Toolkit of GOOD PRACTICES on Citizen Participation!


Citizens' Panel


Country: France

Context

The European Commission adopted the “citizen panel” methodology in 2006, by launching the call for proposals for pilot projects aiming at promoting active European citizenship. This call described citizens’ panels as a model for stimulating the active interaction between citizens of the EU, supporting the formulation of their opinions concerning the European integration process and encouraging dialogue between EU citizens and institutions. It also indicated the essential features for the panels, which should involve directly citizens who would not have spontaneously participated in projects of European nature, develop innovative methods to involve citizens, and encourage a real bottom-up approach to allow citizens to express their views. The first definition of the panels included only methodological elements, leaving any thematic focus aside. Throughout the 2007-2013 programming period, the original definition of citizen panel has been further enriched, adding new elements to make this innovative method better contribute to one of the major challenges of the European Union: to bridge the gap between European citizens and European institutions.
In regards with the core objectives of the method, the main difference introduced by the Europe for Citizens program has been the thematic approach in projects based on the methodology of citizens’ panels, in order to better use the potential of those participatory processes and assure interaction with the decision makers.
A second relevant element was added with reference to the participation level: while keeping the European institutions as the main interlocutors of the panel, citizen participation at the local level gained more and more relevance. Indeed, local communities, neighborhoods, etc. represent the most suitable level enabling to collect the opinion of citizens on some key European challenges for the future, to explore new methodologies capable of promoting active interaction and discussions between citizens on matters related to EU policies that affect their daily life, and to create mechanisms that allow European citizens to develop European competencies and to formulate their views and opinions on the European integration process in the form of recommendations for policy makers at European level.

Measure

The methodology designed by ALDA with the contribution of partners and stakeholders of different nature, employs a bottom-up approach and presents several features that aim at contributing to bridge the gap between citizens, local and regional institutions and the European Union. Through using and further advancing the method of citizen panel, ALDA seeks to assure the interaction between citizens and decision makers at all levels, fostering their active participation in the life of their communities at the same time.
To collect the opinion of citizens and allow them to present their recommendations to the decision makers represents the main focus of the all process.
Composition of the citizen panel:
A citizens’ panel is a group of citizens who are not often engaged in public life or do not spontaneously participate in projects of European nature but are willing to do so. While setting up the panel, special attention is paid to involving people of different demographic, social and professional backgrounds. It shall include a wide range of profiles and focus on the whole spectrum of society: volunteers, teachers, NGOs representatives, professionals and experts, disadvantaged, elderly and young people, etc. ALDA aims to include at least 8 countries per project and implementing partners, to obtain diverse views on the topic concerned by the project and a European wide perspective to the recommendation.

Target Group

Three main categories can be identified:
1. Target group: citizens not often engaged in public life or European projects but willing to do so. All citizens over 16 years of age with different backgrounds fall into the target group.
2. Activators: citizens already engaged in public life or European projects, with different profiles in terms of demographic, social and professional background. Their main role is to activate and facilitate the engagement of the target group.
3. Multipliers: ALDA has introduced the role of multipliers as specific actors within the group of activators. Indeed, multipliers act not only as facilitators but also as resource persons. And have been trained specifically for this purpose in topics of concern to the project.

Methodology

The structure developed by ALDA presents eight different steps:
1. Selection of the themes and analysis at the local level
The selection of the theme should be done, as much as possible, in a participatory manner. The activators of citizens’ panels should propose a method for choosing the themes, identifying at which stage of the project the decision has to be taken, by whom (project partners, participants, experts, others) and how (brainstorming, voting, focus group discussions or others).
At the beginning of the process an analysis carried out at the local level is needed to assess the situation of citizens’ participation in the communities involved. The main aim of the analysis is to identify, at the local level, the existing practices, tools, and models in the field of citizen participation in order to benefit of the best practices and to promote synergies between the project and the ongoing experiences.
2. Training for citizens’ panel activators
The training for citizens’ panel activators aims to train reliable, credible and capable activators who are able to set up citizens’ panels. They will be leading citizens selected among civil society and local authorities’ representatives who are already active at the local level, from different walks of life, by paying attention to involve leading citizens of different demographic, social and professional backgrounds, as well as to grant a gender and intergenerational balanced group. The training aims at providing participants with the opportunity to develop their knowledge, skills and competences concerning: knowledge of the concept of active citizenship, knowledge of different tools in the field of active citizenship, understanding of the concept of non-formal education, intercultural competences, skills to motivate others, skills to gather, select and give information, skills to present the specific relevant information, ideas and opinions to others, including to the local, regional and European decision makers, skills to discover, analyze and adequately address needs, skills to draft recommendations and position papers to be addressed to decision makers at all levels.
During the training, participants are also asked to select the most relevant issues and themes that they want to tackle and discuss.
3. Set up of local citizens’ panels
The third step involves the organization of local participatory events, focusing on the selected themes, with the aim to present the project and its methodology in order to select the participants of the new citizens’ panel. The event will be run by experts who will use an interactive approach and IT methods and tools. The event should be promoted by citizens’ panels activators, trained at the beginning of the project, in strict cooperation with the most relevant stakeholders at the community level.
At this stage the selection of participants (on voluntary basis) is also finalized by following two different strategies in order to involve the highest number of citizens with different walks of life. On the one hand, the activators are expected to involve a certain number of people, mainly representing citizens already active in the community but who would have not spontaneously participated. On the other hand, an open call, published on an extensive basis at the local level, should try to involve ordinary citizens, not yet active in society, motivated to contribute voluntarily for enhancing citizens’ role in the decision-making process.
4. Research activity at the local level
This methodology seeks to directly involve the citizens’ panels, encouraging a real bottom-up approach in the collection of relevant, balanced and exhaustive information on the selected themes, especially regarding the selection of the sources of information. The panels are thus encouraged to implement some research activities, the methods and organization of which are self-defined by the panels according to their capacity and structure.
5. Activities at local level
Local activities should aim at presenting the results of the local research (information sharing) and providing information through experts and meetings with relevant stakeholders (information providing). Moreover, they should also encourage the production and drafting of recommendations on the topics addressed to be submitted to decision makers (opinion building). Finally, through open public events possibly addressed to the whole community, they should foster a dialogue between citizens and local authorities, in order to improve the local decision-making and policy-making processes (interaction with local and regional decision makers).
6. Production phase
The finalization of recommendations to be submitted to local and regional authorities represents a fundamental step in the overall process. The activators should guide the process of building individual and collective opinions, by paying special attention to minority opinions and to the issue of dialogue with majority opinions. The panels should establish working groups and suggest different working methods, which may include the use of ICT to transform citizens’ opinions into the form of recommendations to be published in an integrated handbook and finally presented to the local and regional authorities.
7. Presentation of the recommendations to the decision makers
The conclusion of the process is mainly focused on the presentation of the final recommendations to the decision makers, both through a final publication to be widely disseminated and by promoting their direct interaction with citizens.
8. Evaluation and follow up
It is of the utmost importance to evaluate the impact of the citizens’ panels and their outcomes. The evaluation should directly involve all the main stakeholders and representatives of the citizen panel.

Stakeholders

All stakeholders of the community should be involved. Regions, provinces and municipalities need to participate in the debate together with the citizens’ panels, on the basis of the responsibilities of the different local self-government bodies. Local public authorities should not only be approached directly, but also through non-governmental organizations and civil society groups that may have established a structured dialogue with the decision makers, favoring a more direct approach and a more structured and effective intervention of the panels in the decision-making process.
Politicians and elected representatives may also be involved in the process and in citizens’ panels meetings as resource people. The framework and aims of their interventions and contributions should be clearly defined in order not to reduce the freedom of citizens to express their views.

Assessment

Some main issues and challenges have been identified in the implementation of the methodology and solutions have been proposed to capitalize the practice:
1. Number
If we want to implement a real participatory process, where citizens are considered learners and resources at the same time, the number of members of the panels who can experience a direct involvement in the whole process is rather limited (the panels promoted within ALDA projects encompass on average 30 participants each) and may be costly. It is therefore of utmost importance to include and adopt measures that are able to multiply the effect of the panels’ action, in order to increase the number of beneficiaries.
The activators and the multipliers have been one of the solutions identified and adopted. Their role is crucial to make a wider impact on the communities involved thanks to their capacity to positively influence others and promote their involvement through a cascade effect. ICT may also highly contribute to reach a wide audience, thanks to its capacity to promote multiplying effects.
2. Time
The involvement of ordinary citizens, who are notably detached from the community life, represents a mid-long term goal to be achieved in a significant period of time. According to our experience, the necessary solution to grant sustainability to the citizen panel lies on a few clear features. First, the commitment of the major stakeholders of the local community and the motivation and investment (not only in terms of financial resources) of local decision makers and other parts of society (business sector, civil society, etc.) represent crucial elements for granting the achievement of the mid and long term goal of the panel. Secondly, the creation of synergies between the panels and other initiatives within the framework of the decision-making process needs to be identified and valorized. Thirdly, an official recognition of the panels and their work helps maintain the motivation and gives credit to the citizens’ panels in policy making.
3. Trust
The work of citizens’ panels, which is based simply on the motivation of participants, involved on a voluntary basis and animated by a civic desire to contribute to the life of the community, needs to be properly valorized by decision makers, who hold a strong responsibility in the overall process. In order to mitigate the risks related to this, ALDA identified different strategies to be implemented throughout the process. First of all, along with the creation of the panels, aside trainings and awareness-raising actions addressed to the decision makers need to be developed in order to prepare them to better listen to and dialogue with citizens. Secondly, ALDA’s approach of delivering recommendations has always privileged a direct interlocution between citizens and decision makers, in order to guarantee a direct relation that may constitute the basis for the creation of a structured dialogue.
4. Method
The working method acquires a significant role in the overall process. The implementers, who play the role of facilitators, cannot drive the life of the panels, which are free to define their agendas (focused on the agreed topic) and to adopt their functioning method.
In this respect, it is important to underline the importance of creativity. The employment of creative methods favors and encourages a higher participation and inclusion. A second piece of advice, on the basis of ALDA’s experience, is related to the importance of peer education: citizens do feel rewarded when they are recognized as resources, and not only as learners. It is therefore of utmost importance to valorize and capitalize their role as educators, especially in relation to their peers, to further reinforce their commitment in the process.

Impact

Citizens’ panels represent one of the most valuable tools to build and improve democracy at the local level, while contributing to the construction of the European project. It is not an easy path and the success of such a practice depends on many different factors and stakeholders. But when there is a common will to cooperate for the wellbeing of the community, whatever the territory, citizens’ panels have demonstrated that putting citizens at the heart of the action is the only viable strategy.

Swot

1. Strengths (characteristics of the measure that give it an advantage over others):
Direct relation citizens – decision makers
Space for free expression
Involvement of the community as a whole
Direct involvement of citizens
Minority positions taken into account
2. Weaknesses (characteristics that place the measure at a disadvantage relative to others)
High cost for direct participation in the panel
Time not always enough
3. Opportunities (elements that the measure could exploit to its advantage):
Bringing citizens’ voice directly into the decision-making process
Further development of the impact through ICT tools
Peer to peer relations
Empowerment of citizens as resource persons
4. Threats (elements in the environment that could cause trouble to the measure):
Low participation
Failure of representation of all facets of the community
Information provided in a political way
Process politically driven
Scarce capability and creativity of activators
Lack of time
Lack of trust – recommendations not taken into account

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