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Prague, Czech Republic | What makes a European Citizens’ Initiative successful? Motivation, communication and common sense

The European Citizens’ Initiative Roadshow continued its journey across Europe with a visit to the Festival of Democracy held in Prague, Czech Republic. This was the latest stop on its three-year tour, which set off from Bulgaria in May 2018, has already visited Lithuania and Poland, and will go on to visit France, Portugal and Austria before the year is out.

The European Citizens’ Initiative team was honoured to be invited to the Festival of Democracy organised in Prague, which kicked-off a week’s worth of workshops, debates and activities on the subject on 5 October. The Roadshow team set-up an interactive photo booth at Republic Square for a whole day on 6 October to invite locals and tourists alike to discuss the participatory tool and share ideas on how to make Europe a better place. Citizens came up with causes they believed in or would want to support, immortalised them with a photo and posted them on the ‘travelling wall’, which already features messages from other countries the Roadshow has visited. 

The European Citizens’ Initiative team and the Institute for European Policy EUROPEUM also organised a half-day knowledge-sharing workshop at the European Commission Representation in Prague in conjunction with the festival. The workshop aimed to engage with civil actors working actively on boosting democracy and civic engagement in the Czech Republic.

A simple message: a tool to engage citizens

The workshop welcomed a group of experts who shared their experience in the context of participatory democracy and the European Citizens’ Initiative. The discussion, moderated by Christian Kvorning from EUROPEUM, highlighted good examples and proposed solutions to challenges related to active civic participation in local and European policy-making.

Pascal Herry, European Citizens’ Initiative Team Leader at the European Commission, engaged the audience via a Slido powered quiz on the tool providing participants with insights into the planned upcoming improvements to the tool’s accessibility and effectiveness. He highlighted the fact that citizens were getting more and more involved with the tool, as demonstrated by the six initiatives currently open for support. Mr. Herry is convinced that even more initiatives will be put forward once the reform of the tool has been concluded.

Odessa Primus, Executive Director at Global Arena Research Institute, then took the floor to explain that new technologies have wide impacts and that there should be more awareness of these. She noted that new tools have proven to help boost citizen involvement, namely online voting. Her key message was that in order for a process to be impactful, understood by many and engaging for all, “it must be kept simple”. This point echoes the European Commission’s goal to simplify the European Citizens’ Initiative procedure in order to make it more accessible.

Active citizenship: a skill to be promoted through education  

Ekaterina Petrikevich, Senior International Project Manager at D21, highlighted the crucial role of education in participatory democracy. She explained that active participation starts in schools and should be promoted via education to improve citizenship skills. This allows young people to be aware of their civic environment and encourage them to engage with it. Mrs Petrikevich believes that education is key to helping EU citizens gain practical skills to help them respond to their civic duties.

The panelists also debated the challenges facing the European Citizens’ Initiative. They agreed that it was essential not to disregard unsuccessful initiatives, but instead to find ways to improve them and encourage citizens to try again. Other challenges mentioned were the seven citizens currently required to launch an initiative, considering the importance of the involvement of dedicated, active and engaged citizens in each and every initiative.

The discussion was summed up by Pascal Herry three-word description of what makes an initiative successful: “Motivation, communication and common sense”.

Getting together to discuss

After the panel discussion, the participants divided into three active brainstorming sessions to share practical information and get a better grasp of the European Citizens’ Initiative as well as some of its aspects including funding, campaigning and forging partnership networks.

How to raise funds for your campaign? (Moderator: Odessa Primus)

The participants of the parallel breakout session on fundraising held a fruitful discussion, touching primarily on the importance of preparedness, imagination, and support, for a successful initiative.

The group indicated that challenges included securing financial sustainability, being able to quantify different parameters, and overcoming obstacles in receiving funds and grants. Barriers also included the tendency to look at outdated methods of financing, as well as a lack of concept development.

How to address these barriers to project financing, however? The participants stressed that firstly, it is important to have an original and feasible idea that could also easily be explained and understood. As part of proactively searching for solutions, Odessa Primus suggested to turn to resources such as HeroClan, Tech Soup, and Google 4 non-profits for guidance.  Furthermore, the importance of communication was highlighted, in particular identifying good communicators to pitch initiatives and the reasoning behind them. Finally, Odessa also recommended to make use of the energy and help of students, who are often looking to expand their portfolio and are willing to work in order to build their experience, and who will contribute fresh ideas.

How to look for partners to support your initiative and campaign? (Moderator: Christian Kvorning)

While thinking about how to identify supporting partners for a campaign, the group came up with several interesting insights. Finding compromise between loose organisation and hierarchy was also discussed, with the group deciding that although some hierarchy is necessary, too much can also impede progress.

Some challenges that projects face in looking for partners can include the ability to engage with existing networks, and to align objectives and expectations accordingly. The issues of insufficient media attention and difficulty in developing new networks were also raised as potential barriers to success. However, with the right technology, milestones, engagement (such as in-person networking and sending letters), ambassador programs, establishment of diversity networks and local influencers, the right partners can be found and leveraged.

Looking ahead, participants agreed that using existing resources and networks and establishing new networks was key to success. The need to critically evaluate needs and capacities was also agreed as a priority, as well as the ability to enable and empower people, especially those with low social capital, towards positive civic engagement. This ultimately led to the suggestion for the European Citizens’ Initiative to work on the accessibility of the tool, the specific initiatives in question and supporting activities for vulnerable groups in order to give them more of a voice.

How to promote your citizens’ initiative? (Moderator: Ondřej Timčo)

The participants in the discussion agreed that there were several key factors for the successful promotion of a citizens’ initiative, including channeling know-how; selecting the right partners; communicating effectively and establishing structure. All of these actions, however, need to address a societal issue in an inclusive way, and aim to increase the quality of life of citizens, while playing by the “rules of the game.”

The key question of “why” was also addressed – why create and promote an initiative? The members of the group agreed that if they did not do it, no one else would. The importance of having this sense of societal responsibility to use our voices collaboratively to create change was discussed, along with the need for motivation. From a Czech perspective, the biggest challenges to a successful initiative were identified as financial obstacles, the need for visibility, cultural and historical barriers, personal values, perspective of real-world relevance, and ability to activate fellow citizens for change.

Additional needs within this framework of action included the need for volunteers, partners, quality presentations, the use of new technologies, as well as courage and inspiration. However, it was agreed that with the right will, resolve, collaboration, communication, discussion, and self-reflection, anything would be possible and a European Citizens’ Initiative could gather speed thanks to the “snow-ball” effect it needs in order to be successful.

Contributor: Melissa Capiot & Gabriela Cinkova

Contributor’s background: #EUTakeTheInitiative team, GOPA Com

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