Civic Activism Awards - Learning Support Part 2
As part of our Civic Activism Awards, the Trust will be working with Involve and Democratic Society to deliver support to successful awardees. Here we catch up with Democratic Society's Anthony Zacharzewski to find out more...
Tell us a bit about yourself and your organisation.
I'm the community engagement lead for the Democratic Society.
Demsoc is a non-partisan & not-for-profit organisation that aims to support a more participative democracy. We feel that democracy is about so much more than elections and we work with governments, institutions and citizens to provide more opportunities for people to make decisions and shape policy on issues that affect their lives.
What type of work does your organisation do?
We carry out projects with governments and communities to promote more effective participation in democracy. Our projects are wide ranging, one day we could be helping senior civil servants think about improving citizen engagement within their institutions, the next we could be out and about visiting communities to help them with local engagement projects, or designing, facilitating and writing up deliberative workshops on a particular policy area.
What work will you be doing with the Building Change Trust?
Along with Involve, we will be providing learning support and mentoring to a number of community, voluntary and social enterprise organisations through out Northern Ireland who are embarking upon eight civic activism projects to involve communities in decision making.
We will be helping organisations use a range of participation tools and encouraging peer-to-peer learning to ensure good practice from the projects and so that they can be replicated throughout Northern Ireland and beyond.
The civic activism projects will allow people to get involved with a range of issues including community planning, wind energy development, welfare reform and more. I hope the projects will be about making a positive impact in communities and learning lessons in civic participation by being brave and trying things out.
How do you feel this work will impact on groups in the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector in Northern Ireland?
I feel that it will provide the VCSE sector with a lot of food for thought and showcase case studies and methods that will inspire the sector to help increase civic participation. It can be hard for institutions to trust people with decision making, as they would rather rely on experts, but I hope these projects can show that everyone is an expert in their own lives and experiences, and that different people's views can help us make better decisions.
What are your thoughts on the health of Civic Activism in the UK? Are we engaged enough? Is the sector doing enough?
Participation and engagement is currently experiencing an unprecedented level of interest from government and civil society. There seems to be an appetite for participation from members of the public and Governments and institutions alike.
With an increasingly connected and informed public, the ability to challenge and question government is transforming the relationship between legislature and the people they represent. There is also a shift in how civil servants make policy.
It seems there is a willingness to shift from representative democracy to a more participative democracy.
The burgeoning democratic sector is slowly being seeded by both small and large-scale organisations, which support the role of citizens and governments in making space for citizens to contribute to meaningful conversations.
The process of encouraging participation and civic activism is a slow one, and one which cannot be transformed overnight. Despite this, with an increasing number of actors in the democratic sector, and public participation looking likely to stay on the agenda, the health of UK Civic Activism is looking positive.
What other projects or initiatives across the UK and Ireland do you think are innovative and useful in this area?
A good example of innovative participation projects in the UK is a recent collaboration between organisations in the democratic sector, including Demsoc, and the NHS England to involve health professionals, service users and, most importantly, the public in the design and delivery of NHS services.
This project, called 'NHS Citizen', is designed to create space for meaningful discussions between staff and patients and enable participants in the process to give feedback, have their voice heard, and co-create solutions to the issues in healthcare that matter to people the most. Hopefully it will enable people to have a way of raising their healthcare issues, concerns and ideas with NHS England and a say in how these issues are addressed by the NHS.
An example from Ireland is the Irish Constitutional Convention which was set up in 2012 and ran until mid-2014.
The 100-strong forum was made up made up of 66 citizens, described as “randomly selected and broadly representative of Irish society” and 33 political representatives, made up of members of the Oireachtas and four from the Northern Ireland Assembly. The final member was the independent Chairman.
The Convention was established by both the Dáil and Seanad. It met over 10 weekends, with each meeting having three components: expert presentation; debate between advocates for and against the issue; and facilitated roundtable discussions. Votes where then taken.
The plenary sessions were held in public and live-streamed. The Government was not compelled to act on the outcome of the Convention and they chose to either accept or reject the recommendations made. Some issues, such as lowering the voting age to 16 were rejected, whilst other electoral reform issues were referred to the Irish Electoral Commission.
Although the high profile referendum on the legalisation of same-sex marriage was a direct outcome of the Convention only two of the 18 recommendations actually made it to the referendum stage (it being a requirement of the Irish Constitution that a constitutional change must be put to a vote).
This example shows that although we can trust the public to make informed decisions, the Convention did not give enough power to citizens to make change happen. More work needs to be done to give genuine power to people and find a healthy balance between representative and participative democracy.