12 March 2024

Democracy Technologies: Can you explain the basic idea of Change It? What gap did it fill in your community?

Adéla Ambrožová: The initial idea came from a fellow councilor, Michal Anelt, who decided to combine two important long-term projects in Říčany – the participatory budgeting for adults called Surprise Říčany, and the local Student Council. We wanted to prepare a special “young” version of participation with its own budget and let young people vote separately on the projects that should be funded. Their projects, budgets, presentations, voting, and promotions.

Change It! is a pilot project of participatory budgeting for youngsters in our city Říčany, but it is also unique in scale in the Czech Republic. It involves young people aged 12 to 25 in decision-making processes at the city level. The aim is to arouse young people’s interest in public affairs and show them that they can actively influence public life in the city if they get involved. Young people who have a relationship with the city of Říčany – whether they live there, study, or spend their free time, could submit proposals for improving the city and then vote for them. The City Council set aside 1 million Czech crowns (40 000 €) for the implementation of the winning projects.

DT: What were some of the other key challenges in the project? How did you overcome them?

Ambrožová: It is a new project, so that is always a challenge. Until now, participatory budgeting has only worked in individual schools, where students decide on internal school projects. We were curious to know how many young people would be interested in being involved in the actual running of the city – whether they would design and submit their projects, present them publicly, communicate with the office, solve project modifications, and finally vote. But the young people, often primary and secondary school students, really surprised us with their activeness and enthusiasm. 14 amazing projects were submitted, 12 were shortlisted and over 500 young people voted. Those are great numbers.

Another challenge was setting the rules for the participatory budget. We kept it as simple as possible because we are aware that young people wouldn’t want to be bothered with long registration, proof of identity, etc. Youngsters had to publicly present their projects, which might have scared some of them off submitting their proposals. But we believe next year there will be no need for shyness. The project presentations took place in a very pleasant, friendly, and intimate atmosphere, and all the applicants received a gift from the City.

DT: Why do you think it is especially important for young people to be involved?

Ambrožová: The benefits of Change It! are undeniable. In addition to the positive impact of the projects themselves, participants gain invaluable experience in project management, financial literacy, presentation, and communication skills. On the other hand, the people from the Town Hall get to know a different perspective on the needs and problems of the city. It’s a great connection between generations.

DT: How many participants did you reach and how far do you think you have reached diverse audiences?

Ambrožová: All young people between the ages of 12 and 25 with a connection to our city could apply for the project and vote. Permanent residence was not a requirement. They could live here but also just have relatives, family, friends, study or take part in leisure activities here. Children between 12 and 15 were the most likely to vote (224 voters). Young people from secondary schools aged 16 to 20 were slightly behind (210 voters). The least represented were people aged between 21 and 25 (40 voters). These are good numbers for the first year, but we believe that participation will be even higher for the next round of the project.

DT: What do you see as the sustainable or long-term impact of your project?

Ambrožová: The whole event generated many wonderful ideas that will surely improve our town. Even the ideas that did not win can provide inspiration for future plans and projects in Říčany. We also plan to organize seminars on participatory budgeting for Czech and foreign cities. We are pioneers of participation in the Czech Republic, we have been doing it for many years and we can pass on our unique experience.

DT: What are your recommendations for a city considering implementing a similar project?

Ambrožová: Our advice to Town Halls is not to be afraid of it and to embrace it with enthusiasm. Choose a coordinator to liaise with citizens and manage the project from start to finish. Set clear rules about how much money to distribute between winning projects and check that all projects are feasible from a property rights and land use planning perspective. Last but not least, I would recommend cooperation with our city, where we would happily provide a training on the topic.

DT: Who are the project partners involved in the project and what are their roles?

Ambrožová: The project, as well as the 8-year participatory budget for the citizens of Říčany, is organized by the city. An important partner is the civic-tech company Decision 21, which provides us with an online platform for proposing projects and voting. Their solution gives us precise and real-time results and demographic and statistical data about the respondents. It also supports us with marketing and consulting services.

In Change It!, the student representative Matyáš Fořt was also an important partner, who did an excellent job in promoting the project among the young generation and took part in the information campaign on social networks. Another ally was the local Media and Communication Service, which helped us print and decorate banners, posters, and leaflets.

DT: What have been some of the most memorable proposals that were implemented?

Ambrožová: The winning project in Change It! was “Majáles” – a music festival for young people, which will take place in the city this May. Other winners included a shared piano at the railway station hall, pedal boats on the city pond, and a public study room in the library.

Since 2016, 11 large projects costing a total of more than 20 million Czech crowns and 9 small projects with a value of 4.5 million Czech crowns have already been implemented as part of the participation in our city. These are various projects for children and young people, such as the modernization of the traffic playground, revitalization of the sports fields, construction of an industrial park with a pump track and skate park, creation of a children’s playground, but also improvement of existing public spaces for all citizens, such as construction of new pavements, benches, bicycle and pram racks, piers on the pond, or the roofing of bus stops.

One of the most beautiful projects is a charity shop, whose earnings go towards helping people in need living in Říčany and the surrounding area. However, the Town Hall also implemented proposals that didn’t win in participatory projects but were supported by the residents. To this day, we have completed six dozen projects.

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