This month, we interviewed Michael Sani, co-founder and CEO of Bite The Ballot, as part of our Ashoka Series. Founded in 2010, Bite The Ballot uses grassroots campaigning and digital tools to engage young people in the political process and help them drive the political agenda. We discussed how Bite The Ballot is working to achieve its goals, how the organisation is currently restructuring its operations and finally about how Ashoka has supported Michael, enabling his growth as a social entrepreneur and CEO
Interview by Stephanie van de Werve, Communications and Marketing Manager at Aleron

British youth and politics

Aleron: How would you say young people’s participation in politics here in the UK compares with that of their peers in the rest of the world – in quantity and quality?

Michael: In quantity, just not enough. The quality I would say needs realigning, as there are a lot of people – especially young people – who care passionately about the issues that affect our local, national and global communities.

However, their knowledge of those areas is not enhanced enough and they are not empowered enough to play a role. Therefore, if we look at the issues that are preventing people from playing an active role, and try to remove those barriers, then we’ll begin to see a huge increase in the amount of young people that become more socially active and ready to drive the political agenda – rather than just being where the axe falls every time a difficult decision has to be made.

To summarize, quite frankly, not enough. Not enough quantity and not the right kind of quality, but that’s only because we haven’t provided the correct environment for them to flourish.

Aleron: Would you say that’s down to education?

Michael: Completely. It’s also about confidence, a basic ethos of delayed gratification and an understanding of decision-making processes, but essentially, education is critical. Our national curriculum does not deliver that across the spectrum of schools and educational establishments in Great Britain. It is very elitist, which is why we have far too many young people not understanding the link between the issues they feel passionate about, and them being political. And we must ensure, should people be frustrated by something, they understand the channels of communication to try and change things.

Aleron: When did your interest in encouraging increasing engagement begin?

Michael: My own awakening came when I was 27. I was a schoolteacher and my boss turned his attention to the General Election 2010, and asked me if I was going to vote – to which I replied ‘No’ I had no interest in politics and actually had no idea. I was one of the very young people I am trying to reach now. I then looked at my own personal environment: I was not engaged or educated in school, my parents did not bring politics into the family home, my circle of friends did not really make the link between the things we cared about and politics.

Michael SaniMichael is an actor turned activist, who’s life has lead him to become a social entrepreneur. In a previous ‘lifetime’ as a teacher, Michael – himself largely apolitical until that point – came to realise the extent of apathy about politics among his students. He decided to help make a change and in 2010, founded Bite the Ballot. Green-logoFollow Bite the Ballot on Twitter @BiteTheBallot and read more at bitetheballot.co.uk
Aleron: What’s your view on extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds?

Michael: I would want to make sure that if it was to be extended, the political education was there. Honestly, out of the vast amount of young people I have met, I am sure that if the environment was created for them to flourish then they would. They hold a higher level of debate than most politicians I have met. They have got a general respect for one another. If you create a safe space for that to flourish, they will challenge common misconceptions and they will seek to be quite progressive – whether that is Left or Right-leaning – in policies, because they just want to see things implemented.

So if the environment was there I think young people would flourish, but as far as extending the franchise, I have not really got a view right now, because I do not feel the environment is right for that debate to take place. I would much rather have young people drive that themselves. I’m a 32-year-old man and it’s very simple for me to say ‘Yes it should’ but quite frankly I want them to prove that they should. I want to create the environment and have the case studies that prove that young people are clearly political, that they have shown an ethos of change and change-making. And then they will make those changes, they will get the e-petitions, they will challenge their elected representatives. It’s more of a desire for people to do it for themselves.

Aleron: When we talk about young people and politics, social media always come up. It has even been cited as a key factor in recent political uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. But how has social media influenced youth engagement and democracy here in the UK?

Michael: I think it has been a huge factor because social media and online engagement have seen huge spikes in almost every other area of our lives, whether it is banking or falling in love, the way we shop, the way we listen to music, the way we consume and the way we contact one another.

Politics could easily continue to be at the heart of all that, because everything is political and politics is everything and everywhere. So I think politics being online has really enabled – especially in a social media environment – young people to feel the confidence to interact with one another and feel the confidence to engage in a space that feels like their native space. And then you have the unique selling points of idols and influencers who, when included in these discussions, drive views, opinions and provoking content, and their fans will get involved and it’s a really nice way of stimulating the debate

And I think that what we have tried to do through social media is not only to stimulate debate, but then to drive calls to action: ‘Register to vote’ or ‘Sign this’, ‘Protest’ ‘Attend a Consultation’, ‘Go and see your MP’. I really think that social media can be at the heart of giving everybody a conscious understanding of how the current system works, and then they can drive forward this evolution.

Aleron: You have spoken directly to leading UK politicians. Do you think they are really listening?

Michael: Some. some not. That it is not just a case of them or the young people, it is both and what I mean by that is: If young people registered to vote in mass numbers, then suddenly, they are an audience and every politician wants to know what they care about and who they are going to vote for.

Until that process, young people can be ignored because they cannot punish at the ballot box. Right now we have got a political system where the whole political ethos is created around ‘power’ – and the power hungry who want to ‘control’

An element of change can start from within, with elected representatives who are trying to ensure greater participation and accountability but real change needs to be driven from the ground up, from the people. I think most politicians will use the young people card when it is important to them. But no, they’re not listening enough and 9 times out of 10 the ones that mainly listen are those that are not in power.
And let’s be honest, the British educational system has been around for decades and no politician, no UK leader, has ever thought that we must ensure that the franchise is there for young people to understand their role as citizens, to rise to the responsibilities of a modern democracy and understand the process of change – and that needs to change, but that needs to be driven from the ground up.

Bite the Ballot

Aleron: How would describe Bite the Ballot’s core values and goals?

Michael: I think that at Bite the Ballot we are on a mission to create spaces to enable, engage and empower young people to be change-makers. We need young people to respect one another’s right to be different, we need them to be able to challenge common misconceptions, and we need them to appreciate that in a society where everything can feel quite instantaneous.

Our core values are about being inclusive, feeling love and empathy for one another, and putting the wellbeing of people before any profit and greed. This is important because we live in a society where almost every other part – even the animal kingdom and the planet itself – is actually worse off because of human beings. We need to re-evaluate the reasons why we are here and I think our youngest citizens need to be at the heart of that. What sort of world do they want? What sort of world do they want for the future? They need to be able to drive that political agenda and that starts with a foundation of knowledge and empowerment.

Aleron: What is the Bite the Ballot model for youth and community engagement?

Michael: We work in three areas: On the ground, online and in policy.

We have grassroots activities that mobilise local and national communities to participate and be the driving force of campaigns in their local community. The digital element is to continue that relationship with people, through calls to action, idols and influencers, bringing politics to an online space, bringing young people to an online space and creating a space where they feel confident to give their views.

We do want political education, we do want young people to be part of the heart of the political decision making process and there are quite simple steps, simple changes to the law that can enhance that. So policy is the first strand of our work, but young people are the driving force. In any big project we do, there are always consultations with the heart of the communities that we are working with and the people that we are trying to reach.

Aleron: What has been your impact so far and how do you measure it?

Michael: We have done some campaigns that have had high impact. We created the UK’s national voter registration drive in 2014 and 50,000 people registered to vote. In 2015, just shy of half a million people registered to vote. There was a 74% conversion rate of people who saw our online media and clicked the image to vote. Per capita, that is the most successful registration drive in any democracy. So we have been successful in our campaigns, we have created voter advice tools and had just shy of half a million users (almost 50% of whom are female and 46% of whom are 18-34).

We have given staff on the ground in local communities the freedom to try and express themselves in a variety of different ways, providing the ethos of the campaign – to be bold inclusive and unconventional and to keep it simple – shines through in their work.

Now we are at that point where we want to take it one step further. Voter registration was an impact measure. But that is going to be one small part now. We’re now looking at active citizenship, attendance at events, being an advocate online and volunteering.

We are in a process of re-evaluating how we measure our impact and we are constantly thinking about how that information can be disseminated back to the young people and communities themselves as an empowerment tool: ‘So when you first joined the campaign, there were this many people. Now there are this many’ – it has got to feel like it is growing, it is got to feel like it is theirs.

Aleron: So how important has impact measurement and reporting been to your efforts?

Michael: It has been very important, especially to the local authorities we have worked with. It has included quantitative and qualitative case studies – and numbers speak for themselves because registrations are now online. We have seen huge impact through people that have registered to vote online.

But now we are taking it that one step further. We are working with the University of Northampton, who are creating for us our very own unique social impact measurement tool, so we can begin to share that with the people we work with. That will include a series of different things, such as the soft skills that we want to instil in people, the confidence to be political and share their views and opinions. Also, the people we are employing in local communities and how we are helping in terms of limiting or reducing youth unemployment. Small steps, obviously, but we are trying to be progressive.

I want Bite the Ballot to be able to stand alone and say ‘This is what we measure’ and then align with the people we want to work with.

Aleron: You launched a social action app, Verto. What were the key enablers of that process?

Michael: Our voter advice tool was very costly and difficult, in part, because we had to work in collaboration. And we did not quite get the tool that we wanted, but we got something and we made it work.

And yes, it was costly – it is something I am still paying for – but it was a fantastic case study to show that actually there was a hunger for things to be simplified, ‘gamified’ and to really remove the jargon from politics so that people could make quite clear, simple choices based on their values and then show how particular topics within the game are political.

Making change and the Ashoka Fellowship

Aleron: So can everyone be a change maker?

Michael: Yes. Because change can come in a variety of ways – small or big, it is not competition. Change can be in the very way we interact with each other, even in a basic way; the way we interact with our neighbours, the way we look after each other in society. I think at the minute, the negative side of social media and television programmes and games is detachment. If we feel something is wrong, how many of us actually turn that into action? How many of us act upon that? And how many of us become distracted by the vagaries of our lives and block it out?

And this is where the change-making ethos comes in. This idea that ‘if I really do not agree with something, I take steps towards changing it, no matter how small, no matter how conscious.’ You’re a change maker if you make the informed decision to register to vote. Because the more people register to vote, the more our system has to change, because the more accountable it is, the more transparent it has to become. So yes, change-making can be very small and it can be very big and I think what we are trying to do is just to get that first step from the younger generation

Aleron: How has being an Ashoka Fellow helped Bite the Ballot and its visibility?

Michael: The Ashoka Fellowship has been one of the most amazing things for me personally, because it has been quite lonely to do all this. You can have many people around you but you’re the one who has got everything running through your brain, the one that is worrying about every single part of the organisation, its goals and its impact. And it has just been great to be in scenarios where other people that share those fears and excitements are just there to talk to.

They have been a fantastic support for me personally and then for the campaign they were phenomenal. During the build-up to the election I was Fellow of the Month, they got us press, and the support of Virgin and Richard Branson. It has been great. It is a really special network. I didn’t know it existed before I was approached. The head of the programme and someone from UnLtd put me forward for it. I remember going home in the evening and watching a few Youtube videos about it and got a huge lump in my throat, thinking ‘…this is fantastic, I feel like I fit in with this.’

It is important that as much as the campaign evolves, I evolve, because I am not just a CEO off the shelf. I fell into this and ran with it and carried on going and suddenly it required responsibility. And it is important that you take that seriously, but you do not lose who you are and the reason why you started the work in the first place, because there are a lot of distractions.

Aleron: So you have been learning from more senior fellows – including their mistakes?

Michael: Continuously! I have got this support network where I am able to share my current problems and get advice based upon what other people have been through, I have got a coach and a tailored coaching programme, and it has been really refreshing and energising.

At the moment I am really setting the agenda with the coach, looking at different roles and responsibilities within Bite the Ballot, as we are undergoing an internal process – so we are not doing any outward-facing messaging until October, because there is no need. We are going to be around for the next five years so for the few months across the summer we can afford to be quiet and just really look at the way that we want to structure things, the way we want to work going forward, the areas we want to go to and the impact we want to make.

Ashoka (1)

Ashoka is a non-profit organization dedicated to finding and fostering social entrepreneurs worldwide. Ashoka is the largest network of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with nearly 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries putting their system changing ideas into practice on a global scale.
Founded by Bill Drayton in 1980, Ashoka has provided start-up financing, professional support services, and connections to a global network across the business and social sectors, and a platform for people dedicated to changing the world. Ashoka launched the field of social entrepreneurship and has activated multi-sector partners across the world who increasingly look to entrepreneurial talent and new ideas to solve social problems.