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The University of Southampton
Economic, Social and Political Sciences

Responding to political disaffection and designing civic participation

Research by the University of Southampton’s Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance (C2G2) is helping governmental and non-governmental organisations in the UK and around the world understand how they can respond to disenchantment with politics in democracies.

C2G2 Director Professor Gerry Stoker has been leading the research that is developing guidelines into how organisations can better engage citizens and promote civic political participation.

Research challenge

Political disaffection is a growing problem in the UK and around the world. Government and non-governmental organisations globally are facing an increasing challenge to keep their citizens engaged and participating in the political arena.

Gerry and his fellow academics at C2G2 have been working on issues of participation and decentralisation for more than 30 years. The challenge was to build on this to understand the disenchantment with politics in democracies and articulate responses to the rising problem.

Context

Why do so many citizens think negatively about politics in mature democracies? Evidence of negativity has generated an intense debate about its substantive significance and causes and research at Southampton has contributed significantly to that debate.

It is an issue that cannot be ignored. All the major political parties have measures to tackle anti-political sentiment and many think tanks and other bodies are struggling with it.

But what remains clear is that no solution has been found which makes the case for research into this area even more pressing.

Our solution

The team of researchers carried out three projects exploring the main aspects of the challenge of political disaffection and civic participation. These were:

  • Shaping the understanding and attitude of governmental and non-governmental organisations to the issues of political disaffection and re-engagement.
  • Informing the design and evaluation of participatory projects by organisations.
  • Playing a pivotal role in the development of a critical resource for designing civic participation.

They studied the role of citizens within their local communities, how they made decisions, how they ran community facilities or regeneration projects and identified six mechanisms that support community self-rule - asset transfer, citizen governance, electronic participation, participatory budgeting, petitions and redress.

Their research results further developed an understanding of what appeared to be public cynicism towards politics, a central source of disaffection that too many politicians are self-serving, a fear that special interest groups dominate political decision-making, and a perception that the role of the tabloid media confirmed a sense of anti-politics among citizens.

They explored citizens’ ideas for reform and discovered a popular perception that more open and responsive government could persuade many, especially younger voters, to engage actively in politics.

What was the impact?

The research is having a significant influence on ways in which the UK and other countries are trying to engage and empower their citizens.

Their findings and recommendations on empowering communities were a key part of the parliamentary act Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and are widely read and used by the UK civil service.

Globally Gerry has been invited to present their research findings on the causes of political disenchantment to the Australian and New Zealand School of Government and to leading politicians and civil servants at the House of Representatives in Tokyo, Japan.

Former Southampton colleague Graham Smith, Professor of Politics, developed an innovative and original methodological framework for comparing and evaluating different types of civic participation projects that is being used by the World Bank in its design of international pilot schemes to evaluate its own interventions.

He was also invited to join the steering board of Participedia, an international, Harvard-led e-platform that aims to provide information about global strategies in citizen participation to practitioners, activists and government officials. They have based their data collection on his framework and have used many of the innovations he researched as test cases for the project. Participedia is supported and used by major organisations including the Chilean Innovation Programme, the European Institute for Public Participation, the US Institute for Local Government, and Open Democracy UK.

Political disaffection

Related Staff Member

Political disaffection is a growing problem in the UK and around the world. Government and non-governmental organisations globally are facing an increasing challenge to keep their citizens engaged and participating in the political arena.

Gerry Stoker - Professor of Governance

Evidence presented through three UK Parliament-based Hansard Society events.

25th April 2012 - Audit of Political Engagement 9: Part one

13 June 2012 - Growing Pains? Young People's Attitude to Politics

12 July 2012 - Launch Event: Audit of Political Engagement 9, Part Two - The Media and Politics

Key Publications

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