Opportunities to engage directly with decision-making have been flourishing for citizens over the last few years. They take many different forms, but all too often face the same challenge: too few people take part, that belong to rather uniform population groups. At this rate, participants’ opinions can’t meaningfully inform policy-making, and their democratic legitimacy is disputable. So, what can be done to attract more joiners from a wider range of backgrounds? Ecosystems of community participation certainly are one answer.

Here at CitizenLab, we work to ensure that our participation offer meets all the expectations of a participation demand. However, in most cases low demand has a more primary cause: this demand is so hindered by a poor trust in other actors and a (perceived) lack of capability that it remains unexpressed –and it needs to be freed up.

There can be an array of ways to achieve that. One strategy showing results consists in building a stronger community fabric around everyday, productive action. Some forward-looking city councils have taken this to the next level, making it more inclusive and sustainable with a community participation designed as an ecosystem.

Community participation, redesigned
The Open Works — Lambeth, London (UK)

Ecosystems of community participation

Source: Designed to Scale (Official project report), Civic Systems Lab (2016)

The Open Works project all started with a shop-front on the borough’s high street, which door was always open. Inside one could find a team made up of not-for-profit and council workers with ready suggestions of hands-on projects to undertake, and –with time– an overview of what had already been taken up by others. By any standard, these projects were all “low threshold” and thus inclusive: they didn’t require much time, skills, or commitment, and participation was at no cost. Examples include bulk-cooking, business mentoring, urban gardening and orchards-growing, sewing sessions, environment care units, and collective shops. Any passer-by entering the open space was inspired to join or to create his own, and soon enough it became the centre of a dense network.

Ecosystems of community participation

Source: Designed to Scale (Official project report), Civic Systems Lab (2016)

Conveniently, this platform configuration (financed by the Council) allowed for horizontal efficiencies. The steering team could encourage collaboration among projects and the flowing of participants from one to the other; it could take care of a single bank account and associated financial dealings, of the online-communication strategy and visual identity, and of the shared insurance cover. Best of all, it enabled a key vertical interaction with the Council, a prime channel to secure seed-funding for individual projects, authorizations for the use of public space, security clearances, and flexibility with rules on the commissioning of interventions on public property. In brief, this ecosystem was at the same time a vector for synergies and cross-breeding, and for an indispensable but light-touch support of the local council.

An evaluation of this one-year pilot evidenced wide-ranging benefits, from a strengthened economic tissue to reduced needs for health interventions. But it also glimpsed at an emerging shift in people’s views on interacting with their public institutions and on their community as a group sharing common interests. Surveys and interviews emphasised an improved perception of local government, greater trust in other community members, a boost in pride and ownership over public spaces, and an increased likeliness to put one’s ideas for the community into action.

The experimentation will now go on at a much larger scale in another London borough: this is the exciting Participatory City project.

A radical answer to low participation
Buurtbeheer — Rabot-Blaisantvest, Ghent (BE)

Ecosystems of community participation

Source: unpublished project material

The dynamic in Ghent can be dated back to 2007, when council workers were trying to involve dwellers of the Rabot-Blaisantvest neighbourhood in a series of consultations on an upcoming real estate development. Despite the significance of this development for the future dynamic of the area, participation in the meetings had remained scarce and represented only thin layers of the socio-economic and demographic diversity of Rabot-Blaisantvest. But city workers had another resource at their disposal, yielded by a permanent outreach to the residents: a fine picture of what would be the population’s key needs. It made no doubt allowing people to garden close to their homes (mostly without private yard) was in strong demand. The team seized the opportunity offered by a large, empty site along the new development and took a radical but simple approach: asking as many passers-by as possible within this 1km2 area if a communal garden was indeed their priority, and what shape it could take. This gave the Council team evidence of a high adhesion to the project, which they went on to leverage to convince political authorities to grant a 10-year right of use to inhabitants. The way was cleared for people to come and grow their harvest on “De Site”.

Ecosystems of community participation

Source: www.rabotsite.be

This success fostered the local drive for self-expression, and when in 2012 the Council announced it would reassign a grassy strip of public land located at the core of a residential block, numerous and diverse inhabitants supported by associative groups expressed clearly a direction for their neighbourhood. The Council had foreseen a new parking space, but the popular tide was in favour of greener solutions. This standoff drew authorities to withdraw from their initial intent. Instead, they availed seed-funding to the dwellers who could then proceed to invest their time and efforts in transforming the place into a small park surrounded by gardening patches –”Het Boerenhof”.

This type of initiatives has been replicated to create what is today a dense network of buurtbeheer (neighbourhood management) projects, several of them involving a reallocation of public space. Beyond gardening, they include playing streets, bulk bread baking, a community café hosting meetings and performances, new communal green spaces, mentored craft and art making, or cooking workshops. They are underpinned by a local currency (the Toreke) that can be earned and spent via the various initiatives.

Ecosystems of community participation

Source: www.rabotsite.be

The partnership between the Council and residents of Rabot-Blaisantvest is set to endure, with a dozen more citizen-led developments now in the making.

When a culture change and coproduced collective value bear only a small price tag

In both London and Ghent, what happened is a culture change: from a more individualistic and self-relying approach towards a community consciousness and a willingness to get involved in the local public sphere. Those projects’ audiences are now better positioned to voice their concerns and aspirations, provided that their institutions can offer them relevant and well-designed channels of expression.

What’s more, working ecosystems represent an early form of coproduction, i.e. they involve the public as owner of a collective service it delivers outside institutional structures. Scaled up and reaching a critical density, they bring measurable public-service value to society. Research shows coproduction can be more cost-effective than government services, and occasionally solve issues they can’t. And though it promotes more involvement of residents in crowdsourcing mechanisms, it also represents a wholly different channel of participation: one doesn’t influence outcomes, but makes them.

When adding to this positive assessment of the ecosystem design that it comes with a minimal budgetary weight, it becomes hard not to recommend practitioners to start their own experiment.

Conclusion: the promise of collaborative governance

Collaborative governance –opening up government to citizens– is not limited to fostering stronger communities (other examples to come on this blog!). Yet this is a powerful illustration of the potential it holds for reconnecting citizens to their council’s participation offer.