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Citizen participation only activates the opposition? Projects need commitment!

For a culture of participation to be alive and widespread, with all its positive effects, it is necessary to build what could be called an engagementality (a mentality of engagement) and to develop it among citizens, to make them want to get involved.


Administrations and governments must be the bearers of this state of mind. To do this, participation formats must become lighter, interactive, and more fun and communication must be both complete in terms of information and above all coherent.


This is precisely the paradox of participation. Almost everyone wants this culture of engagement, but almost no one takes it up.


In theory, almost all citizens want to be more involved. Indeed, politics has been responding to this in recent years. More citizen participation is promised and implemented in many areas.


Today, however, the paradox is setting in. When concrete action is taken, when the campaign starts, when the discussions begin, we find the same people who have always been mobilized and who represent the stereotype of a male retiree who wants to express his anger.


The reality is of course not so schematic, but there is some truth in it. Citizen participation rarely manages to get out of its bubble despite the general desire for greater involvement on the part of citizens.


The same is true for communication around a project, which is the first level of participation. It simply does not reach its destination and is drowned out by all the messages that people are bombarded with on a daily basis.


There are many reasons for this lack of interest in getting involved in concrete projects. It turns out that very often, it is not the citizens who bear this responsibility. If we all have in mind poor examples of communication and participation, it is because it is not uncommon that channels of communication do not consider citizens and therefore do not work.


If you only communicate through the official newspaper (which hardly anyone reads) and your own website (which citizens only use when they have a specific request), you should not be surprised at the lack of response. Social networking platforms do not always work either. They are sometimes only the umpteenth relay of the official websites of the communities, and not always in an advantageous way, the contents being lost in the mass. Furthermore, if these communiqués are in "official language", i.e. quoting paragraphs or directives, one loses even the most hardened citizens.


Participation formats can also be a deterrent. If the options are limited to, for example, a public meeting, distributed plans, or the opportunity to attend council meetings, only a small portion of citizens can benefit from these interactions.


At the same time, even a well-designed project does not guarantee high citizen engagement. Even if the communication is done through many channels, the clearly announced theme is attractive and participation is offered both in person and digitally, this does not guarantee a high number of participants.


Even if citizens know where and when they can participate, it does not mean that they will. Interest in citizen participation sometimes is based on the culture of the region or city and it is especially difficult to motivate first-time participants.



Engagementality changes the very nature of citizen participation


What is needed to seriously mobilize citizens is engagementality, or rather, a culture of involvement. It must be normal to know where to get involved, how to get informed, and how to participate. Regular participation must become habitual - like brushing your teeth, jogging (for some), or visiting the dentist every year (hopefully!).


Like any habit - which needs to be built and sustained - engagement needs to develop. We need to learn to be informed, to participate, and to support. Unfortunately, this is not (yet) the norm in our societies.


Such a culture has a huge impact on citizen participation as a whole. Participation, as we know it today, almost always has a negative impact. In the cities we interact with it is frequently reported to us that it is mostly the opponents of the project in question who participate. Those that want to prevent the project will consistently organize themselves and create a real barrier to progress.


Today, people who are neutral or in favor of a project tend to remain invisible. This could also be the reason why citizen participation is often neglected by the administration.


When there is an "engagement mentality" in the city, however, when it is normal to get involved, neutral and positive voices are heard. Citizens become collaborators rather than opponents.


This is not about silencing critical voices. Citizen participation must always remain inclusive, but it is about taking a realistic look at citizens' opinions and adopting a constructive attitude.



Engagementality can improve citizen participation for all participants


Building engagementality means focusing on respondents. Then how do you achieve engagementality? Starting with the bad news: it takes commitment, time, and consistency. No matter how you go about it, there is no real shortcut.


There are, of course, different approaches to building a culture of engagement. But no matter which approach is chosen, it will always be essential to get the attention of citizens and to get them to participate.


Citizen attention is a highly coveted commodity. With 10,000 advertising messages hitting each person every day, it's hard to keep up. In the face of so much information, the topic and purpose must be immediately clear. The "promotion of citizen participation" must therefore also take new paths.


In the first place, participation should no longer be the focus because even if we don't like to hear it, citizens are interested in the projects that concern them, not in citizen participation as a whole. The project should therefore also be placed at the center of the communication. An approach such as "our participation platform is now online, discover your projects now!" is unlikely to work.


The notion of "project" must also be broadened. A school transformation is a niche project in terms of attention. In the context of a master plan for a sustainable city however, it can become a best-seller, a mass topic.


This is the case of the German city of Coburg in, for example, which places the "open space design regulation" in the context of "compatibility with young children" and thus shows how topics can be animated in an attractive way. The city sets a clear goal (that the infrastructure should become compatible with young children) instead of always using the same "participate now in".


Catchy slogans and key messages are indeed also part of a strategy to get more people's attention to participation projects.


While getting attention is the first step, the next step is to get people to participate and become involved. For many, this is a major step. People who aren't already highly engaged are easily discouraged by heavy formats that require a lot of effort.


It is therefore important, especially if engagement is to be achieved, to make it easy for citizens to enter the world of participation. This means that a topic discussion or a 20-question questionnaire is not the most appropriate medium, at least in the initial phase of the project.


Discussion is important, but it is not always the ideal format for initiating your approach.

Easy access means quick and easy participation. Participation should be short and sweet. If you require more than five minutes from citizens at the outset, you lose about 80% of those interested. Formats such as a vote, a questionnaire (but a short one!), or a quiz are therefore suitable, especially if you specify that it will not take your participants more than two minutes.


This does not mean that participation should always be superficial! Of course, it is worthwhile to go deeper into certain topics afterward. That's where deliberation and discussion are important formats. The key is to use them strategically and with the support of the community. This can be achieved by asking people about their interest in engaging further on a topic prior to the creation of a module.


Moreover, there is often room for improvement not only in participation but also in communication around the project. To build a culture of sustainable engagement, there has to be consistency.


Something has to happen for people to stay involved and this consistency is often lacking. Most of the time, we communicate exclusively about the (partial) results of the project. As a result, weeks or even months can go by without any news about the project being shared. For people who are not very familiar with citizen participation or public projects, it is as if nothing is happening, so they write it off and do not come back.


Citizens need to be informed regularly, even if only briefly. Of course, there are not always results, but that is not the point. You can include stories around the theme - cases from other cities, for example - or background information on the topic. If we take the example of a project on sustainable development, it is relevant to explain what the SDGs - Sustainable Development Goals - are and to which SDG the project in question relates.


The project can also be humanized. Why not introduce people working on the project, both internally and outside the administration with a short interview? We could also highlight the citizens who actively participate and give them a voice. If one chooses the path of simple and brief participation, it is easier to quickly have first trends to share at the beginning, middle, and end of the consultation, so let's communicate with them!


Of course, this type of communication can be restrictive, because it requires time, which is often the scarcest commodity in administrations. These formats mentioned, however, have a great advantage: many of them can be pre-produced. The content does not have to be created ad hoc but can be prepared either by the administration itself or even by a service provider before the project starts, and that is the whole point!


Another possibility is to give a voice to partners around the project. For example, NGOs, associations or companies working on the project or interested in the project could provide communication content. Thus, even in times of stress, it is always possible to inform and activate citizens.



The engagementality does not happen overnight, but the effect can be immediate


Easy access and consistent communication are therefore the keys to building engagement. What is certain is that it takes time for a city's culture to change and you have to stick with it. Nothing is more toxic to culture change than disappointed expectations. That's why this mindset must become a fundamental attitude, the basis of project construction, in order to communicate in a modern way, to involve easily and in a playful way.


Be sure, it's worth the effort. First of all, because the objective of engagement is worth it. A society that engages its citizens is one that leads to greater cohesion, well-being, behavioral change, and trust in their government.


Second, it is also worth it because the positive effects will be multiplied and replicated. Communities that plan their own public projects from the perspective of their citizens and develop formats designed for them will see an increase in the propensity to participate, not only from opponents but especially from supporters and neutral profiles. And that can only be good for a successful collaboration.


If you would like to know more about engagement and our approach, or if you want to share your experience, please contact us: contact@civocracy.org.