The Citizens' Agenda

Australian voters directly shape federal election debate.

Overview

Voters in 10 key federal electorates had a chance to directly influence debate and media coverage in 2013's federal election, through a ground-breaking project run by The University of Melbourne and the social media group OurSay.

Project

The Citizens' Agenda project enabled voters to post questions on the OurSay website, and vote for the questions others contributed. The questions that attracted the most support were then put to the candidates at a series of public meetings in August and September 2013. University of Melbourne researchers used the project to test whether the use of social media to detect a 'Citizens' Agenda' can improve civic engagement, and alter how journalists report politics.

Citizens' Agenda factsheet

Outcomes

The research team analysed the data from this exercise, including the numerous interviews with political candidates, journalists and citizens. Preliminary conclusions included that:

  • The OurSay intervention engaged mainly those citizens already engaged in political activity, both online and offline. There was some evidence of its drawing in citizens for the first time, and of some cross-over between online and offline interactions (web based voting and town hall meetings), but the cross-over was limited
  • Younger people were more likely to participate in the online activity than to attend the town hall meetings, though this did happen in some instances, for example, in the context of support for specific political parties (Greens and Sex Party)
  • Conversely, older people were less likely to propose or vote for questions or otherwise participate in the online processes, but were more likely than younger people to turn up to the town hall meetings, having heard about them through other than online sources

The Citizens' Agenda is believed to be the world's first social media 'intervention' of its kind. The participating electorates were chosen because they broadly represent the diversity of Australia, including a mix of marginal seats and safe seats, urban, rural and regional, and a mix of incumbent political parties. They include Melbourne (Vic), Corangamite (Vic), Bradfield (NSW), Fowler (NSW), Longman (Queensland), Oxley (Queensland), Brand (WA), Grey (SA), Denison (Tasmania) and Fraser (ACT).

Major national survey

In May 2013, the research team released the results of a major national survey which gauged the public's attitudes to political engagement, trust in government and media, and the current state of the political landscape. The independent national poll found Australian politicians have failed to engage or build a sense of trust with voters just months out from the federal election.

"The Survey commissioned by the Citizens' Agenda project - found a clear majority of voters (58%) thought the quality of political leadership was now 'noticeably worse' than usual."

The Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, Dr Margaret Simons, said the project empowered voters through social media to truly help shape political debate. "Voters in a democracy shouldn't be passive. On the contrary, with powerful new tools of communication all around, we should be telling politicians what matters to us and forcing them to engage," she said.

Download the Citizens' Agenda national survey of voters results

Publications

Simons, M., Sullivan, H., Nolan D. and Martin, A. (2013) "The Citizens' Agenda," in Simons, M. (ed) What's Next in Journalism?: new-media entrepreneurs tell their stories. Melbourne/London: Scribe Publications

More information