Mentoring for Democratic Innovation
Niamh Webster (left) at the World Forum for Democracy with the Trust in 2016.

Mentoring for Democratic Innovation

24 May 2017

Here, Niamh Webster from The Democratic Society (DemSoc) talks about our Civic Activism Programme, the innovative funding model we rolled out, the need for mentoring and what they call Democratic Innovation...

Democratic innovation can sometimes be challenging because people underestimate what it takes to run a successful process, but with strategic support these processes can be much easier to grasp, and with more confidence, much easier to deliver.

In a recent project in Northern Ireland we worked with our friends at Building Change Trust (BCT) and Involve to run a mentoring programme to support local democratic innovation projects. The aim of the Civic Activism Programme was to trial innovative ways of engaging with local communities, and BCT recognised that programme projects would need support to implement these new methods and tools.

For me, acting as a mentor was slightly different to my normal role, as rather than running every aspect of a participation project, we worked in partnership with the project teams. We helped them deliver their projects, meet their objectives and advised on appropriate use of the tools and methods. Calling the right interventions at the right time helped to make sure each of the projects were building their own confidence and capabilities to deliver high quality engagement. Often we were a friend to bounce ideas off, or even a listening ear to take the time to talk through problems. Both remote support and running training workshops gave me the chance to build solid relationships with my teams beyond the project lifetimes.

The most important thing I learnt from this experience was that democratic support needs to start at the beginning, possibly even at project formulation stage, ensuring the engagement process plan is integrated with all other aspects. Support should be regarded as working in partnership, with a successful project as the shared goal. In this respect, early intervention is necessary to guarantee a meaningful engagement process.

To explain some of these nuances from my personal experience, it’s worth taking a step back at this point to look at the broader context.

Demsoc has been involved in experimenting and piloting democratic innovations throughout Europe for over 10 years. Sometimes we see traditional institutions struggle when trying to experiment with democratic innovation. We know what’s needed to shift to a more participative and engaging way of working, and we know what support is needed to make this happen.

Anyone who works and thinks about democracy every day can sometimes forget how hard it is for people to go it alone with new ways of involving citizens. We need to recognize that democratic innovation is a MASSIVE culture change for some of our public services and institutions. Realise that it is okay to need help; it is okay to co-create processes with others or have someone to guide you through it all. And it’s okay to not get it right first time! Once we step back and assess, it’s all the more apparent why we need to be supporting and enabling this kind of work to happen.

Too often, poorly-designed democratic innovation creates a process that is too complex and off-putting and does not link closely enough to decision making. Although testing new approaches is not to be belittled, it may be too much to expect people to be fantastic innovators straightaway and be able to practice new ways of working which may be outside their comfort zone.

We need to support, discuss, guide, train, co-create and build new democratic processes from beginning to end; not merely provide a rough guide to democratic innovation and sit back and see what happens. This investment in democratic innovation helps to encourage learning and changes in practice – and as a result, greater participation in the future!

The above example from Northern Ireland of supporting democratic innovation through mentoring is interesting for a variety of reasons (you can find out more about the project here!) but at the heart of it, it’s all about aiding learning and capability building to ensure sustainability. Democratic innovation doesn’t have to be scary and it doesn’t have to be done alone. Mentoring for democratic innovation can be the difference between a disappointing foray into new ways of participation, and fresh insight into better ways of engaging that encourage long term changes in how we involve people in decision making.

This Blog first appeared on the Democratic Society Website. 

Demsoc focuses on providing all sorts of support for democratic innovation, including mentoring. Through face-to-face meetings we assess readiness and provide tailored support packages based on this assessment.

If you’d like to find out more about what they could do for you, contact

If you'd like to know more about the work Demsoc does in Northern Ireland, drop them a line at or @DemsocNI

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