Why Networks Matter


James Moulding takes a moment to share his thoughts on why building stronger connections between organisations and individuals working on democracy is crucial to facing down the serious threats faced by democracy in the UK.

Democracy in the UK in 2023 is under assault. Whether by a dramatic attempt at curtailing judicial review, skewering of the independence of the Electoral Commission, decades of hard won gains on fair votes rolled back, an Online Safety Bill threatening free speech, or through new laws to crack down on protest and undermine the social contract.

There are more than 700 organisations across the UK working against this to build a stronger and fairer democracy, but their work is too often poorly coordinated. Many individual organisations are unaware of research, funding, talent, or access that they need, even though it is available, and this is disproportionately holding back the sector. This is where the Democracy Network comes in.

At the Democracy Network, we believe that one of the best ways to help secure and strengthen democracy is to ensure that the community of people and organisations working towards these shared goals are better connected, that it’s easy to share information and ideas, and easy to collaborate. But what does this mean in practice?

“Relationships move at the speed of trust, and social change moves at the speed of relationships”
Jennifer Bailey

Building relationships

At its core, a change-generating network’s impact will be determined by the strength and proliferation of relationships between its constituent members – or its ecosystem. This means that we work to create and develop opportunities and spaces for individuals to reach out across divides, collaborate, share information – and fundamentally, build trust in each other, empathy with each other’s viewpoints and perspectives, and a familiarity with the topics and touchpoints other organisations might be working around.

As catalysts of this network, we can foster this connectedness in practical and concrete ways – through programmes of intentional matchmaking – creating direct 1:1 connections between peers, performing a signposting role, facilitating learning circles – problem-solving in peer-to-peer groups, creating spaces for connection such as Democracy Drinks to the Democracy Meetups, providing coaching and buddying opportunities, and much more.

But the role of network leadership amongst such a sizable sector of 700+ organisations (and the thousands of amazing community-based organisations too) can only be so great, we can only have so many 1:1 meetings and run so many events. At some point we have to consider the question of connectivity – or the general amount and quality of connectedness in a system, and what we can do to maximise our impact.

To use a common network analogy of the soil food web, if intentional matchmaking between organisations is akin to watering a pair of plants in a forest, then enhancing connectivity across an entire sector is working out how to feed those mycelial networks from which our shared endeavours grow.

Over time both those involved in the stewardship of the network itself and those who will have taken part in some of the activities outlined above, will have a much improved sense of who is doing what, who’s speaking to whom, who’s receiving what funding and where the bottlenecks and opportunities are. Combined with surveys and research interviews, this network mapping can provide us with a lay of the land, which parts of the network have the knowledge, skills and resources for impact – and which could benefit from more targeted capacity building efforts, ie. skill sharing and training on particular topics, provided by the Democracy Network.

Underlining these efforts, and returning to that analogy again, we can provide much needed nutrients for those mycelial networks through a form of network mulch, or network infrastructure. By this we mean providing the foundational resource and information layer needed for people and organisations in the UK democracy space to thrive and for all networking efforts to build from.

In my previous role as Director at the Centre for Democracy, we made a great start on this, delivering the fortnightly sector newsletter, democracy map, sectoral calendar, meetups, jobs boards and funding opportunities lists. As the new Network Development Lead, I’ve brought these efforts over into the work of the Network, and we’ll be building on these too.

What does all this mean?

The engagement of individuals and organisations across the democracy space through these varied activities will accrue many benefits. Stronger bonds between organisations mean they are more likely to collaborate on projects and reduce duplication. More densified networks can share information and knowledge more rapidly and effectively, the rapid growth of the Democracy Defence Coalition in early 2021, for example.

Networks also allow for knowledge exchange amongst groups that might otherwise not communicate directly. They allow for the spread of ideas and best practice, and for comparisons on performance for campaigns and organisations with similar goals. Administered well, they should engender cultures of openness and generosity across a sector. Similarly, diversity in networks reduces the risk of groupthink and increases the likelihood of fresh new ideas and innovations reaching a greater number of people. Crucially, they should build a sense of shared purpose.

At the greater end, if the requisite trust, familiarity and empathy exist across a network, deeper levels of collaboration can take place, pooling resources and expertise of the network to achieve more together than they would working in isolation. This might include joint funding bids, campaigns, shared office space, shared operations functions or press lists, the list goes on, the ambition is palpable.

Through our feedback, we’ve already seen the impact of recent, though nascent, networking efforts in the sector bear fruit, with many mentioning the improved coherence of parts of the sector, increased visibility of opportunities for connection and greater synergy, some collaboration around funding that may otherwise not have happened and importantly an improved responsiveness of the sector to the threats we face.

“The future won’t be a new big, tower of power- but well trodden paths from house to house”
Raimon Panikkar

150 organisations have joined us on this journey, with hundreds more involved in networking efforts across the sector already – and we’re just getting started. If what we’ve outlined here has piqued your interest, get in touch to find out more about membership as part of the UK Democracy Network or sign up on our website.

Networks are a slow burn, trust takes time to build, familiarity time to embed and empathy time to share. So if you were waiting for the right time to join the network – this is it.

Photo credit: thekidsshouldseethis.com