Participation does not result in defenestration!
Citizens' interest in being able to influence what happens in their neighbourhood is a recent phenomenon. People want to be actively involved in decision-making about the city, participate in projects, feel co-responsible for the place where they live and demand more opportunities to participate in the management of the city.
Participation offers a plethora of tools and opportunities. Yet in many cities, the process is failing. Why?
The process of participation can be an unfortunate vicious circle for the city.
The city does not want participation because it is afraid of negative reactions and criticism from citizens, so for a long time it has been working things out quietly and privately behind the closed doors of the city hall. Then, under pressure from the public or the opposition, it agrees, organises a participatory budget, a public hearing or a questionnaire survey, but either gets criticised or is embarrassed by the lack of involvement from the citizens (for which it also gets criticised). And so the town hall becomes an impregnable oppidum again and for a while the activities in this direction cease.
We, as experts in the word, of course have a solution. It is not easy, it is not immediate and perhaps the beginning will be difficult. But the result is worth it! The result of participation is not defenestration.
The city leadership must be convinced that it wants participation. That they want it, even with the negative aspect it can bring with it - criticism from disgruntled citizens. In the end, this can be beneficial for the city leadership. It may be worth considering whether the dissatisfaction is justified. Moreover, the more transparent and open you are, the fewer critical voices there will be. In fact, many potential conflicts can be eliminated before they arise.
The city management is preparing several projects to revitalize the houses, but no one is paying attention to the lack of playgrounds, and those that are available are in poor condition. Thanks to participatory budgeting, citizens can better promote these smaller projects and get funds for them from the allocated budget.
The city management needs to involve officials in the participation process - ideally by directly including it in their job duties. Alibism, reluctance, lengthy processes, lack of activity and lack of control by the leadership are the reasons why all efforts often go to waste.
As part of the participatory process, citizens can send proposals to the town hall for projects they would like the town to implement. If none of the projects are implemented without the citizen receiving feedback from the town hall or an explanation as to why their project cannot be implemented, it is not surprising that you will be criticized at the next opportunity and that they are unlikely to get involved next time.
Communication is key. Clear, well-timed and concise. Every citizen needs to understand what you want them to do, why they should get involved and what impact their activity will have.
Using the right tools is the alpha and omega. Participatory tools abound, but you have to choose the right ones. Some are more demanding to organise, some are more time consuming, some are less demanding but again may not have the right effect.
If you want to successfully set up a participatory process in your city, take the experts on board. They will expertly guide you through the whole process, and be your support in the more challenging moments. But you know what? The most important thing is to just get started.