Omidyar Network expands support for UK-focused governance and citizen engagement initiatives

January 30, 2018
Why the UK?

The UK is going through a period of major constitutional and political change as a result of the EU Referendum and the ongoing devolution process. Changes are coming to where power lies in the UK — we think that brings opportunity to innovate and build new forms of participation that reflect the massive technological, political and social changes the UK has undergone in the past few decades.

Since the late 1990s there have been waves of devolution settlements, starting with London, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In 2017 six regional “metro mayors” were elected in England with new powers to coordinate policy and provide leadership across combined local authorities. This move away from what has traditionally been a highly centralised state, where most powers sat in Westminster, offers the chance for people to have meaningful influence by engaging with government at more local levels.

The UK’s departure from the European Union gives us cause to consider what effective governance and citizen engagement might look like over the next few years, bearing in mind the massive and complex process of repatriation of powers from the EU. Risks include the potential weakening of rights and standards, though there will also be opportunities to adopt more ambitious policies too. What is concerning is that these significant changes are happening against a backdrop of stark polarisation and alienation among the electorate (including between generations, regions and socio-economic groups) and the largest ever drop in trust across the institutions of government, media and NGOs.

Our approach to the UK

I’m delighted to announce the first UK-focused investments by Omidyar Network’s Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative. These investments will focus on strengthening civic technology, data governance, community and democratic participation, and independent media in the UK and are part of a broader expansion of our work on issues connected governance and citizen engagement in Europe. They are also a response to the political developments mentioned above. We are providing grants to:

  • The Federation, a co-working space and community of digital innovators in Manchester, in collaboration with the Co-op Foundation. Our funding will support social tech start-ups in the co-working space and the Federation’s planned series of public events.
  • Open Data Manchester, an advocacy group that encourages and shares open data practice between public bodies, business and citizens in Greater Manchester and beyond. This grant will help ODM professionalise and hire a community organiser to increase their impact.
  • Campaign Bootcamp, a nation-wide initiative to empower early-stage activists by providing them with the skills, confidence and resilience to run effective campaigns. We are providing unrestricted funds to help them scale their work and increase their local pilot, Everyday Activism.
  • The Bristol Cable, a citywide media co-operative focused on investigative journalism. Our funds will support the production of content and in growing the Cable’s membership.

Two of our investments are focused on Greater Manchester, which we see as a promising testbed for our assumptions about devolution and the opportunity to build more effective relationships between citizens and policy-makers. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has prioritised both the digital economy and inclusive decision-making, building on local government reform and innovative initiatives such as GM-Connect and Stockport Local.

There has always been a heady mix of entrepreneurship, radical politics and community spirit in Manchester and the adjoining towns and districts that make up Greater Manchester. Manchester was the first industrial city in the world, booming in the early 19th century around textile manufacturing but industrialisation also brought great inequality. Greater Manchester remains starkly unequal today, home to some of the most prosperous and most deprived parts of the UK.

We have seen before how great ideas arise from crises and this was the case when the Rochdale Pioneers popularised the idea and principles of co-operative consumer societies. The co-operative movement is undergoing a resurgence under the Co-op Group’s leadership and the Co-op Digital team is now spearheading an ambitious project at Federation House in Manchester that brings together technology and digital entrepreneurs, with social enterprises and civic innovators, united by a commitment to ethical values.

In collaboration with the Co-op Foundation, we providing a grant of approximately £700,000 over two years to support social and civic tech start-ups in the co-working space and the Federation’s planned series of public events that will tackle issues such as algorithmic accountability, open data and privacy, and the potential of civic tech to transform the way citizens engage with government.

We see Open Data Manchester as an important contributor to local, national and international work on responsible and intelligent data governance and practice, with a strong track record of community organising and advocacy, especially around the support of DataGM, a public sector data repository for the region and the release of transit data by Transport for Greater Manchester. Our £73,000 investment will support Open Data Manchester’s transition from a volunteer network into a professional organisation that can provide local policy makers — especially the Greater Manchester Combined Authority — with data management expertise, as well as community input and feedback on issues such as personal data use.

The last year has started to show the signs of people organising to respond to the political changes and challenges society is facing, and in 2018 we see a real opportunity to capitalise on this spirit. While we will continue to support greater transparency and participation by government through open data and participatory governance, we want to also be responsive to a resurgence in activism and civic innovation. The work we have done so far seeking opportunities, as well as these first investments, suggests that the UK is fertile ground for reforming the way citizens organise, advocate, interact with government and hold decision makers accountable.

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