Partner story

Q&A with Democratic Society's Hanne Bastiaensen

Since we started building our Western Europe portfolio in 2017, Luminate has had the chance to partner with some extraordinary people and organisations in the UK, Germany, and France. We are winding down our domestic work in Europe by the end of 2023, but before we do, we want to give space to the partners we’ve worked with to share their own perspectives on their work, what they have learnt, and what’s needed in the future.

By Hanne Bastiaensen, Head of Democratic Infrastructure at Demsoc

1. What does DemSoc do?

Demsoc seeks to make democracy work for everyone, by creating opportunities for people to take part in decision making and be listened to.

We are a networked membership organization, and we’re working in 28 countries across Europe and beyond. For over a decade, we’ve worked with our partners to support thriving democratic spaces, dialogue and mutual comprehension. In that time, we have undertaken numerous projects and worked with thousands of participants.

You may have heard about us designing and running a citizen assembly or a participatory budget in a borough, a city, a region or a whole country. But we’re also researchers, sharing our pieces and thoughts. We’ve also grown to be known experts in the Climate & Democracy field, and we work across all EU countries to design participatory infrastructures. We’re also exploring and researching new areas: artificial intelligence, construction, or what we call beyond government, exploring the inequalities people experience in relation to decision making and power in all sorts of organisations.

2. What are the greatest lessons you've learned over the past two years?

We were more ready for Covid than we thought we were. We already had established a networked way of working with multiple offices across Europe, so going 100% digital brought some benefits. In particular, the third of the team who worked remotely didn’t feel like they were missing out on all the conversations that were happening in offices. This is one of the main things we want to hold on to from Covid times, now that travel and office meetings are resuming. 

We have also found that infrastructure for democratic participation is the most important but hardest thing to get right. So many of our projects have worked well but then ended up with a report and no continued engagement from citizens or stakeholders, because of the lack of network or social infrastructure to keep those conversations going. At the same time, there isn’t funding for infrastructure alone, and small projects and voluntary organisations don’t have the capacity to run it on their own. 

Demsoc recently released its Theory of Change, setting out its purpose and plan for change structured around a two-fold objective: strengthening democracy, and re-imagining it.

3. What opportunities do you see on the horizon and what are your plans for the future?

We have recently released our Theory of Change, setting out our purpose and our plan for change structured around a two-fold objective: strengthening democracy, and re-imagining it. Since it’s a theory, it will adapt to changing circumstances. For instance, the aggression against Ukraine is also a reminder of the fragility of our democracies. A strategy that drowns out citizens’ voices and crushes democratic institutions will never prevail in the long run, and Demsoc also exists to remind people of that simple fact.  

We consider ourselves to be part of the wider democratic movement along with a variety of organisations working at different levels and with different scopes. We see ourselves as activists, creators of democratic spaces, reformers, innovators, connectors and partners. We have identified challenges we aim to tackle by building participation infrastructures, enhancing democratic principles beyond government, using – fighting power and re-thinking our common futures in democracy. 

What it also means is, as we observe the participatory wave faltering, it’s on us to think about new innovative and inclusive ways to engage with citizens and instill participation and democracy everywhere we can.

4. How can funders support you right now?

Fund infrastructure, don’t fund standalone projects - or at least don’t fund projects that don’t build infrastructure. There is so much work being done around democratic participation that we risk running ahead of capacity, wasting money reinventing designs and losing the engagement of people we have involved in the work.

Support for our work on membership - what does it mean to be a member of a process, or of an organization, and what are the new models of membership that can support democratic participation? 

Read more Q&As with leaders from our Western Europe portfolio.