Masterclass on public engagement and participation

This masterclass tackled citizen engagement, by showcasing the work of Citizen Lab - facilitating good, evidence-based, decision and policymaking by providing an e-democracy platform that enables co-decision making between communities and governments. The platform also aids in building and regaining trust between the civic and policymakers, acting in accordance with their overarching intention to facilitate and aid online deliberation to empower citizens to engage and participate.

This session was led by Alex Chandran, head of Partnerships at Citizen Lab, a citizen engagement platform, used by local governments and organisations to reconnect with their communities and engage them in the decision-making process.

Alex cited the issues with existing and former models of public engagement and participation, such as low efficiency with regard to both resources and processes, as well as a lack of transparency and public trust. To address these issues, Citizen Lab facilitates good, evidence-based, decision and policymaking by providing an e-democracy platform that enables co-decision making between communities and governments.

Public participation and deliberation present big challenges for public institutions and organisers even on the best of days. A myriad number of challenges are faced by public officials in trying to increase the levels of public engagement while also ensuring that these processes are effective for all those involved. 

Public engagement is an integral part of any functional democracy. Citizens Lab’s interest is in providing digital tools for cities and governments to enhance participation on local topics and include in decision-making processes.  Alexandra leads the Partnerships to work at Citizen Lab, growing the mission and impact with a variety of partners across different countries and organisations. She is currently working with and supporting in-country Partners in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Denmark, Germany, Kenya, Poland, Romania and South Africa. With these Partners, Alexandra is building a network of citizen participation experts who can develop the impactful use of Citizen Lab in their country market.

This masterclass provided a window into some key experiences from around the world of effective public engagement on both offline and online platforms. Alexandra Chandran also focused on the role of tech in ensuring effective public participation during the COVID pandemic. 

Public engagement pre-COVID-19 predominantly happened in physical locations where citizens could engage robustly with decision-makers and other stakeholders. Public officials were faced with pessimism from citizens who find them to be ineffective and lacking transparency. These perceptions eroded trust between public officials and citizens. Pessimism is a major challenge for democratic institutions especially because the levels of trust between institutions and citizens have an impact on the willingness of citizens to participate in decision-making processes. Citizens lab’s e-democracy platform is an attempt at resolving some of the challenges faced by public officials in engaging and deliberating with citizens. This platform seeks to resolve challenges around transparency and efficiency of institutions and to restore public trust in processes of deliberation and participation.

Some key lessons from this platform indicate that it is important to first understand the kind of engagement wants to have. Democratic institutions need to understand that participation and deliberation are not the same issue. Both these forms of engagement have implications for the kind of outcomes desired. Participation needs to be understood as simply the empowerment of citizens to take action. Taking action could be anything from taking part in a survey or a poll and even joining a  protest. Deliberation focuses on discussions and debates between citizens and stakeholders, and as such is a different type of engagement from participation by the sheer number of participants that could effectively take part. These forms of engagement should all form part of the decision-making process of democratic institutions. 

Deliberation requires that participants have some knowledge of what is being discussed to be able to engage with decision-makers effectively.  This process does not require the whole population but requires an inclusive number of representatives from each group of the population to engage decision-makers and other stakeholders. 

Participative processes are to be employed when an inclusive deliberative process has been completed. Participative processes could occur through surveys, polls, citizen proposals, option analysis and other similar methods. 

The 2020 OECD study revealed that methods of deliberation and participation have had positive effects on the relationship between citizens and institutions. These processes have contributed to better policy making processes and increased levels of trust and transparency between citizens and institutions. The report also revealed that employing deliberation and participation has broadened the democratic approach for citizens and lead to better decision making for institutions. According to the report, interest in deliberative methods of participation has increased, and there has been a shift away from only participation as a form of engagement with the citizenry.  

Often deliberative and participative measures happen offline but they can also happen online platforms. These processes could exclusively take place on online platforms or could occur concurrently through live streaming services for instance. Livestreaming is a good way to get citizens to participate without having to physically attend official events. Citizens could participate in the events though asking questions and giving their inputs from different locations. 

The government enforced lockdowns across the world meant that these engagements needed to happen exclusively online and by so doing presented new challenges for public officials. OECD presented four key elements to consider when deliberation exclusively goes online. According to OECD, officials need to consider whether these engagements should happen in real-time or asynchronously. This is especially important if institutions are to be inclusive during the decision-making process. The organisers need to ask themselves “will everyone be able to attend a live event”? It is also important to consider whether citizens can participate in public deliberations anonymously or with their full identity should they wish to. This will also help to determine whether these meetings need to happen in real-time or asynchronously.

There have been success stories across the world about how online tools have been used for effective deliberation and decision making. National and local governments have used online platforms during this pandemic to maintain a dialogue with citizens and coordinate local volunteering efforts (Rueil-Malmaison), international conferences have happened entirely online (UK Climate Assembly), and national governments have partnered with civic organisations to digitise application processes for social relief grants (GovChat). 

Online deliberation is expected to continue throughout the world during the Covid19 pandemic. Here are some key factors for officials to consider inclusive online deliberation: 

  • Language

Officials should use appropriate language that can be understood by everyone. Ensure that there is no highlighting of stereotypes that may offend or exclude others. Officials should not make assumptions about their audiences 

  • Communication

Ensure effective communication with key stakeholders and people of influence in the communities that are being engaged. 

  • Privacy and data

Personal data should be always protected. There should be clarity about what the data being solicited is going to be used for. Data should be collected only when relevant to the work being done and not just for the sake of it. 

  • Compatibility and accessibility 

Digital platforms being used for public engagement should be compatible with all devices

  • Offline and Online 

Consider whether all participants have access to a digital device that they can participate from; if not, consider providing an offline platform for participants to be able to share their views as well.

  • Measure levels of engagement 

Officials need to pay attention to who is participating and responding and whether they have been able to reach a diverse audience.

More information on Citizen Lab’s work can be found on their website

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