Political innovations: a necessity for democracy and a bogeyman for authoritarian leaders

07.11.2023 |

Political innovations: a necessity for democracy and a bogeyman for authoritarian leaders

Johanna Mair, a Stanford University professor, describes the new concept of political innovations in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It was developed in response to the recession of democracy, which has been accompanied by an increase in polarization, authoritarianism and social conflict.1 This concept emphasizes that innovation can be an effective means of addressing the political problems that constrain democracy.    

Democracy-strengthening activities are not new; nor is it new in Slovakia. Since the 1990s, initiatives to improve political culture or to advocate for greater transparency have been emerging in our country.

Since 2012, through the Fund for Transparent Slovakia, companies have supported watchdog and analytical organizations that contribute to monitoring compliance with laws or ethical standards and to reducing the space for corruption and state capture.

Civil society engagement

It is common for civil society initiatives to respond with solutions to socio-economic problems and to engage in policy-making in this regard. Only democracies with authoritarian features can be concerned about civil society’s involvement in improving democracy.

When do we talk about democracy-strengthening activities and when do we talk about political innovations?
Professor Johanna Mair introduced the concept of political innovations in an article in the Standford Social Innovation Review, Emerging Field of Political Innovation. She states that when we talk about political innovations, we are primarily referring to initiatives by civil society organizations that identify problems in the political system and work together to solve them.

Political innovations activities can target:  
– citizens – mobilizing those people who feel excluded in some way from the political system;   
– leaders – they involve identifying and educating young people who are already engaged in politics;   
– systemic change – seeking to reform democratic infrastructure and rules.2 

These days, the Public Leadership Academy program is closing applications. It helps to professionalize experts of state and public institutions, developing their leadership, management and implementation skills. Through these activities, the program builds a community of professionals whose goal is to improve the quality of life in Slovakia, and can be classified as a political innovation.

According to Johanna Mair, political innovation is meant to be a collective effort and to ensure that democracy remains an effective system for achieving social progress. In other words, maintaining and strengthening democracy that is for all is the business and responsibility of all of us, not just politicians.

The role of social innovation in the recovery of democracy

Innovation is instrumental in bringing about new solutions. Most often we encounter technological innovations.

But we can also respond innovatively to societal problems or challenges we face in governing countries – the rise of authoritarian leaders, the curtailment of free media, the weakening role of civil society, the lack of participation of excluded communities or minorities. These can all be barriers that we can address through social innovation by bringing new ideas, testing them and scaling them.

It is the use of social innovation tools that characterizes political innovation.

Impact Summit

Johanna Mair will talk more about policy innovation at the Impact Summit on 5 December.

Specific examples from Europe will be presented by Sarah Durieux and Jeff Kwasi Klein from the Multitudes Foundation, which supports political innovators.

Lisa Witter, Director of the Apolitical Foundation, will talk about the role of civil servants, and lessons from practice that can motivate leaders in public administration.

Last but not least, the importance of innovation in promoting democracy will be highlighted by our key note speaker, Ben Rhodes, advisor to Barack Obama.


(1) In 2022, for the first time in almost two decades, there are more autocratic states than democracies in the world. In its 2022 global findings report, the Bertelsmann Stiftung categorised 70 of 137 countries as autocracies and named another 11 as “highly defective democracies” that are prone towards autocracy.
In 2021, Freedom House reported a new peak in the 15-year global “democratic recession”. Populist movements continue to divide society and, according to the 2021 Democracy Index, even countries with “stable” democracies scored low on citizen participation. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, conducted in 28 countries, 42% of citizens worldwide distrust government leaders and 48% see government as a divisive force.

(2) Mair, J., Kindt, J., & Mena, S. (2023). The Emerging Field of Political Innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 21(2), 24–29. https://doi.org/10.48558/R5XX-CP70 

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