Citizen Participation in Times of Corona: Using the Momentum for Change.
Updated: May 20, 2020
The past months turned all of our lives upside down. Over the course of just a few weeks, drastic measures were taken across the globe, forcing us to come to terms with conditions that would have been unimaginable just a couple of months before.
In the weeks that followed the global outbreak of Covid-19, little room remained for meaningful collaboration between local governments and their citizens. Faced with the risk of losing lives, of hospitals tumbling into chaos and livelihoods permanently endangered, local governments had to react quickly. At the same time, most citizens were primarily occupied with adjusting to the lockdown, doing their best to juggle home-office or sudden unemployment with crowded living spaces, home-schooling and a looming uncertainty regarding the future.
With lockdown measures being eased across Europe now, this changes. The immediate threat of the virus has subsided and the return to relative normality is underway. But as we leave strict lockdown conditions behind, we take with us not just a new-found appreciation for what seemed like mundane aspects of our daily routines, but an understanding that many challenges still lie ahead. And a desire to meet these challenges as a community can be felt everywhere.
Only if citizens' perspectives are considered can effective measures be developed that are accepted by the people.
By now, everyone knows that a gradual easing of lockdown-conditions is not identical with a return to complete normality. As long as the search for a vaccination continues, each region, city and community will have to find protective measures that both contain the risk while not causing disproportionate interruption to people’s lives. For this, citizens’ input is crucial. Only if citizens' perspectives are considered can effective measures be developed that are accepted by the people.
Simultaneously, the experience of the past months has changed our society. Many leave lockdown with a fresh perspective, unwilling to just pick up where they left off before the crisis. The sudden rupture in our lives made us reevaluate our priorities, strengthened our community-ties and gave us a sense of how adaptable and resourceful we are as a community. The need to respond quickly and effectively to the outbreak exposed deficiencies in our system, amplified by our ability to compare how responses differed globally. Citizens everywhere are now looking for ways to turn this shift in perspective into fuel for change.
In the current context, citizens clearly want to be actively included in decisions and discussions around the future of their communities.
In the context of Corona, citizens want to be actively included in decisions and discussions regarding the future of their communities. And rightly so. Not only does open exchange help us process this shared experience or does the effectiveness of measures depend on community-effort. The past months have generated a desire for collaboration amongst citizens. And using this momentum by providing citizens with a platform for participation can be a powerful catalyst for meaningful change in every community.
Facing Corona as a community.
If there’s one thing that the past weeks have shown us it’s how much our well-being hinges on community-spirit. A selfish focus on one’s own needs and interests endangers others in the face of crisis. Instead, solidarity, collective responsibility and mutual understanding are key.
As we leave the immediate crisis-mode behind us, this focus on community shouldn’t be abandoned. If anything, we should build on it.
Finding, putting into place and implementing effective measures until a vaccination is found requires a nuanced understanding of community-needs. While some broad parameters may be applicable across communities, the specific measures needed will differ from community to community depending on the particular circumstances.
To establish where the concrete needs lie, citizens’ input is required. By giving citizens a platform to share their experiences and draw attention to the issues that are of particular concern to them, like education, care for the elderly, transport etc., current shortcomings can be pinpointed and measures adjusted accordingly.
Germany’s largest network association of organisations working with homeless people, Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft für Wohnungslosenhilfe, recently followed this approach. To better understand how the Covid-crisis has impacted organisations’ work and identify where support is needed, BAG Wohnungslosenhilfe opened several private consultations for its members on Civocracy’s platform. This way, crucial insights were gained that will form the basis for vital adjustments in the future.
Gathering citizens’ input ensures broader acceptance of Corona-measures.
Collecting citizens’ input will also ensure broader acceptance of Corona-measures. If certain restrictions of civic freedoms continue to be necessary, citizens at least want to be included in the process. After all, everyone has developed a certain expertise on Corona and experienced first-hand how protective measures impact our lives. Citizens have valuable insights and want their perspectives to be considered!
Given how much citizens’ experiences diverge in the context of Corona, open exchange between community-members is imperative for creating acceptance of the measures. After all, Corona affects us differently. What provides enough protection or no excessive burden for some may fail to protect or prove impossible for others. The key to generating community-wide acceptance for restrictive measures is mutual understanding. Once we develop a better understanding of different peoples’ situations and needs, we’re much more likely to accept and support measures that restrict our own lives.
Lastly, vigilant citizen engagement fulfils a particularly crucial role in the current context. Corona-measures go to the core of our rights and freedoms as citizens. To protect those very rights and balances that the stability of our political system depends on, it is crucial that citizens stay informed, engaged and active. Together with ACTE, we at Civocracy developed a Guide for Citizen Engagement during Crisis that highlights good practices for citizens in these challenging times (https://www.acte-europe.org/editorial-citizen-empowerment). Governments need to play their part by providing citizens with safe, accessible and inclusive ways of staying informed, supporting each other and engaging in debate.
As communities prepare for long-term adjustments in their fight against the virus, a focus on community-cooperation, collective understanding and collaborative action is more important than ever. Only by giving citizens the tools for cooperation and collaboration will communities be able to rise to this challenge.
The shared experience of Corona changed communities.
While getting safely (and sanely) through this time was - and remains - on the forefront of people’s minds, the impact of the crisis went much deeper than that. The sudden rise of an existential threat together with the most invasive curtailments of civic freedoms that many of us have ever experienced meant a radical rupture to our lives. For many, this triggered a shift in perspective.
As a byproduct of the Corona-crisis, many experienced a shift in perspective that holds powerful potential for communities.
Adjusting to the lockdown inevitably changed how we perceive life around us. By having to drastically reduce our lifestyle and limit our radius from one week to the next, we developed a new awareness of our environment. Many enter post-lockdown society with more thoughts spent on their elderly neighbours, the cashiers working in the closest supermarket or the local establishments that were forced to shut their doors in March. This heightened sense of community means that many citizens feel closer to and more invested in their neighbourhoods, cities or regions.
At the same time, experiencing what type of change we can become accustomed to has opened our eyes to the type of positive change that is possible in our communities. We have witnessed first-hand how much we can accomplish by working together - and that breaking out of our routines really is doable. Fuelled by this realisation, people aren’t willing to overlook the shortcomings and systemic deficiencies that were exposed over the course of the crisis but strive to address them. Whether it’s insufficient communication-channels, a lack of cooperation within schools or inadequate housing conditions, citizens are motivated to overcome these challenges together.
This shift in perspective is a byproduct of the Corona-crisis that holds incredible potential for communities. Citizens everywhere are brimming with ideas and energy to not just return to their old lives but work towards building a better future for themselves and those around them. And it’s local governments’ responsibility to channel this energy into meaningful change.
There’s powerful momentum for community-initiatives.
Most citizen participation projects begin with an assessment of relevant topics and promising strategies to generate engagement. In the post-lockdown context, the conditions have been shifted to your advantage.
Right now, citizens are actively looking for ways to make their feedback heard, enter into exchange with each other and their governments, and collaborate on new projects. Local governments can use this momentum by providing them with a platform dedicated to future projects around strengthening the community.
As an added benefit, focusing on building a better future post-Corona helps people deal with the current situation. Studies have shown that focusing on life after a crisis helps you get through the crisis.
Driven by our commitment to empowering citizens, Civocracy initiated a pure bottom-up participation project in collaboration with, amongst others, Engage, On the Green Road and Quorum (https://www.civocracy.org/construisons-demain). On a page dedicated to collaboratively building a better vision for the future, French citizens share their ideas and opinions on what a post-Corona world should - and could - look like. To date, over 1000 propositions have been added. The most popular ones were opened as separate consultations on the platform and will host in-depth discussion on how to transform them into tangible projects over the next weeks. Amongst the propositions that attracted most attention so far were suggestions to impose taxes on polluting modes of transport, supporting local sourcing of food and extending a tram line. In a final step, the most promising ideas will be proposed to government.
In the current context, citizens’ desire to be included in decisions is evident. Over the past weeks, this has often even turned into an active demand for more inclusion. To respond effectively to Covid-19, this must be taken seriously. But even beyond our immediate future, a strengthening of community-collaboration will prove to be vital. As we leave strict lockdown-conditions behind, the challenges that await us become more pressing than ever. At the same time, the potential that collective action holds has never been clearer. To provide communities with a space for discussion and cooperation now not only means taking Corona on in the only way that will prove effective - as a community - but means turning the Covid-19-crisis into a moment for community-growth. Using the momentum for citizen engagement will guarantee a powerful push for positive change in your community.