Devolution, Democracy and Embedding Civic Education

Louise Casella writes that lifelong civic education is key to boosting engagement in our democracy.

Many of us consider the act of casting our vote in an election to be a civic duty, but the reality is that many others simply don’t see the value or purpose of voting. The reasons behind that are many.

For some, that’s because they’re disengaged or disillusioned. For others, it’s because they think that politics is above them – too complicated or not relevant to their lives.

Indeed, while the election of the Sixth Senedd may be an exciting moment for those of us who work in and around public policy, we should reflect on the fact that turnout in Senedd elections has never crossed the 50% mark.

Its high point was the first Assembly election in 1999, when 46.3% of people turned out. The average turnout across all five elections held to date is just 43.75%.

Consider, also, the recognition ratings of party leaders. While the Coronavirus pandemic will certainly have awakened some to the reality of devolution, there remains a sizable chunk of the population who simply have no opinion on the people vying to lead the country.

That isn’t a challenge concentrated in one party or even one side of the political spectrum. It is, rather, an issue with which all parties have to grapple.

“Vast swathes of the population still don’t understand how Wales is governed… This just isn’t sustainable.”

Remember, too, that many people – when asked whether the Senedd should have more or fewer powers, or whether we should stick with the status quo, end devolution within the UK, or aim for independence – simply don’t know.

This isn’t a new challenge. Questions about how well citizens understand the devolved governance of Wales have been around since the very beginning of devolution.

And as the Senedd prepares to head into its sixth term, we still haven’t found the solution.

Despite the separation of the executive and the legislature, the binning of the term ‘Welsh Assembly Government’, and the shift to the reserved powers model, few would disagree that vast swathes of the population still don’t understand how Wales is governed.

To be blunt, this just isn’t sustainable. We cannot go on for any great amount of time longer with so many of our citizens not aware of and engaged in the political and policy decisions that affect their lives.

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I commend the work of the Senedd itself, as well as all those voluntary organisations and charities, who have put a lot of effort into bringing the work of the Senedd closer to citizens right across Wales.

But we now need to go further.

There are some things that are, to one extent or another, outwith our control. Take, for example, the media.

It was the journalist Shirish Kulkarni who argued on the Welsh agenda online just last month that “London media just isn’t that into us.”

He’s right of course. The largely London-based media often fundamentally misunderstands devolved politics, or worse, simply isn’t interested in it.

When, as we know, most people in Wales get their news from London- or “UK-based” outlets, that presents a real challenge.

There are some notable examples of Welsh and Wales-based journalists who have done sterling work, particularly during the last year, to help people understand how and why certain decisions have been made.

“Embedding participatory budgeting and deliberative democracy into our standard policy making processes… make a great deal of sense.”

There are also positive developments, with the growth of hyperlocal journalism and outlets such as Nation.Cymru and the National.

Yet, we still face the same problem, and, to my mind, a radical enhancement of civic education must now be a central part of the solution.

Following the passage of the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 into law, we have an opportunity to indeed support all our children and young people to be ethical and informed citizens of Wales and the world. That is to be welcomed.

But solving the problem we have in Wales requires us to go further.

The Electoral Reform Society Cymru made a sensible recommendation in its manifesto for next month’s election, calling for “a commitment to statutory political education … to ensure young people leave school with much more knowledge and confidence in the political system than previous generations”.

That would be a good starting point, particularly given the fact that the franchise has now been extended to those aged 16 and 17.

But I also agree with ERS Cymru that this isn’t enough.

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We need also to look at how civic education can be extended to those in all kinds of post-16 education settings, thereby using the power of lifelong learning to help engage people in our democracy.

Ideas such as embedding participatory budgeting and deliberative democracy into our standard policy making processes, as ERS Cymru argues, make a great deal of sense.

Indeed, I would argue that involving people in policy leads to better decisions being made.

But neither is solving this problem solely about involving people in decision-making.

It also has to do with equipping people with a fundamental understanding of what our devolved governance is: who makes the decisions, why, and how?

To help answer some of those questions, The Open University in Wales has today launched a new, free course on our OpenLearn platform – Understanding Devolution in Wales – which supports learners to understand the people and events that have influenced devolution over the last 22 years.

During this last year, we’ve seen some level of awakening to the reality of devolution… we cannot afford to let that momentum slide backwards.”

But what we also need now to see is a concerted effort to enhance people’s capacity to think critically. That is: not simply to consume information, but to have the ability to analyse and interrogate it; to form their own ideas and opinions.

Civic education – particularly at school, but certainly not to the exception of lifelong learning settings either – is crucial to achieving that goal.

Indeed, embedding civic education throughout every citizen’s lifelong learning journey presents an opportunity to radically enhance their understanding of how our country is governed and – importantly – how they can use their voices to effect change.

During this last year, we’ve seen some level of awakening to the reality of devolution, as decisions about Coronavirus restrictions have been more obviously made and scrutinised by Welsh politicians.

And as we look ahead to the Sixth Senedd and the gradual easing of restrictions, we cannot afford to let that momentum slide backwards.

There are no quick or easy solutions. But there is now an opportunity to equip people – whatever their age, background, or circumstances – with the skills and knowledge to realise their full potential as citizens of Wales and the world and to play their part in the future of our communities and our country.

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

The Open University in Wales’ new course, Understanding Devolution in Wales / Deall Datganoli yng Nghymru, is available in English here and in Welsh here.


Louise Casella is Director of The Open University in Wales.

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