The United Kingdom boasts several country-level achievements that make it an object of envy abroad. Its economy reached the pre-crisis level as far back as 2014 and is now the third largest in the EU, surpassed only by Germany and France. The overall unemployment is at an historic low (4.3%) and a relatively steady post-referendum growth has defined the gloomy predictions of Brexit sceptics, proving many of them wrong. On a range of other indicators like youth unemployment and NEET the UK is above the EU-average, which further underscores its broadly positive socio-economic performance.
However, to say that the country is without problems would be a gross understatement. For one, UK population is ageing. In 2016, 18% of people were aged 65 and over compared to 14.2% in 1976. The number of working age population (16-64) has barely budged over this period but there was a noticeable decline in the 0-16 age bracket, from 24.5% in 1976 to 18.9% in 2016. As a result of this demographic trend, the old age dependency ratio, measured as the number of elderly people as a share of those of working age, has been steadily increasing, reaching 28.5% in mid-2016
The generational divide is evident not only in demographics but also politics. Brexit is a case in point. The decision to leave the bloc was largely opposed by the nation’s younger population, with 75% of voters aged under 24 voting to remain Studies conducted in the aftermath of the referendum result found young people claiming they were most concerned about losing out on opportunities following the vote as well as the impact on Britain’s image as a tolerant, multicultural society Refrains along the lines of “they stole our future” were common on social media, and although other factors were at play too (e.g. class, level of education, geographic area), the result highlighted that young and old generations were fighting for radically different visions of the UK.
The sense of betrayal feeds into a wider disillusionment with politics that has plagued the country for years. In 2009, the Youth Citizenship Commission found that 82% of young people in the UK do not trust politicians to make the right decisions for them and 76% feel they cannot influence government decisions. Other surveys confirmed this picture of mistrust. In a poll conducted by YouGov, 48% of young respondents stated that they thought the political system represented them badly, and only 13% thought that it represented them well. In a survey conducted by the British Youth Council (BYC), only 8% of respondents thought politicians know what is important for young people and what issues affect their lives most.
The distrust is not unfounded. Take the tuition fee pledge for example. Over 1000 candidates standing in the 2010 general election, including all 57 subsequently elected Liberal Democrat MPs, made a pledge against tuition fee increases But following the election, the government won a parliament vote authorising higher caps for tuition fees, which eventually saw the cost of higher education rise from three to nine thousand pounds a year. Among those who voted in favour were 27 Liberal Democrats, including the party’s leader and the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Cleck.
Needless to say, the policy outcome led to student demonstrations nationwide, and Liberal Democrats lost much of their former popularity among students.
The lack of trust in the system provides much of the backdrop for #ask operations in the UK. The pilot started in 2016 to bridge the gap between young people and policymakers through social media. Young people are often considered to be ‘digital natives’ and therefore expect higher rates of online engagement from politicians. BYC survey data supports this view. 60% of respondents stated that politicians should engage young people in politics by using social media for campaign purposes. 36.6% thought that in order to increase youth engagement in politics politicians should talk about their work through Twitter, as well as blogs (30%) and video-blogging (30.8%)
Twitter is a perfect platform for the UK pilot. 582 out of 650 MPs (90%) have a Twitter account. Collectively, they post hundreds of tweets daily, with some politicians so popular that their accounts have hundreds of thousands and even millions of followers. True, Twitter may have less users than Facebook but it is more popular than other social networks like LinkedIn and Tumblr, with 44% of people aged 16-22 using it.
ASK interventions are carried through the special dashboard which uses Twitter API to access social network’s data. Three trained ask brokers have managed the UK instance of the platform since it became operational in 2017. At the outset, UK brokers had to ensure that there was enough data to stimulate conversations between young people and policymakers. To that end, they searched for the handles on the main Twitter app and added to the dashboard those that met the pre-defined criteria, a task which had been repeated until the target for youth (min. 1,500) and policymakers (min. 300) was reached. Once the handle is on the dashboard brokers are able to track its activity, such as posts made or tweets replied to. They are also able to monitor trending topics by entering a keyword in the search field; manage handles by updating their metadata; see the engagement statistics; and of course jump into existing conversations or create new ones.
Since its launch, #ask UK has engaged hundreds of young people in Twitter discussions with politicians and policymakers at different levels of government (local, regional, national, European). Conversations brokered by #ask UK (over 600) covered topics as diverse as health, sexual orientation and gender equality, education, political participation, volunteering, NEETs, environment and Brexit, among many others. Trending topics were discovered with the help of #ask dashboard to ensure that no major issue or event was left unnoticed (e.g. #GE2017, #vote16, #unpaidinternships, #CambridgeAnalytica). 23.5% of all contributions elicited a response from either young people, policy makers or third parties.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, young people were more likely than policymakers to engage in a conversation. Out of the total replies received, only 10% were made by policymakers. The rest were equally split between young people and third parties. Young people surveyed by the brokers (n=20) almost unanimously agreed that Twitter provides a good opportunity to connect with policymakers, although none believed a single conversation online can grow into something bigger, such as policy amendment or policy revision. Many also said that if a policymaker engaged with them on Twitter, either by liking, retweeting or replying to their post, they would appreciate that and reciprocate. As one respondent said “I would be extremely happy as it would mean they recognised the work that I’m doing and may involve me in future work on the issue.”
Out of 14 respondents who answered the question about benefits
- 9 said ASK project offered them a chance to further develop e-participation via Twitter
- 8 said they got a platform for direct e-discussions on local and European policy makers
- 6 said there was an opportunity to network with other local and European youth on e-participation related topics
- 5 said ASK project helped them become a youth multiplier by learning how to motivate and involve other young people in e-participation
- 3 said they had a chance to start an active discussion on Twitter
Qualitative data provided by participants registered a general interest in the work of ASK brokers post-project, including on platforms other than Twitter. As one young person said “I think what the project is doing is great and hope what they [brokers] are doing continues and reaches more young people and work alongside with young people getting them to talk to policy makers and possibly create a YouTube channel having young people discuss topics.”
While some respondents chose to provide a limited endorsement (e.g. “I like what you do. Please keep going”), there were those who offered a more expanded comment with a volunteering undertone, such as “I would like to say that really enjoyed my participation in the project as feedback person on most of the publications [broker contributions]. I think we need more time though so I would be happy if the project has a follow up and we can go deeper into this work.”
What is clear from all this feedback is that young people appreciate the work of ASK brokers, seeing value in the work that they do toward promoting e-participation in general and a dialogue with policy makers in particular. However, to be truly successful, the brokering activity needs to carry on well into the future, as e-participation is far from reaching its full potential. As one respondent said “Great project but needs to work for longer time. I feel that we have just started to mobilize the debate.”