Mathew Lowry

On October 15th Anthony Zacharzewski (@anthonyzach) of the Democratic Society and I will facilitate an EuropCom 2014 WorldCafé session on improving citizens participation in EU affairs. This post is my personal Call for Ideas – if you have good or bad examples, ideas of what works and what doesn’t, I want to hear them.

[Update: see also the post-conference followup post]

The session (“From the street to the cloud”, 16-17h30, Wednesday 15 October – see the programme.pdf) will be in World Café format, and so will definitely not consist of Anthony and I talking for 90 minutes. He and I haven’t really discussed it yet (this post is part of that process), but I’ve outlined some ideas below based on the organisers’ briefing.

But this is not yet fixed – take a look and suggest improvements, theories and case studies, principles and practices, and indeed anything else, via the comments.

Round one: Why, Who & What?

If you haven’t seen a World Café format in action, then you’ll find yourself sitting at a table with 3 or 4 other people, equipped with writeable tablecloths, post-its, etc.

Anthony and/or I will start by telling a couple of stories to illustrate the three highly interrelated questions underpinning this Round.

Firstly, Why & What?

Why would anyone engage with you? What are you offering them that’s worth their time?”

It takes two to have a conversation, so there are two questions here:

  • Why is the Institution seeking participation?
  • Why would anyone pay any attention to it? Or, What will they get out of spending their time on your process?

If these incentives are not aligned – for example, if the citizen wants to be heard, while the institution is only interested in some good PR and social media buzz – failure awaits.

And then there’s the flipside of this coin: Who?

Given the Why & the What, Who should be involved?

You must consider all three together to align Why you want someone’s participation with What you will do with their input – i.e., What you are offering them. This, in turn, requires a completely user-centric focus: it’s not enough to just identify Who you’re trying to get involved; you need to understand their needs, motivations and limitations. That takes audience research.

Which is why ‘citizen participation’ is such a useless concept, IMHO – ‘Citizens’ is such a generic term, it doesn’t help you design anything specific. And if you cannot offer an audience specific benefits, don’t be surprised if they ignore you.

As mentioned, we’ll open by telling some stories. On my shortlist are two very different ones:

  • ICT Research Events: successfully piloted in 2002 and used by DG INFSO and CNECT ever since, this involves a Web2.0 site (and, more recently, social media) to convene a community to co-create a major conference, exhibition and networking event. Who: specialised audiences. Why: organisers gets a better, more user-focused event; participants get to help set the agenda and raise visibility for them and their ideas (which is worth a lot when research funding is at stake). Result:

“when the networking Call in 2006 was closed and the community’s ideas were published, there were over 8000 comments in the first month, which was August

Building Communities of Practice with Event-in-a-Box

  • #EUCO, where the EU Council erected a Tweetwall to allow citizens to “Tweet to the Council”. Who: citizens. Why: an Institution pretending to listen, fooling noone. Result: what always happens when you take your audience for granted while treating them like idiots:

“If someone is not expecting their constructive contributions to be taken seriously, then their contribution will not be constructive, nor serious. Quite the opposite…”

#euco: damn, maybe we didn’t get through 2010 unscathed after all

This is followed by a 15 minute round of table conversations, during which Anthony and I will “bumble bee” from table to table, identifying ideas. (Seriously, that’s the term used. Not to be confused with simply “bumbling”, apparently.)

We’ll then briefly invite the tables to share some of these ideas in a “harvesting” process (and, before you ask, I’m not the origin of the gardening metaphor here, despite my alternative EU communication strategy post).

Round two: Mindmapping conditions for success

And then everyone changes table, bar one person per table, who stays behind to carry that table’s first round conversation into the second.

In parallel, Anthony and I frame the questions for the second round. Obviously, this will depend on the outcome of Round One, but our starting point is to dig a little deeper into the conditions for success:

Assuming we know our Who, What and Why, what else do we need to get right?

As the preceding section makes clear, the conditions for success around participation – digital or otherwise – are many and highly interrelated, so the organisers have asked us to come up with some sort of mindmap to help put it all into some sort of structure.

So if you have anything you think should be in the mindmap, let me know.

Update: here’s the mindmap we prepared for the session:

After another 15 minutes we change again, with the outputs of this second round clustered on the wall with post-its.

Round three: How?

This is followed by a third round, which we conclude by harvesting the main conclusions of the session.

In this round we’ll be asking participants to identify how they can relate the ideas they’ve heard to their specific context:

In your context, what condition(s) need(s) to be addressed first in order to meet it and how?

Final remarks

To be frank, I’m not quite satisfied with the Round 3 question – it doesn’t seem to build on Round 2 that much, so suggestions are welcome. On the other hand, Round 3 will depend on Round 2 will depend on Round 1, so while it’s nice to have a plan, we won’t be forcing people to stick to it.

Finally, the Democratic Society will be following up with an Open Policymaking Unconference the day after EuropCom. It’s open to all and free (please register, though)

I look forward to any ideas, and look forward to seeing you at one or both events.

And make sure you check out the EuropCom speed geeking sessions, where my friend and fellow BloggingPortal editor Ronny Patz (@ronpatz) will be presenting the first results from the Hashtag Europe project, where we’re rebooting BloggingPortal with advanced semantic technologies, courtesy of the conText research project.


Relevant reading

See also: propaganda, democracy on my TumblrHub public library.

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