02 February 2023

The problem of the ad-hoc approach lies in poor preparation, lack of infrastructure and dedicated experts. As a result, valuable knowledge is lost as soon as the project ends, and the impact of these projects is limited. But what if there was a better way? By treating participation as an institutionalised infrastructure with an in-house expert and a clear strategy, the quality of community engagement can be elevated to new heights. Processes improve over time as learnings are transferred from one project to the next and from one department to another. Here are steps that Participation Factory recommends when helping municipalities with this process:

Build in-House capacity for Systematic Participation

Building in-house capacity for Systematic Participation starts with selecting a person or team to focus on participation. Instead of looking for specific certificates or diplomas, the ideal candidate should have a profile that is well-suited for working with people, has experience in communication, and is comfortable navigating between departments and serving as a link between different parts of the community. The first half-year is spent helping them understand the development level of their district or region and learning through analysing current participation efforts. When we run this process, coordinators participate in an intensive study program, either led by us or by experts, to build their skills in participation.

The next step is for coordinators to identify and dive into projects that are easy to implement. Ideally, they create their own designs with support and consultation from experts, gradually reducing their dependence on outside support over time. The goal is for the coordinator to become an expert within their city hall, able to function independently and effectively lead participation efforts by the end of the first or second year.

Overcoming resistance to participation

The process of systematising participatory processes is not always plain sailing. One of the common challenges faced is resistance within the institution. The issue is that civil servants may not understand the full scope of participatory processes and may perceive it as simply organising workshops and public meetings. This often leads to resistance when it comes to engaging experts or trying new things.

They also might not see a value in participatory processes, often due to the impression that it primarily adds extra work to their list or because of past experiences of badly executed participation processes. To overcome this, it’s important to work with both the participation coordinators and the institution to show how well organised participatory processes can bring benefits and support already ongoing and planned projects. However, it’s also important to manage expectations and identify priorities, as overwhelming enthusiasm can lead to burnout. It’s important to strike a balance between fostering excitement and ensuring sustainability.

On the side of the institutions, a challenge that often arises is creating a dedicated position for participation. In some cases, communities have already seen the value of participation and push for its implementation. In others, it may be mandated from the top down. For example, in Slovakia, the Ministry of Interior mandates the implementation of participation across the regions. But even with a mandate, creating the position itself can still be a hurdle.

Effects on citizens and the role of civic tech

Systematising participatory processes also means systematising communication about participation with citizens. It necessitates a new approach to communication and information sharing. Communication strategies need to be synchronised with participation processes to attract citizens to engage and participate. This way the relationship between citizens and institutions changes. Citizens need to see that their opinions and ideas are being taken into account. Only then will they start to recognise that they are part of something and this helps to build trust between them and the institution and create a culture of active public participation.

The implementation of participatory processes often involves the use of civic tech or democracy tech tools. These tools help to create new channels for communication and information sharing or create absolutely new forms of engagement such as mapping of issues on your phone. In many cases, municipality staff need to be trained on the effective use of existing tools and, depending on the priority areas, new technologies are introduced. This helps to improve communication and engagement, and increases transparency and accountability.

This article was produced in cooperation with Participation Factory. Participation Factory is a social enterprise that mainstreams participation and data-driven approaches into governance and process design. Our experts support local governments in designing participation driven processes and systems, building capacities of their team, and implementing digital participation tools and Civic Tech. To learn more, refer to our website or contact us at info@participationfactory.com.

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