We’ve made it through November, and that means two things: that fondue season is officially open, and that this is the perfect time to conceptualise your Civic Tech plans for the year ahead.

Are you ready to get started with citizen participation in 2020? Or are you still trying to connect the dots? In any case, this edition of our monthly reading list might inspire you. This month, among other things, we’re reading about election influencers, life in a participatory digital democracy, the key principles for citizen engagement, and innovating in the public sector. Ready? Let’s dive right in.

1. “Election influencers: fight for Canterbury plays out on social media” by The Guardian

In the age of social media, the spreading of news and information is no longer in the hands of the local media outlets. In Canterbury, for example, citizens have united in the ‘Canterbury Residents Group’ on Facebook. This group, which counts 35,000 members and over 600 posts a day, was initially created “to bridge the divide between the city’s large student population and its older residents.” In the meanwhile, it has become a lively place for debate about the many different issues concerning the city and its residents.

Whether the Facebook group is a place for peaceful and constructive debate is up for discussion, as some people have left the group due to “extreme views and bullying behaviour”. But founder Edd Withers disagrees: “My firm principle is we’ve got to let these people have these conversations. It might seem tense sometimes and just a platform for people to argue with each other, but that’s the point. It’s the beginning of a process that hopefully leads to reconciliation.”

For city administrators, this shows that citizens will always have conversations and raise their concerns, whether you provide them with a platform of your own – or not.

2. “Why ‘the will of the people’ is a myth in British democracy” by The Guardian

“I do not want to abandon representative democracy. I want to see it balanced by popular sovereignty, especially the variety known as deliberative democracy.” In this candid opinion piece, writer and political activist George Monbiot shines a light on the current state of British politics. He advocates for a bigger and more active role for British citizens in policymaking and even refers to the first participatory budgeting case in Porto Alegre as an example of how deliberate democracy can change lives.

The lack of deliberation in the British system does not match the current rhetoric about the ‘will of the people’, Monbiot states. “Nothing of the kind is on offer in Britain. The so-called citizens’ assembly on climate change proposed by parliament is a cynical caricature of participation. It has a restrictive agenda, a narrow range of advisers and no time for effective deliberation.

A must-read for those interested in British and European politics, the power of deliberative democracy, or citizen participation.

3. “The rot at the heart of American democracy” by Vox

The last article had us analysing the British system, but this one takes us across the Atlantic. This interview with Harvard politics professor Daniel Ziblatt attempts to identify the main threats to the stability of American democracy as it exists today. Among other things, Ziblatt talks about polarisation. “If political rivals regard each other as existential threats, they’re less willing to grant those protections to their political opponents. … Whatever the emotive issues dividing people happen to be, polarization makes it harder to grant these rights to the “other” side.”

Another point that Ziblatt emphasises is the inherent similarity between political competition and economic competition. “In democratic systems, unrestrained political competition tends toward monopoly, or towards single-party rule. If one side is very successful … they start to set the terms for everyone else. They become dominant and feel like they don’t have to grant rights to the losing side. Once that happens, you end up in a downward slide towards authoritarianism.”

An enlightening read on the state of American politics, explained by an expert.

4. “Life in a participatory digital democracy” by Nesta

What could life look like in a future digital society, without governments as we know them? This excerpt tells the story of Jason, a fictional character born in 2030. Jason’s life differs drastically from our reality, and it’s interesting to think about how accurate these future predictions could be.

“Jason’s life involves a lot of voting, but on a far wider range of purposes than just electing representatives. Communities now make many more decisions collectively: setting local rules, deciding how local budgets will be spent, and other key decisions affecting the area. This prediction counts citizen participation and community co-creation as an inherent part of our future societies. A must-read for those who are future-oriented and like to philosophize about what our future holds.

5. “8 principles for citizen engagement” by Apolitical

In this article, Data Discovery Lab project manager Harshitha Rajashekara identifies the core recurring principles and themes in citizen participation and engagement. Rajashekara highlights empathy, attachment, volume, process, and leadership as vital concepts when it comes to citizen engagement, and dives deeper into how they function as key principles or conditions for successful participation.

“Having empathetic conversations will help to increase the quality of engagement. The simple reason being that citizens feel more confident to share information with an empathic listener. Empathy can help both build and rebuild trust. Also, building trust is not a one-time task, rather it is a continuous and conscious process.” A must-read for local administrations looking into setting up a citizen participation project. These are the things you need to keep in mind!

6. “How innovative are you? Measuring innovation in the public sector” by Apolitical

Everyone likes to claim that they are innovative, but how do you measure an abstract concept like ‘innovation’? Which specific indicators should you be measuring to know how you’re performing?

This article gladly comes to the rescue by offering a few helpful guidelines. From focusing on HR, leadership, organisational culture, strategy and management to asking yourself one of five basic questions, this read will help you examine your processes more closely. A must-read for local administrations praising themselves for their innovative natures … or the ones that still have some work to do. The future is yours!

Inspired to get started with citizen participation? Or just curious what it could look like in your city or municipality? Contact us today!

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