Rising sea levels, polluted waters, species extinction. Population growth, urbanisation, soil degradation. Climate change, droughts, food insecurity. Weak states, crime, poverty.
These buzzwords describe only a fraction of the challenges people around the world face every day. Whether in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, North or South America. Ultimately, they are present and urgent in different ways for every person, every group, every society.
The solution is called “development”. Or rather “change”. By this, it is meant that in every country on earth, in every society, there are issues that need development, that need change. Thus, we are all “developing countries”.
But who is responsible? Governments? Multilateral organisations? Business communities? We ourselves?
Is Government Responsible?
In many countries, it is primarily the task of the state, a region of states, or the international community, to deal with these challenges. Often, however, the implementation of measures and projects only cover part of what is actually necessary. This may be due to political agendas, financial bottlenecks, the influence of lobbyists, or because the decision-makers are simply not interested in the problems.
An example from the country where I live: In the German Zero Initiative interested parties from all sectors discuss German climate targets based on the Paris Climate Agreement and drafting a corresponding law, which they will present to the German parliament. They are motivated by the lack of citizen involvement in this process and the government’s insufficient efforts regarding a truly sustainable German strategy.
So how can we make our voices heard? How can we become active? How can we as a society do our part to overcome challenges? Two approaches that are used constantly by academia and the media are Public Participation and Civic Engagement.
What Can The Public do?
In this series of articles, we will talk about these two forms of civic participation. To this end, projects from all over the world on public participation (PP) and civic engagement (CE) in various fields such as security, climate change, urbanisation, mobility, digitalisation, etc. will be presented. The aim is to give an overview of PP and CE, their fields of application, forms, formats, methods and best practices, and to make your voices, stories and opinions heard.
Public Participation (PP)
There is no generally binding definition of PP. Roughly speaking, PP describes a process in which interested or affected citizens and civil society organisations are involved in policymaking, i.e. in political decision-making processes, before a final political decision is taken. This requires the fundamental will of the legislature or the executive/administration to do so.
How closely or widely PP is held depends on the type and degree of public involvement envisaged by the legislature or the executive/administration. Here, there are always ambiguities or gradations depending on the topic and political decision-making level. Sometimes the type and degree of PP are even purely situational.
One of the best-known models of how the executive can involve citizens is “The ladder of Arnstein” on which the International Association for Public Participation’s stage model is also based. The ladder ranges from simply informing citizens, to consulting (obtaining feedback), to involving (considering cooperation in which the interests of citizens are included in the development of solutions), to collaborating (working in partnership in which joint solutions are developed), to empowering (all decision-making power and responsibility is delegated to citizens).
Civic Engagement (CE)
In contrast to PP, civic engagement can be seen as the voluntary commitment of citizens to the common good and the achievement of common goals. In contrast to the sovereign actions of the administration and the state, in which PP can ultimately also be classified, here citizens take change into their own hands without directly participating in a political decision-making process.
A very broad spectrum of activities and forms of engagement is attributed to civic engagement. From voluntary unpaid work in charitable or public welfare-oriented institutions (e.g. hospital, school) to membership or active participation in clubs, associations, citizens’ initiatives, trade unions and political parties to participate in protest actions within the framework of social movements (e.g. Black Lives Matter, women’s movement, anti-nuclear movement, Fridays for Future, protests, etc.). Financial commitment by individuals or companies in the form of donations or foundations is also a possibility of CE.
It becomes clear that the transition from CE to PP is fluid when the supported groups have the right of political co-determination (parties, trade unions) or can exercise political influence (associations, societies, movements). CE can therefore also be used for political action or to exert considerable pressure on political decision-makers.
Civic Engagement is first of all independent of the willingness of the executive/administration to involve citizens in political decision-making processes. Citizens work on their own responsibility, motivation and organise themselves. It is different from Public Participation.
When Things Go Wrong
The state can actively decide on opening its executive power for cooperation with citizens. What both have in common is that a legal framework must exist for CE or PP to take place. But even if these exist, the executive can still reject such processes, and, as a last resort, even act repressively.
PP or CE would then only be enforceable by legal action before independent courts. Especially in non-democratic, authoritarian states, PP or CE, therefore, requires a great deal of courage.
PP is the institutionalised participation of citizens in shaping the political community. In Civic Engagement, citizens act primarily without the aim of participating in a political decision-making process, but to produce change independently within their means. The effect achieved with both forms of civic participation depends on both the motivation of the citizens and the willingness of the executive/administration to allow civic participation.