear.

I’m therefore sceptical about the innovation buzz word, and I’m also aware that a lot of innovation is actually old stuff being dressed up as new. This is true for our ‘democratic innovation’ workshop. Deliberative mini-publics have been around for decades, as have co-design processes and principles, grass-roots movements even longer. Many of these ‘innovations’ trace their roots back to the beginnings of democracy.

Recognising this, I think the kinds of questions we need to ask are:

  • What is new and disruptive about these processes and approaches as they are emerging in contemporary contexts (citizens juries influencing state politics, co-design reshaping delivery in traditionally technocratic policy areas, grass-roots movements competing with popularity politics at a federal level)?
  • What good do they bring? What problems and challenges do they bring?
  • How can we learn from what has come before?

The Beyond the Vote workshop will bring practitioners and researchers together. As well as showcasing and exploring great practice cases, this will bring an academic perspective, to the workshop and to Open State. As a person working at the nexus of engagement practice and academia, I’ve really seen the value an academic perspective can bring. I’ve also experienced the tension.

Social science scholars bring both empirical rigour and a critical lens to the study of practical developments. This can be uncomfortable, especially when we’re busy getting excited and patting ourselves on the back about the great work we’re doing. But it’s really important.

As well as doing great work in democratic innovation, practitioners are making mistakes, reinventing the wheel, working at cross purposes, and competing where they could be collaborating or complementing. Academics can point this out, not only in the context of better practice, but from a bigger picture perspective. They can see practice from a system perspective, and give advice about the integration and implementation of practice interventions to give better outcomes at a whole system level.

At the same time, practitioners can give academics unique perspectives on real-world developments, access to empirical cases to test and build theory, and can teach academics a thing or two about celebrating their work.

I’m really looking forward to working with practitioners and researchers at Beyond the Vote, including John Dryzek, Gerry Stoker, Carolyn Hendriks, Simon Burall, Emily Jenke, Nicole Hunter, Chad Foulkes, City of Melbourne, new Democracy Foundation, Voices4Indi, CAPaD, and hopefully, Max Hardy!

I’m also looking forward to the IAP2 conference and all the other exciting events at Open State, and to catching up with friends, old and new.

Dr A. Wendy Russell
Principal consultant
Double Arrow Consulting,
Two-way engagement for robust decisions

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