Agora was founded on grassroots participation. For us, this means having open, inclusive discussions about foreign policy with people of all ages, backgrounds, and political views in order to influence foreign policy. Our in-person meet ups have been an integral part of our founding and continual growth. We prized the welcoming warmth of meeting together, in informal settings, to ask the big questions about our world.
A Comment by Preeti Pasricha and Bingxing Liu
The pandemic challenged us on these values and our purpose. How can we, as a grassroots organisation, continue to grow, when our very fundamentals are being challenged? We got down to work in order to figure out how we can embrace digital transformation to maintain the community and participatory model that we were founded on.
1. Virtual online events
Our social media channels have been promoting our many online events over the past few months. These included our trademark Policy & Pints, Feminist Foreign Policy, a series of workshops to define a National Strategy for the Next Generations (NSxNG), and an international collaboration with European Forum Alpbach. It’s safe to say we became experts in Zoom very quickly.
There were some concerns with going digital. Our valued face-to-face interaction would be missing. We faced an opportunity cost in time spent to become digital, not to mention the screen fatigue. We were concerned how to maintain the quality of our events and keep our community engaged, if our only connection is a screen.
However, online events allowed us to pursue our purpose more broadly. Our Feminist Foreign Policy and European Forum Alpbach events reached an international audience, which broadened our outreach efforts – we wouldn’t have reached this kind of audience otherwise. Going digital also allowed us to be more creative with who we could invite as speakers, including Lord Peter Ricketts and the Chief Executive of mySociety, Mark Cridge. The flexibility that hosting online offers meant that reaching out to high profile speakers became easier.
Embracing digital transformation also enabled us to deliver our biggest project of the year: National Strategy for the Next Generations, in collaboration with the School of International Futures and other think tanks. These workshops contributed towards the UK Government’s Integrated Review on the foreign policy of the UK. Utilising the technology tools we have, we invited our participants to complete a survey to identify the key themes of discussion. They could make up their own or choose from a range of options, from geopolitics in 2040 to security to immigration in the UK. The feedback from our participants was then reflected in the structure of the workshops, such that people divided themselves into thematic groups identified from the data of the survey.
2. Social media outreach
Outreach to our community is fundamental to Agora’s founding principles. Although we could not meet our community in person, we still wanted to be connected so we leveraged our online platform to maintain this principle. By adapting our social media framework, we ran a ‘Meet the Community’ video series between the months of June and July 2020. We could put faces and personalities behind our organisation, have a little fun with our creativity, and get to know each other better despite the physical distance.
This strategy ran alongside our call for blogs in Spring 2020, where all six of our research programmes asked a question related to the pandemic and foreign policy. In Democracy and Governance, we asked: “How will the COVID-19 pandemic influence the relationship between liberal democracies, such as the UK, and other countries?“
Agora is a relatively new organisation and we are in the process of growing. Rather than letting the pandemic hinder our activity and engagement, we saw it as an opportunity to connect more and to not let it stop us growing. Our Facebook content production doubled between March and September 2020, compared to the respective year-to-date figures, whilst on Twitter our production approximately tripled.
Concluding thoughts: An opportunity and not a barrier
In general, our approach remained positive and resourceful. As an organisation that is so dependent on our community engagement, we had to stay active and engaged, whilst addressing challenges of motivation, staying connected despite being apart, and fatigue.
We have continued to publish and produce research as an organisation. In Democracy & Governance, we have continued to see an interest from people looking to volunteer their time with us or share their research. Foreign policy does not require physical proximity. We can still research, learn, and produce high-quality, collaborative content together.
Reflecting on our journey as a young grassroots think tank, it was important for us to adapt to digital transformation. It has opened opportunities by broadening our network of foreign policy professionals and widened our community base. It has also meant that policymakers and our community could be brought together, as in our work with European Forum Alpbach and NSxNG, hopefully making some influence on policy. We are excited to see how digital transformation can help us to further our agenda of making foreign policy truly inclusive and grassroots.
The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s & OpenTTN’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.
Preeti graduated from LSE in 2019 with BSc Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She works as a Technology Consultant predominantly in the public sector. She is interested in inclusion, participation, migration, democracy, and data. She co-Heads the Democracy & Governance programme at Agora.
Bing holds a MSc China in Comparative Perspective (2020) and BA Anthropology and Law (2019) from the LSE. She is interested in the comparative politics between the UK and the pacifics and South East Asia regions. She co-Heads the Democracy and Governance programme at Agora.