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Can political start-ups save democracy?

Experts from research, politics and NGOs discuss the future of democracy.

Does our political system need a reboot? This was the guiding question of a panel on start-ups for democracies, where representatives from politics, research and NGOs discussed with an audience of about 100 guests from various academic and non-academic fields. 

Elisabeth Niejahr, CEO of the Hertie Foundation, which together with the Hertie School co-hosted the evening, set the stage for the challenges ahead in her welcome remarks. According to Niejahr, democracies around the world are under pressure – even in Western countries, which for decades were considered immune to authoritarian and anti-liberal tendencies. One of the many reasons for this is that parliaments do not adequately reflect society, as large social groups are underrepresented in politics. “The gap between civil society actors and politicians is wide,” she said. “As a result, trust in parliaments, parties and authorities is suffering.” 

Political systems have a “talent and innovator problem”

This is where political innovation comes in, a concept which Johanna Mair, Professor of Organisation, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School, introduced to the audience in her keynote. Citing her recently published study, she reflected on the practical implications of the term: “Though approaches to pro-democratic work like political activism and political entrepreneurship are nothing new, political innovators take them a step further, trying to reform the political system from within by, for instance, supporting young political talents or crowdsourcing solutions to political problems,” Mair said.

But how does this translate into daily political business? Caroline Weimann, Co-CEO of JoinPolitics, and Max Oehl, Executive Director of Brand New Bundestag, both explained that traditional politics are hampered by a “talent and innovator problem”. In their view, major trends that drive society and citizens are not arriving at the political arena, leaving parliaments unable to fully represent citizens’ preferences in the legislative process. JoinPolitics and Brand New Bundestag are trying to solve this problem by supporting progressive and innovative political talent and providing them with resources and a political network to bring more diversity and representation into politics. 

Make politics attractive again 

The severity of the talent and innovators problem was also mentioned by Nadine Schön, deputy chairwoman of the CDU/CSU party in the German Bundestag. “Especially at the regional and local levels, polarisation and verbal and sometimes even physical attacks render political jobs highly unattractive to young talents,” Schön explained. She argued that “making politics attractive again” should be the motto for party strategists these days.

After an open discussion about political innovation as a tool to counter or promote political populism, the diversity gap in politics and the lack of non-academic politicians in national parliaments, participants and panellists alike gathered around drinks and food to continue the discussion and maybe even scout the next political talent.

More about our expert

  • Johanna Mair, Professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership