In Germany, setting up citizen participation projects still largely follows the same process: the public administration is already knee-deep in a project with the final plan ready to be signed off when the decision to include citizens is made. This will either be mandated by law or come from the government’s own initiative.
With the rise of digital citizen participation, the format has become increasingly digital, too. Today, most citizens can find projects on their locality’s websites and get involved by leaving comments or filling out an online-survey.
At Civocracy, we count every project that is implemented together with citizens as a success. Especially when a city itself chooses to open the decision-making process to the citizens, this speaks to a prioritisation of transparency and collaboration over secretive consultations behind closed doors. Citizens, too, appreciate and encourage this open(ed) form of government.
At the same time, we believe that a purely project-based approach to citizen participation is drawing to a close. With digitalisation, people’s expectations began to shift. And processes that were once considered final are now being re-assessed.
Citizen participation is no exception. We believe that a fresh perspective on the field that takes into account recent changes is urgently needed.
A digital mindset for digital citizen participation.
Digitalisation entails much more than just a set of new tools that can be used through the internet. In fact, it describes a transformation that largely takes place inside our heads. The past 2 decades brought such fundamental change that all of us have a new perspective on the world.
Thanks to the constantly available internet as well as the novel business models of tech firms, we are used to having things tailored to our needs.
E-commerce has rendered opening hours unimportant. And 8:15 pm, once known as TV’s prime-time, no longer carries much if any meaning for the younger generation who rely on streaming services instead.
We do what we want, when we want and where we want. Why should this be any different when it comes to participation? Why would citizens limit their engagement to specific time periods?
Project-based participation almost feels like a relic from the past. It stands out for its inflexibility and attachment to hierarchies. After all, the public administration alone determines when citizens are allowed to participate and when they aren’t.
This isn’t a plea for direct democracy. Of course a representative democracy by its very nature places much of the decision-making power on the government’s side and it hence follows that many of the decisions are made by them, too.
However, even a representative democracy will significantly benefit from including citizens more flexibly.
More than one reason to rethink citizen participation.
Citizens’ expectations towards their governments have clearly shifted. Many public administrations have already accepted this and adjusted their services accordingly.
But the growing proportion of citizens who demand new ways of interacting with their governments isn’t enough to trigger change everywhere. There remain administrations that refuse to see change happen just because some citizens want to participate differently.
For those resisting change, there is another important reason for taking seriously the changed demands of citizen participation. And this has to do with the day-to-day work inside public administrations.
In recent years, the workplaces of public servants have, in many cases, taken a turn for the worse. Trust in institutions is fading across Europe, tensions are high and in some extreme cases their very security is at risk. “Almost two thirds of German mayors have been insulted, threatened or even assaulted, by their own accounts” Such attacks point to a crisis in democracy, triggered, amongst other things, by a feeling of disconnect from citizens.
Of course citizen participation cannot single handedly fix our democratic system. But it can help win back citizens’ trust and foster greater understanding and empathy for public administrations.
But for this to happen, citizens must feel included. Even a community that invites citizens to participate in three 1-month-long city projects is still left with 9 participation-free months at the end of the year.
You need to give the citizens sufficient time to change their perception of the government and see it as transparent and collaborative.
Creating a steady participation culture is particularly vital in times of crisis. The Corona-virus is just the latest example of how important an effective and trusting communication between citizens and their government is. At the same time, citizens want to participate in times of crisis and actively call on their governments to include them.
Building citizen participation around large projects is a good start. But truly collaborative government work that fits the 21st century requires a flexible format for participation that is tailored to peoples’ needs. What constitutes a project must be rethought and a steady communication channel between citizens and public administration needs to be installed.
Examples of successfully restructured digital citizen participation.
Governments should look for ways to stay connected with their citizens and to take their input into account. This can follow a “top-down” as well as a “bottom-up” process.
A top-down approach entails governments and public administrations making their work much more transparent. Parliamentary sessions can be live streamed with a comments-section and protocols can be made accessible on- and offline.
At a closer look, most public administrations already have several promising projects lined up that are just waiting to be collaboratively implemented. In a way, every work process that has a beginning and an end constitutes a project in its own right. When viewed this way, every public servant acts as a project-manager in their day-to-day work.
And many of these projects will speak to the citizens, too. So, why not post a quick note on every - yes, every - project to the city’s online participation portal? If you make sure that they are regularly updated and that citizens can leave comments, you have successfully built the foundation for steady participation.
Of course this process is more complex than it may sound at first. It entails constant communication, managing expectations and a new form of transparency. And most employees will have to rethink the way they work.
Such change should be implemented step by step, department by department, with those already showing the necessary skills taking the lead.
When it comes to bottom-up participation, the city of Monheim-am-Rhein provides a strong example. Here, citizens can contribute their ideas for city development at any time. And it's the citizens themselves who decide via ‘upvotes’ which projects have potential and which projects don’t. The city retains the final decision-making power but the creativity comes directly from the Monheimers who frequently partake. Ideas are being contributed several times per week.
Regardless of the process you pick, there’ll still be room for special projects. Especially for bigger projects like infrastructure initiatives, citizens should be specifically targeted and invited to participate. But this requires a steady participation culture as foundation.
Steady citizen participation isn’t a self-runner.
Paving the path to steady citizen participation requires investing. And creating a participation culture requires a change in thinking within the public administration. Work processes change, both inward and outward communication needs to be sharpened and including new technologies requires sensitive change-management. Getting an expert on board will pay off here.
Success won’t come over night. It will take a few months before you see first results. And this is only if you stay committed, keep inviting people and can show results for yourself.
But there are enough examples of communities built around strong political participation that prove this investment to be worth it. If you want to find out more about building participation the new way, write to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org