Constitutional revision is just one of the many democratic spheres where public participation as been gaining traction over the last decades. However, many of the ways in which authorities have employed to consult the public are scalable and adaptable to all levels of government. In the new report, States of Participation: International Best Practice in Civic Engagement, Liam O’Farrell, Researcher at the DCD, provides an overview of many of the most prominent methods and examples from different countries. This section contains excerpts from the report plus additional materials from the DCD team.
The following sections introduce different forms of civic engagement, with two case studies for each. There are of course many more case studies that could have been chosen, or alternative methods of engagement that could have been highlighted. These examples are not intended to be exhaustive, but instead to be a starting point that demonstrates the range of methods that are used across the world and highlight some of the successes of each, along with challenges they have encountered.
Further research needs to be done on civic engagement methods that are used in less-developed countries, with particular attention on low-cost solutions that have been used for public engagement in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The examples given in this report focus almost exclusively on Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Furthermore, the significance of local culture and factors such as religion, language, and history cannot be overlooked when considering politics and engagement. What works in Iceland would likely not work in Madagascar without being adapted to local conditions, for instance. These limitations notwithstanding, it is hoped that the examples provided below can inspire further research and exploration of this topic.
E-participation is a growing trend in civic engagement worldwide. A review of digital tools for engagement found that digital platforms are primarily used for three key functions: monitoring of government, institutional agenda setting, and input to decision-making. This can be done on social media or dedicated sites. Digital platforms can be used for information access and exchange, petitions and online campaigning, consultations, participatory budgeting, and voting.
However, digital engagement is not a silver bullet for mass involvement in decision-making. One core problem with digital engagement is that there are barriers to the participation of certain groups. Those of poorer backgrounds, with lower educational attainment, and members both the oldest and youngest age groups, along with people with lower interest in politics, are far less likely to use such platforms. Men are much more likely to use digital platforms for engagement than women. This means that the ‘usual suspects’ who dominate politics in the physical world – better educated and wealthier white men of middle-age and above – are disproportionately represented in digital engagement too.
Another challenge of digital platforms is that they can be disconnected from political processes, or used in an advisory capacity whereby those in power continue to control the terms of the debate and all possible outcomes. Such an approach is not truly participatory and may struggle to attract public interest. After all, time is precious, and people are not often willing to give their time to initiatives without tangible outcomes that they can influence.
Moreover, building up bespoke platforms is a major challenge for engagement. This is expensive and requires significant promotion to become more widely known. However, using existing social media is also beset with difficulties. While some organisations use this approach of going to the people where they are, rather than trying to get them to come to the organisation, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are hotbeds of trolling, hate speech, fake accounts and spam that hinder efforts at civic engagement.
The most important conditions for successful e-participation are: embeddedness in political processes; for the role that the outputs of the e-participation will play in decision-making to be clearly defined from the start; for feedback to be given to participants about what has been done with their contributions; and an effective mobilisation and engagement strategy, with communications that are tailored toward different target groups. The two case studies that follow demonstrate what an effective digital approach towards civic engagement looks like.
Betra Ísland / Better Iceland—Crowd sourcing the constitution)
In the autumn of 2019 in the lead up to the Deliberative Meeting on the constitution, held in November, same year, we at the DCD and The Citizens Foundation instigated an online crowdsourcing forum called Betra Ísland (Better Iceland). The platform was open from September 26th to November 10th 2019 where the public could share their opinion on any constitutional-related issue. Our Podcast interviewed Róbert Bjarnason the CEO of The Citizens Foundation about the experiment.
The Better Reykjavik platform has been hailed as a leading example of digital innovation in government. The platform is produced by the Citizens Foundation, working alongside Reykjavik City Council, with the aim of better integrating citizens’ voices into decisions, as well as facilitating the devolution of power and neighbourhood funding. It is one of the most successful digital platforms for engagement in the world.
A variety of projects have been operated through the platform. This includes crowdsourcing for ideas for education policy and setting the city’s democracy strategy (including young people’s issues). There have also been physical investments as a result of initiatives launched on the platform, such as new schools, community centres, cycle paths, and constructing a leisure centre in a housing estate on the urban periphery. A percentage of the city’s capital investment budget has been devolved to neighbourhoods themselves to decide how to spend it on the platform.
Better Reykjavik has proven itself to be scalable, replicable, and transferrable: key tests of digital engagement. It has recently been scaled up to the ‘Better Iceland’ platform, to crowdsource ideas for the new Constitution of Iceland. The technology has been piloted in other cities across Europe, such as Madrid and Dundee.
Reykjavik is a small city and is also highly prosperous. As a national capital, it hosts a range of institutions that give it a different dynamic to regional cities. In addition, the city is far less diverse than many in Europe, although minorities do exist, such as a relatively large Polish community. These conditions impact on the success of Better Reykjavik. Nevertheless, while the platform has an automatic translation function built in, more could be done to include migrants’ perspectives, such as a dedicated section of the platform for issues specific to migrants. In a conversation with Robert Bjarnason, head of the Citizens Foundation, he said the two keys to the platform’s success were embeddedness in the political process and constant marketing of achievements to show citizens that the platform is worth engaging with.
The synAthina platform aims to develop a participatory culture in the Greek capital, where public trust in politics was low following the financial crisis. The platform is geared towards problem identification, problem-solving, and political reform. If regulations hinder citizens from carrying out popular ideas, the synAthina team works with Athens City Council to update relevant regulations and policies.
Thousands of projects have launched on synAthina since 2013, with hundreds of civic groups organised to tackle problems in the city, from litter and graffiti to education and inclusion. The platform is a portal for posting training and internship opportunities as well as advertising cultural events in the city, encouraging people to use it in their everyday lives and build up awareness of the platform. Cultural institutions promote their schedules on synAthina and create bespoke opportunities to take part in their work through volunteering and placements. This is thus a collaboration between anchor institutions across the city.
A particular strength of the platform is how it has been used to help the city cope with the ongoing migrant crisis in Greece. Alongside the digital platform, synAthina offers a meeting space in the city centre that groups on the platform can book to use, free of charge, 24 hours a day. Support groups targeted towards marginalised citizens that have few resources benefit from this access to a safe physical space.
The successive of the project has been iterative, developing over time. The platform offers community groups space and connections with the municipality, building trust. Given the significant financial pressure on the city, citizen groups have organised to provide services. Athenians have volunteered to teach asylum seekers the Greek language, and the University of Athens has offered free courses to teach new skills to refugees, enabling them to build new lives and thus integrate into the city. Citizens’ groups and the local authority alike put out ‘open calls’ on the platform, seeking help from volunteers with time or skills to offer.
Participatory budgeting was first practiced in Brazil in 1989 as a means of democratising the finances of a city government and creating more accountable governance. Citizens deliberate on how resources should be allocated and what spending priorities are, rather than this process being dominated by elected politicians who can be beholden to other interests, or technocratic council officers who can be far removed from the situation on the ground.
The method was pioneered by the city of Porto Alegre, a relatively prosperous city in Brazil, initiated by the centre-left Workers’ Party. The party’s aim was to initiate an ‘inversion of spending priorities’. Historically, public resources had been disproportionately spent on wealthier neighbourhoods. Participatory budgeting was envisioned as a mechanism for helping poorer citizens and wards receive larger shares of public funding, by inviting citizens themselves to debate what the priority issues of the city were and how money should be spent.
Different approaches practiced across the world seek either to get a demographically accurate sample of citizens, or to have greater representation of specific groups to feed into the development of decisions disproportionately affecting minority populations. Common to other forms of engagement, participatory budgeting can have the same issues of the “usual suspects” being overrepresented or dominating debates. This can be mitigated with sampling and trained moderators, allowing all participants ample time to express their views.
Communications, marketing, and embeddedness in the political process are important for the success of participatory budgeting. When done well, studies show that it results in: a fairer allocation of public resources; greater perceived transparency, accountability, and trust in government; and an improvement in the participation of marginalised citizens. It has also been shown to improve the outcomes and living conditions of the poorest citizens, and innovative ideas submitted by citizens can create real change. However, there can be problems with participatory budgeting. Tensions can arise owing to the design, process, implementation, or surrounding policies and institutions that have not been designed to accommodate this mechanism. This can lead to political opposition.
Nevertheless, experiences across the world show us that participatory budgeting has a transformative power that can help engage with hard-to-reach groups and co-produce holistic responses to the challenges they face.
Participatory budgeting originated in Porto Alegre and has since spread to hundreds of cities across the world. At its peak, the city devolved responsibility for spending £130 million. Tens of thousands of citizens took part. The process comprised three layers: neighbourhood assemblies in 16 wards, thematic assemblies by department of the municipality, and meetings of delegates elected by the neighbourhoods to attend coordinating sessions with the council.
The experience has been widely viewed as a major success, in terms of redistributing spending to areas that are in greater need, improved outcomes on a range of metrics, and greater inclusion of women, ethnic minorities, and those with low incomes and low education in political processes. However, in 2017 the centre-left Workers’ Party lost the city, and new conservative leadership suspended the process. Participatory budgeting had become increasingly unpopular with politicians, particularly among those on the right. This highlights the challenges in changing institutional culture and the power dynamic that exists in civic engagement, where those in the position of power can end initiatives that they perceive to be a threat to their authority. A similar situation happened with Britain’s NHS Citizen initiative, which was set up in 2012 to integrate a deliberative system into formulating health policy but was shut down, being perceived as a challenge to decision-makers.
Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre lacked a mechanism for incorporating citizens’ views into long-term planning and was beset by issues of short-termism and a focus on smaller issues. Nevertheless, research has found that over the lifetime of the participatory budgeting process, the city’s development level rose significantly above comparator cities and poorer neighbourhoods achieved much higher levels of public investment per head than had previously been the case. It also benefited city officials, who had struggled to make unpopular decisions. Instead, citizens were confronted by the trade-offs required and sought to negotiate solutions that were more acceptable to them and their neighbours.
Portugal is the first country to try participatory budgeting on the national level, drawing from the success of this policy in the capital of Lisbon since it was launched in 2008. In the 2016/17 financial year, €2.5 million was allocated; a tiny fraction of the city’s overall budget, and much smaller than the sums involved in Porto Alegre. The city announced its intention to ‘de-digitising’ its participatory budgeting in favour of face-to-face methods, which it speculates could better reach groups such as young people, seniors, and migrants. It is likely this will have to wait until after the pandemic.
Lisbon’s experience has been described as a ‘slow but continuous transformation’. This slowness could be its strength, as it has avoided the conservative backlash that occurred in other trailblazers. Lisbon’s approach differs in that it does not place a special emphasis on issues relating to social inclusion, wealth redistribution, and specifically improving outcomes among the most marginalised groups. This could also be a reason for less political opposition.
A recent development in the city is a new Green Participatory Budget, where citizens can decide on how funds are allocated to help deal with the green energy transition and building resilience in the face of climate change. This is a good example of building support for participatory budgeting through a policy area where there is widespread agreement that something needs to be done. Similar work in the UK and USA might also begin with a response to climate change or protecting the environment, where polling shows a high degree of consensus among the public that is not reflected in politics.
Participatory budgeting is a powerful tool but one that is fragile, as it depends upon widespread public involvement and the support of political actors. Cuts in funding or rolling back of policy areas covered can undermine the legitimacy of the process in the public’s eyes. Nevertheless, the experience of Lisbon has built the evidence base for participatory budgeting and shown how this is a method that can evolve over time in a positive feedback loop.
Citizen assemblies and randomly selected mini-publics
By Sævar Finnbogason and Liam O’Farrel
Citizens’ assemblies randomly select members as was originally practiced in Ancient Athenian democracy. Today however, we associate democracy with the act of voting, making it difficult for us to think about alternative ways that democracy has been practiced historically. Aristotle wrote in his Politics that the Ancient Greeks considered Sortition (i.e. randomly selecting citizens for office) to be democratic and voting was seen as oligarchic, creating polarization, demagoguery, the emergence of a political class detached from citizens’ concerns, with the risk of corruption and the domination of elites over the masses.
As a number of researchers have argued, we appear to have reached the limits of the electoral representative democratic system established after the American and French revolutions. This ‘Democratic Fatigue Syndrome’ is expressed in growing distrust in conventional politics, political parties and politicians, and the rise of populism, political spin, and ‘fake news’ mass media narratives that support elite interests. By combining random selection to descriptively represents the demos and the discursive principles developed by Deliberative Democracy mini-publics have been able to overcome political polarization and produce good recommendations on difficult and often disputed issues that can feed into political decision-making processes and serve as the basis of decisions themselves.
Citizen Assembly vs. Deliberative polls: What is the difference?
Although the deliberative meeting that is the main focus of the Deliberative Poll shares many of the same features as a Citizen Assembly. Before the meeting, the randomly selected participants are provided with neutral information about the issue under consideration, collated by experts. At the meeting participants are split into groups discussion groups, where moderators are present to ensure that all participants get to have equal opportunities to voice their opinions. Research has found that people who hold more extreme opinions on an issue tend to move towards consensual positions in this setting and gain a better understanding for the merits of other peoples views.
However, A deliberative poll is a poll that provides insights int what the people would think about the questions posed to them before and after they have had the chance to deliberate under the conditions discussed above. It is a highly useful way to gage the considered public opinion on the particular questions asked of participants. But it is important to stress that it is not designed to produce concrete proposals. So the choice between a Deliberative Poll and a Citizen Assembly ultimately boils down to the goals the authorities have in mind, and the level of commitment to the process.
A Citizen Assembly, because it is not a poll but a democratic assembly, should not be held unless there is a clear and predefined process set out for how its proposals will ultimately be passed or rejected.
DCD podcast episodes on Citizen Assemblies
David Farrell (Part 1): Citizen Assemblies and Constitutional Change in Ireland.
Following the financial crisis of 2008 Iceland and Ireland embarked on constructional revisions. In the episode Sævar Finnbogason talks to professor David Farrell about the main differences between the two countries approaches. David is the project leader for the Irish Citizen Assembly and has advised the Irish government on all three citizen assemblies held in Ireland.
5. David Farrell (Part 2): Can Citizen Assemblies strengthen democracy?
Citizen Assemblies and Deliberative Polls on various issues have been conducted in many countries all over the world and there is also growing interest in other forms of Sortition mini-publics. In the second part of our talk with professor David Farrell we discuss this development and the promise it might hold for the future.
The Irish Citizens’ Assembly was established in 2016 and empowered to deliberate on contentious issues that politicians have been unable to resolve for decades. It has attracted significant attention for having proposed sweeping changes for the Republic of Ireland. These include the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage, reforms to the pension system and retirement age, the establishment of an independent agency to tackle climate change, changes to the law around voting and referenda, and work on gender equality.
Participants are selected via stratified random sampling for inclusion based on gender, age, and social class, along with screening to ensure exclusion of those who are members of interest or lobbying groups.
Members of the public are encouraged to submit opinions, ideas, and recommendations either by post or through the official website to the Assembly. Assembly members are provided with expert evidence and are empowered to call specialists to present and answer questions. These plenary discussions are livestreamed and uploaded to YouTube afterwards.
As in British Columbia, recommendations were subject to referenda, making Ireland the first country where gay marriage was achieved through popular vote – a dramatic change in a country formerly known for its staunch Catholicism, where organised lobby groups and religious pressure halted progress on gay rights for decades. Those who participated reported feeling more empowered, more understanding of those who disagree with them, and more empathetic than they were before. Participants showed that ordinary members of the public can make nuanced, representative decisions on complex issues through deliberation. It also benefited political parties, giving the conservative Fine Gael party a way to address abortion without taking a position that could alienate parts of its base.
The Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2004 was a pioneering example of this form of civic engagement. This is an example of a politically difficult topic being handed over to a Citizen Assembly. The recommendations of the assembly were nor ratified into law as they narrowly failed to achieve a super-majority in a subsequent referendum. However, data on successes and failures of the process have fed into later, successful citizens’ assemblies held elsewhere.
The random sample size was 160, stratified for gender and geographic spread, alongside two aboriginal members. Participants were randomly selected from a pool of those who responded to one of 15,800 invites to take part. However, those who volunteered were disproportionately in favour of electoral reform compared to the wider public. The process took place on specific days over twelve weeks, with 50 public hearings and hundreds of submissions. Members deliberated over the relative merits of different electoral systems, making a recommendation to replace the province’s first-past-the-post voting system with the single transferable vote system. This recommendation was put to a referendum, where 57.7% of voters accepted the recommendation. However, the provincial legislature had set the condition that 60% of voters to be in favour, meaning that the assemblies proposals, although achieving a majority of the votes, ultimately failed the supermajority requirement of the referendum.
Over the process of the assembly, participants came to a consensus on the merits of single transferable vote, which had not been the case initially. Although the assemblies proposal failed to reach supermajority, this failure was also a product of institutional restraints placed upon the process (in terms of the supermajority requirement in the referendum) which it could be argued were designed to stymie the potential for change from the outset. The assembly was also notably lacking in both demographic diversity (particularly ethnic minorities) and cognitive diversity (as most participants were in favour of some kind of electoral reform) as well as overemphasising geographic spread. It thus was a useful demonstration on the need for more robust sampling in future efforts.
Various forms of crowd sourcing
By Liam O’Farrell
Participatory planning is about empowering citizens to make decisions that shape the physical world they live in. Participatory planning theory draws from Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation (see diagram to the left, taken from the Citizen’s Handbook). Although there have been many revisions to the ladder model since it first appeared in 1969, Arnstein set the standard for how participatory urban planning, and civic engagement more generally, is conceptualised.
The Ladder of Participation is a mechanism for rethinking dominant knowledge and power hierarchies. In participatory planning, communities are empowered to diagnose their own problems and formulate solutions or visions for the future that are rooted in their lived experience. While technical experts can be involved as facilitators or to provide information, ideally citizens should shape the process themselves as far as possible.
Current models of public consultation in urban planning have the effect of shutting some people out of the planning process or restricting the range of choices available. Allowing communities to have a greater degree of control over their areas and set their own priorities increases engagement, and in doing so increases trust in planning and politics. It also builds consensus for developments, particularly when these are controversial and residents perceive that the changes are being ‘done to them’ by the local authority, rather than being done ‘with them’, ‘for them’ or ‘by them’.Participatory planning is a means of ensuring that the views of the most marginalised groups are factored into the decision-making process. Such inclusion creates a sense of ownership and motivation diffused throughout the community, promoting positive change that is highly context specific. As with other methods of civic engagement, the idea is that the products of such a process are more holistic and reflective of the challenge they seek
Following a major earthquake in 2011 that destroyed much of the city, Christchurch City Council developed the Resilient Greater Christchurch Plan to rebuild in a participatory manner. The plan sought to incorporate principles of resilience into urban planning. This includes preparedness for natural disasters and climate change and also tackling the causes of social instability, such as long-term unemployment, poor public transport infrastructure, and inclusion of marginalised groups.
The initial scope of the plan was drafted by the local authority in collaboration with stakeholder groups, with an unprecedented level of public engagement that generated 106,000 ideas over 6 weeks of consultation. These were fed into the development of the plan. However, the final iteration of the plan prioritised technical expertise over the lived experience and subjective knowledge of citizens. This demonstrates how the belief persists that technical knowledge of experts is objective, true, and sufficient, whereas local knowledge is considered subjective or irrelevant. Studies have shown that the opposite can in fact be true, with technical knowledge being based on uncertain or problematic assumptions, whereas local knowledge often employs objective and systematic methods. Moreover, individuals can hold both forms of knowledge at the same time.
Nevertheless, a strength of the final plan is its degree of engagement with indigenous people and conscious use of Maori traditions, culture, and ideas in a society where ‘Englishness’ continues to be prioritised. The plan has a strong emphasis on co-producing structures, agendas, and policies to overcome the frustration residents felt towards the local authority, and low trust and legitimacy of decisions made ‘behind closed doors’. Citizens were empowered to decide how public spaces were used in the city, with community groups reclaiming many spaces that had previously been given over to commercial use. Data held by the authority was published in an open source format for free use. Training programmes for community leaders and groups were launched, along with a time bank for volunteering.
In 2015, Germany welcomed half a million asylum seekers fleeing the war in Syria. As one of the most dynamic and prosperous cities in the country, Hamburg attracted a large proportion (79,000) of the refugees accepted into Germany that year, with more to follow in 2016. The Senate of Hamburg set up the FindingPlaces platform as a mechanism for involving residents in decisions about refugee accommodation, to mitigate against potential unrest. A Human-Computer Interaction platform was designed by MIT and HafenCity University’s Science Lab to be deployed in dozens of community meetings with 500 participants. 161 locationswere chosen by citizens to be developed into new housing units for asylum seekers.
Citizens were able to interact with a map of Hamburg where empty sites were highlighted, such as parks, sports fields, car parks, disused industrial spaces, agricultural spaces on the urban periphery, and plots of undeveloped land. Sites were assessed for viability by a technical board. 44 of the 161 sites were determined to be feasible, with 6 being developed immediately and 10 being held in reserve for future development. The platform showed how digital platforms can inform citizens of the trade-offs required in making difficult decisions. Accommodation solutions were found to house 24,000 refugees, well in excess of the project’s goal of 20,000.
A challenge the project faced was a very compressed timeframe. The process had to move fast, hampering the ability to raise public awareness. Mailouts were sent to 5.1 million people in the metropolitan area, but the organisers acknowledged more could have been done. The platform could only host 20 people at any one time owing to technical limitations. Citizens also struggled at first with using the platform. However, FindingPlaces showed that participatory planning can yield success, provided there is a clear research question, strong collaboration with locals, and effective digital design. The project built up acceptance towards refugee accommodation in the city and improved public perceptions of transparency, accountability, ownership and trust in the city’s government.
Citizen science and co-production
Citizen science is known by many different names across the world, including community science, crowdsourced science, civic science, and volunteer science. Although the terms differ, they describe the same process: public involvement in the gathering and occasionally analysis of scientific data. This makes it a form of participatory action research, where volunteers are involved in creating new knowledge and answering research questions.
Not only can this have an economic benefit for commissioning organisations, but it can also make citizens feel more engaged in their local areas, strengthening a sense of community and better anchoring the research in its specific context. This can also be a means for citizens to gain new skills. Examples of citizen science include counting wildlife, amateur astronomy, collecting air pollution data, involvement in oral history projects, and cleaning up beaches and other natural environments.
Citizen scientists can also become advocates for causes. For instance, in the context of the current Covid-19 pandemic, the University of California, San Francisco has released a smartphone app to educate citizens and help them collect data to feed into scientific research. The hope is that citizen scientists will also help educate those around them on how individuals should respond to the threat of the coronavirus.
Participants in citizen science research projects can be trained or given instructions on a protocol, so that data is of an assured quality for use in scientific research. This can be a good technique for bringing together demographics who do not frequently mix in everyday life. For example, retirees and young people are often keen volunteers in citizen science projects, which can help overcome generational divides in society. It can also help those without formal educational qualifications to take part in data collection, gain new skills and networks, and be thus empowered to contribute to decisions that affect them and perhaps move into employment using these new capabilities. Scientists and researchers of course benefit through vastly increased volumes of data for their research, along with a clear way of demonstrating impact and the community involvement of their work.
A related concept is co-production, whereby citizens work with agencies and institutions to design the services and policies that affect them, from identifying needs to testing solutions. Communities are seen as equal partners in the decision-making and policymaking process, and citizens’ lived experience is incorporated alongside the technical knowledge of experts to create rooted, locally attuned responses to issues.
Sydney has a rich ecosystem of citizen science projects run by organisations across the city. This provides citizens with a wide variety of opportunities to engage in gathering knowledge, learning new skills, meeting others, and building a personal and professional network. For instance, a major development of the Chullora Wetlands involved citizen science over the period 1991-2012, with findings contributing to new policy and unlocking the potential of the site to benefit society, while also reaping economic returns.
Scientists in the city are also using citizen science to supplement marine conservation work, sustainably developing marine sites for tourism and other uses while protecting the fragile habitat. Such public involvement increases the understanding of the sites and benefits citizens who participate through educating them about the sites and scientific research methods, learning more about their local environment, making new friends, engaging in decision-making processes in a proactive manner, and participating in activities that many define as recreational. Similarly, other ecological projects in and around the city have documented the benefits of citizen science for the scientists who initiated the research.
The Australian Museum has a Centre for Citizen Science that helps the institution develop knowledge on its own collection, alongside projects to build up image libraries of local wildlife and climate activism for future cataloguing and exhibitions. The University of Sydney also initiates a large number of citizen science projects. There are many ways for citizens in Sydney to participate in co-producing knowledge and gain new skills; the website of the Australian Citizen Science Association lists hundreds of such opportunities. Anchor institutions across a city collaborating in this way can help make public organisations truly public, with benefits for the organisations as well as citizens themselves.
‘USE-IT! Unlocking Social and Economic Innovation Together’ was a collaborative project between anchor institutions across the city to test new mechanisms to help poor citizens build resilience, enhance their employment prospects, and contribute to the identification and response to problems they face. The project trained 80 residents through an accredited training programme, which is being scaled up to a community enterprise. The project also included skills matching programme that found 200 migrants with qualifications needed by the local health service, and support for social enterprises alongside research into community assets and financing.
The project sought to co-produce knowledge and thus challenge existing power dynamics, in which vulnerable citizens are acted upon rather than in collaboration with. Participants of USE-IT! gained new skills, confidence, and made meaningful impact to the strategy and decisions of many organisations. Through empowering people to shape policies and developments in their area, the project was a working model of an intersectional response to epistemic injustice in a highly diverse part of the city. It also tested theoretical debates on co-production, with residents’ lived experience being valued alongside the technical knowledge of experts.
Through 24 commissioned research projects, community researchers on USE-IT! contributed to the knowledge gathering underpinning policy formulation for organisations across areas including poverty, migrants’ integration, health, innovation, transport, food, the arts, and issues affecting the youth and elderly people. Community researchers made contributions to the UK2070 Commission and secured a £100,000 grant to tackle childhood obesity. Birmingham is one of the most diverse cities in Europe and findings from this project can offer insight to other cities on the continent as a demographic transition is forecast to take place over the coming decades. A particular strength of USE-IT! was partnering with marginalised migrant communities and empowering them to build resilience and think about what problems they saw in their areas, as well as what solutions might be appropriate.