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Ensuring Diverse Participation

26 September 2022

This is the second of three blog posts that will be published in 2023 on the European Citizen Action Service’s website in the framework of the Civil Society Hub for actors addressing populist movements. These blog posts are the result of a collaborative efforts of the members of three task forces – “Democratic Progress”, “Diverse Participation” and “Inclusive Societies”. You can find the previous article, “Democratic Progress in the 21st Century” here. The members of the Diverse Participation task force and hence authors of this post are Alessandra Cardaci, Debating Europe; Vasili Sofiadellis, Changemakers Lab and Simeon Stoyanov, ECAS.

Many projects, public bodies or even for-profits struggle to ensure a diverse representation of society when it comes to participatory activities that aim to source the public’s opinion on a specific matter. And when it comes to policies, recommendations, services or products that are being formulated, how does one ensure that all voices are heard and there is “nothing about us without us”? Social, economic, ethnic, geographical, educational and other dividing lines produce disadvantaged groups that, on one hand, do not feel their opinion matters when it comes to decisions that affect them directly and, on the other hand, do not have access or knowledge of the tools and ways that they can make their voice heard. All of the above is particularly useful to populist movements who make use of the exclusion of and vilification ‘others’. Thus, an environment is produced where the challenges, needs and ideas of disadvantaged citizens remain in the dark, further contributing to the “othering” and blaming of the very same groups that actually have the least say in the democratic process.

For this we are proposing three approaches to building trust and partnerships with disadvantaged groups, a methodology for ensuring diverse participation in project activities and several online tools that will help CSOs and practitioners engage with diverse audiences in a productive way.

          1. Building Trust

Build rapport with community leaders

Language, cultural, geographical or other barriers make it hard to approach a disadvantaged group directly in order to start building trust and include them into participatory activities. A way to approach this problem is to include community leaders from this group not only in your actions but, even more importantly, in the very design process of your activities. By doing this you can form a mutually beneficial relationship, where you will gain valuable insights into what you need to plan for in order to bring specific diverse group on board, and the community will receive tangible and effective outlet for its opinions.

Create joint experiences

In order to break down barriers and increase the understanding of a group’s problems, opinions and situation, one has to include non-disadvantaged people in joint activities where they are placed in the same environment as disadvantaged participants. While participants can have different roles and personal objectives in this experience, their working towards a common goal creates the foundation of better understanding for the other and their challenges, potential and needs.

Follow up

Establishing rapport with and participation of disadvantaged group(s) in an activity is only part of the way in order to build trust with them. More often than not, the lack of follow up and transparency about the results of a specific initiative leads to disintegration of trust. If, for example, the specific community contributed to the creation of policy recommendations, it should also be informed about the outcomes. Who were these policy recommendations presented to and what was their reaction? Did they make certain commitments and how will you monitor those? Whether their feedback was positive or negative, follow up with the diverse groups you included in the activity both regarding the general aspects of the outcome and regarding their specific contributions and concerns.

          2. Design thinking as a tool for ensuring diverse participation

In this part, we propose an adaptation of the design thinking approach that can be used as a ready-made blueprint for a methodology to ensure voices from across the whole community spectrum are heard.

Design thinking is a process that is most widely known for its application in the initial stages of product or service design. It places the customer or consumer and his needs in the center and uses them as a foundation.

The actions within are grouped in three sets – understanding, exploring and materializing. In the understanding phase, the creator tries to empathize with his or her target group and gauge its broader opinions. After that, he uses the target’s group direct feedback to both define and ideate the scope of the product or service, which is then materialized in a prototype that is tested.

What we propose, when it comes to diverse participation, is to think of it as a funnel, where diverse target groups are included in each phase. To think of the participants as citizens and makers of the final outcome.

In the empathize phase, actions such as mapping and desk research are great for getting the initial feel for which target groups are most affected by the topic at hand. If you want to gather tangible, analyzable data for the next phases, look into tools for social listening to passively understand how citizens from all groups are discussing a specific problem in social media or on the internet in general.

Based on the above, and employing the approaches laid out in part “1. Building trust” it is time to actively seek what are the challenges for diverse communities. By community meetings or through a crowdsourcing platform you can receive a large number of real-life, actionable problems.

When you know what challenges should be solved and which ones are most prevalent, engaging the same audience again for solutions will produce engaged ideas from a wide range of participants that have a stake in the matter. Depending on the subject, you can even ask your target groups to rank the ideas and select the ones they feel would work best for their situation.

Based on the scope of your project or activity, you can test these solutions in an experimental setting. Either way, the outcome of the whole process is a legitimate set of ideas grounded in the real-life experiences and challenges of diverse target groups that can serve policy-makers, community leaders and experts in better understanding and approaching the issue.

          3. Online tools to drive diverse participation

Although it’s true that not everyone has access to digital tools, especially in remote areas or older people, it is also fairly valid to state that online platforms can allow people to connect for free, wherever they are, and express and exchange their opinions easily. As we saw in the previous section, these can be used in conjunction with offline participation tools to include precisely disadvantaged groups without access to internet. To name some: https://participedia.net/, https://pol.is/homehttps://www.thepsiapp.com/. Co-authoring this post, Debating Europe also engage with users via online debates but more and more prioritise deep and safe citizen’s engagement via focus group sessions or citizens’ panels. The outcome of focus group sessions and/or citizens’ panels is then flagged to policy makers and experts  and is disseminated in campaigns targeting decision-makers to push for a citizen-centric policy making approach. Here some examples of focus group reports: 100 European Voices project & European Voices for Healthier Democracies: Combatting Disinformation, Misinformation & Fake News.