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How to pick a participation method based on a community's experience.

Every community is different. It’s not just their size and location that set them apart from others, but a multitude of social, historic and economic factors, too, shape them into unique entities. When it comes to digital citizen participation, developing an understanding of these unique qualities is the first step towards success.

After all, successful citizen participation doesn’t follow a one-fits-all format that disregards the particular situation of a community, but it actively takes their specific circumstances into account.

This is because great overall impact can only be achieved if participation projects are built around the community’s particular challenges. Digital citizen participation allows communities to tackle pressing issues by addressing them in a fresh and collaborative fashion. To be truly impactful, this frame is used to deal with challenges that truly matter to the community. And identifying those topics necessarily requires engaging with what sets the community apart from others.

Appreciating a community’s specific context is of equally crucial importance when it comes to participation rates. Depending on the type(s) of residents, the communication channels and messaging needed to attract participants will differ. If a large proportion of the population is over the age of 65, the primary methods used will be different from those used for, say, a university-city.

But this initial inquiry into a community’s context is often left at a superficial level. When setting up a participation project, many communities rush to the implementation-stage once the basics  have been established. 

At Civocracy, we believe that, during  the preparation of a project, you need to dig deeper into the community’s specific context. To get that little, decisive extra bit of impact, an additional factor should be considered: the community’s history of citizen participation.

This will help communities find a method and frame for their participation project that actually works for them.

How participatory is the community?

Regardless of whether we’re dealing with seasoned citizen participation experts or an enthusiastic first-time project-team, we see communities benefit hugely from digital citizen participation across the board.

But this doesn’t mean that their previous experience (or lack thereof) should be ignored. In fact, considering the level of experience a community has with regard to citizen participation going into a project is precisely how you build a project that yields most results.

It helps to think of a community as starting from 4 levels of experience. 

1 The newcomer

There’s plenty of communities that start with little or little recent experience in citizen participation. This doesn’t need to be an impediment - as long as the project is based on a realistic assessment of the community’s starting point. 

If there’s no active tradition of citizen participation, neither citizens nor the people working in the public administration are likely to have it on their radar. It simply isn’t part of most residents’ day-to-day life.

To change this, all sides need to be given the chance to familiarise themselves with this new, collaborative approach to community development. You’re literally building a new mind-set, a new culture and a new set of skills - and this won't happen overnight. The first participation project should be set up accordingly.

Firstly, communication needs to be a key focus. The message that active participation is now available to citizens needs to be communicated to every segment of the community. The communication strategy should be driven by how exciting this development is. Ultimately, you want to generate buzz around the project and what it means for the community. When the city Hatten in Lower Saxony first opened its platform, for instance, they invited all local journalists, policy-makers and other interested residents to an event that gave them a sneak-preview of their platform before its official launch.

It’s equally important to approach the project with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Establishing a culture for citizen participation is a process that involves a certain level of trial and error. Every community is allowed to have some bumps along the way, as long as it learns from them. You could start with a consultation on a topic that’s sure to interest everyone. When Lyon first opened its platform in 2018, for example, it began with a consultation on the redesign of a public square. Alternatively, a questionnaire can help you get a better sense for what the citizens want to give their input on.

Ultimately, the key to establishing a culture for citizen participation is to show citizens that their engagement pays off. Impact is everything. It’s much better to start with just one project that brings actual tangible change than to open 4 consultations that yield no results. If you show that you’re committed to putting citizens’ input into action, they will become committed to participation in return.

2 The onsite-participation-champion 

There’s a long list of communities with a rich history of citizen participation. Often, however, they haven’t quite made the jump to the digital era yet. And, as a result, many find that participation rates have dwindled over the years.

Integrating digital methods into their repertoire is often exactly what’s needed to revitalise citizen participation. By opening up new ways for participation, new people will get involved, which will in turn bring fresh perspectives and strengthen community bonds overall.

Given the previous experience, digital projects can supplement the traditional initiatives that already exist. If set up effectively, onsite and digital participation methods complement each other and enable larger, more impactful engagement overall.

For this, it needs to be understood what aspects of past or existing initiatives have worked well - and where there’s room for improvement. Digital participation formats can be found accordingly.

Do city halls take place on a regular basis but it’s always the same people that show up? Digital participation allows people who normally wouldn’t be able to attend city events to contribute their input. Feedback and propositions can be collected beforehand, for instance. In Monheim-am-Rhein, a citizen whose proposition to transform an unused train track into a cyclist path gained wide popularity on the platform and was subsequently implemented by the city, had been restricted from participation before the platform opened due to his shift work schedule.

Is there an annual city fest that fails to attract younger demographics? Here, a digital engagement platform could be used to host a planning committee for young residents to allow them to integrate their ideas.

There are countless other ways to breathe new life into existing onsite participation formats by supplementing them with digital ones.

3 The impact-pusher

The largest group of communities actually has experience with both onsite and digital citizen participation. Many use their city-website to promote events and collect feedback in addition to organising regular town hall meetings. However, they often find that their projects don’t bring much results and/or go largely unnoticed by the majority of citizens.

This phenomenon is common for one simple reason: it’s hard to get citizen participation right. Driving participation and translating input into tangible change poses a new challenge each time.

Here, a renewed focus on impact can be a true catalyst for change. Rather than running multiple participation initiatives simultaneously, none of which lead to tangible change in the community, projects that have a well-defined frame should take priority. By setting clear start and end dates for a project and planning ahead for an analysis and implementation stage, you can ensure that the project yields concrete implementable outcomes.

Different digital participation methods provide an ideal frame for this.

Participatory Budgeting, for example, gives citizens an opportunity to get involved and see how their engagement gives rise to new city-projects. And by making available a certain percentage of the city’s budget to such projects and setting a defined frame for the stages of voting, analysis and implementation, the administration commits itself to making change happen on the basis of citizens’ feedback.

The experience of having their engagement actively influence the way their community develops will reinstall citizens’ faith in citizen participation initiatives.

4 The digital participation expert

Of course there are true experts in digital citizen participation out there. These communities probably have a public servant dedicated to citizen participation initiatives and resources committed to furthering citizen engagement both in onsite and digital formats. This calls for celebration - but not for calling quits.

Proven expertise in the field allows for a much more targeted approach that opens up exciting opportunities. Public consultations that combine onsite and digital methods can be set up to deal with sensitive policy-changes, for example. In Strasbourg, a change in education policies successfully followed this double approach by supplementing onsite interviews and study groups with digital questionnaires and consultations.

Where public administrations already have the organisational know-how for citizen participation initiatives, the internal set-up for more complex formats like citizen assemblies is given, too.

At the same time, even in “expert communities”, there probably exist groups of citizens that are more engaged than others. It’s always worth considering new engagement methods and working on overall engagement.

Citizen participation is an ever-evolving field that provides new exciting opportunities for community-development at every stage. With such a vast range of options it’s important to understand where a community starts from. Taking account of its current level of citizen engagement sets the community up for a fitting path towards impactful and collaboration-driven growth.


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