The Citizens' Agenda

An independent national poll has 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.

Australian voters to directly shape federal election debate

CA poster project summaryVoters 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.

The Citizens' Agenda project (see Factsheet 210kb pdf) enabled voters to post questions on the OurSay website, and vote for the questions others contributed. The questions that attract the most support were put to the candidates at a series of public meetings in August and September. University of Melbourne researchers are using the project to test whether the use of social media to detect a 'Citizens' Agenda' can be used to improve civic engagement, and alter how journalists report politics.

At the time of writing, the research team is analysing the data from this exercise, including numerous interviews with political candidates, journalists and citizens. Preliminary conclusions include:

  • The OurSay intervention did make public  issues that were not part of the dominant party political and media agendas. The most significant example of this was mental health policy and services - the subject of passionate debate in almost all electorates studied, both online and offline. There were other examples, including a suggestion that corruption at both state and local government level is a "sleeper" issue in the electorate
  • While the media paid attention to the town hall events themselves, frequently reporting the proceedings comprehensively, they did not pursue the issues raised there but merely reported - as conventional journalism requires - the responses of the candidates. The agenda was not changed by the experience of citizen activism
  • 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. Examining why this might be so will be an important element of the next stage of the project
  • 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 next stage of our research will draw on these initial findings to continue the exercise in the 2016 federal election campaign. We are currently applying for funding to the Australian Research Council.

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)

In May 2013, the research team released the results of a major national survey (640kb pdf) gauging the public's attitudes to political engagement, trust in government and media, and the current state of the political landscape.

The Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, Dr Margaret Simons, said the project empowers 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.