How to encourage young people to be active citizens

Stories from my recent talk at the European Youth Event in Strasbourg on activism and finding out what young people make of opening up our governments and shaking up our democracy

I was recently invited to speak at the European Youth Event in Strasbourg, an event that sees almost 10,000 young people pour into the European Parliament for a whole weekend. I shared my thoughts on active citizens and empowering young people, including some insight into my experience as an engagement and participation specialist.

Below is a summary of what I said in my talk and the responses from the participating young people. You can also watch the webstream video if you prefer (I start around 19 minutes in!) online here:

Panel on Active Citizens, European Youth Event, Strasbourg 2nd June

Speaking on the same panel as the European Ombusdman Emily O’Reilly was a real milestone for me. I’d seen her speaking at an event in Brussels a few years ago and thought she was * amazing * — a fab female role model. Finding out I’d be on the same panel as her just a couple of years later was a total fan girl moment for me! I was also speaking alongside a political YouTube vlogger from France, and a Greek volunteer coordinator, who both, in different ways, encourage citizens to be active in social democratic life. Together, we presented very varied perspectives, with me proposing more formal structural changes that could be made to the democratic process.

I was excited to hear their reactions to some of the ideas I proposed — I’m 26 and often find I’m the youngest person in my field of work, but even I’m already out of touch with what 19 year olds care about. Engagement, civic tech and participatory democracy is something I care a lot about and I’ve been working on over the last few years. But would these ideas seem like a good way forward to them, coming to these ideas completely cold? Would they like to see these kinds of changes and would they go some way to addressing their own concerns of their time?

I was also nervous about coming across patronizing by simplifying things too much — something I noticed a lot while technically categorized as a ‘young person’ myself. I also had some major reservations about this whole event being in that same vein. I have to admit though that I was pleasantly surprised — the audience challenged, proposed improvements (see below) and were enthusiastic about how these ideas could work. Altogether, my panel session discussion was varied and challenging, and the rest of the event left me feeling more positive about the level of activism going on across Europe from today’s young people.

Happily, it seemed I really hit the spot from the feedback I received and what people said coming up to speak to me at the end. There was a lot of interest and enthusiasm for the ideas I presented which encouraged me to share this talk here.

Below is a summary of the talk I gave.

Q: What could we do on EU level to attract young people to take part and make their choice in elections?

A: Lowering the voting age is the short answer! In Scotland it’s 16. But a focus on voting and elections is perhaps taking the wrong approach to the big question here. If we think about active citizens and political engagement only through the lens of voting in elections, we’ve really missed a trick. Instead, we should be thinking about other ways people can take part in decision-making in their every day lives.

I’m passionate about making democracy better. If democracy is only about voting once every few years then its is broken. The idea I’m presenting today is about how we make our democracy better by changing some of the formal structures in the way we take part.

The work I do every day is about creating what we call a more participatory democracy. This is one where people are involved in decision making and given a real meaningful opportunity to shape the world around them. It doesn’t mean getting rid of elected politicians — far from it. A more participatory democracy goes hand in hand with representative democracy, it’s there to support, supplement and make democracy actually function as it should.

Some examples of ways to do this are by using democratic engagement methods — that we might want to discuss today to see if these could work here:

1. Citizens assemblies, like in Ireland where they had a citizen’s assembly before the historic vote last week where it became legal. Its where citizens come together like a jury, but bigger, to discuss, deliberate and decide on important issues.
2. A more local example of bringing politics closer to people is a method called participatory budgeting — people making decisions about how money is spent. It’s about opening up public budgets (city or municipality budgets) and letting people suggest ideas and vote on where this money should go and how should be used.
3. Digital democracy and online engagement can play a big role too in going beyond traditional consultation and engagement.

All three of these innovative ideas have been tried across the world, and with benefits of better political decisions and people feeling more empowered and connected to the democratic process.

Today we’re talking about Europe as we’re sitting here in the European Parliament. The EU needs to be much more open and transparent — in opening itself up, it gives people a chance to be more responsive and engage with the EU on an ongoing basis.

There’s a global movement called The Open Government Partnership which a trying to bring civil society and governments together to commit to making government more open, accessible and transparent. A government is held to account in some ways by people like the Ombudsmen, like Emily O’Reilly here. But if information about how a government works and how decisions are made more accessible and people are taking part in some of these decisions, then people like you or I are MUCH more able to hold our own politicians and governments to account. There’s recently been moves to encourage the EU to think more about open government but it needs to start moving more quickly to solve this issue.

These changes to formal democratic structures and procedures that I’m proposing might seem a bit ambitious, and maybe it is too ambitious for making these changes in time for the EP elections next year, but we need to do something quite radical. We can see that in many places people are not as attracted to the EU as they once were, (I’m talking about Brexit obviously) but European democracy as a whole is in bad health.

So, inshort what I’ve been trying to say is: this idea that I’ve talked about ‘more opportunities for people to participate in decision making than just elections and voting’, which may in turn have the added benefit of encouraging people to get more engaged and empowered to vote, is surely well worth trying.

Q: In the second round of interventions, I was asked about digital options for making it easier for people to participate in social and democratic life, and empowerment.

A: We can bring power closer to people by making it easier for them to take part. Giving them more options. Some of the ideas I mentioned earlier still require a big time commitment and enthusiasm, it’s likely to be the people like us who were enthusiastic enough about politics to come all the way to Strasbourg!

When I first got interested in politics by taking part in the European Youth Parliament, I was frustrated by the few options I had to actually do very much. Being involved in politics as a young person shouldn’t just mean joining a political party and handing out leaflets, or being in a youth parliament with no ability to make any changes.

Initiatives like this very conference are one way of hearing directly from young people but it’s still not enough. We need direct routes into power and clear ways of demonstrating how things have changed as a result of our input. That would give people an incentive to take part. There’s evidence to suggest there’s a close correlation between our actual wellbeing and citizenship and a sense of empowerment, so there’s broader benefits to this kind of action too.

The ideas I talked about earlier would be one way of making democracy. But imagine if we could give people a chance to take part in political decisions online, from their phone, then we’d be able to reach and empower a lot more people, and especially those who don’t normally feel part of the traditional political process. 
 These kinds of ideas are talked about as ‘digital democracy’ and it’s a brilliant opportunity to get more people involved. And frankly, its about time our public services got up to speed with the 21st century.

Digital democracy means using tools to engage online. Not just tools like Facebook, Instagram, or apps, but new platforms and tools specifically designed for the purpose of democracy.

For example, there’s online platforms you could use for people to send in ideas, suggestions on changes they’d like to see, respond to consultations and make connections with each other. Institutions like governments could both facilitate and host these conversations online, linking into new networks and online communities who are normally outside the traditional groups that are consulted and lobby on decision making and influence the political process.

Digital tools can also be used for voting — I’ve personally been doing a lot of work on this, and there is a big conversation on online voting going on (in Scotland and elsewhere) on how these kinds of digital tools and platforms could be used for voting in national elections.

Its is an area that’s STILL not really been explored fully to know what potential there is. Obviously technology is constantly advancing and developing, and there’s been a lot of progress in civic tech recently. ‘Civic tech’ is technology designed for civic purpose. It’s a growing market and its becoming more and more commonplace for governments to interact in this way in consulting and engaging with people.

I’ve talked a lot about digital and online in answering your question. Of course I don’t think the only answer is doing things online. Too often we’re wrong in the assumption that ‘we need to engage with young people — lets go online they’re all online all the time’ — we all know that’s wrong. There’s a good piece of research recently done debunking the myth of young people as ‘digital natives’ — that we’re all born holding smartphones in our hands. But its risky that our politicians in this building are already bought in to that idea that if we put something on twitter all the young people will be magically engaged and excited about the EU. Yes digital is one way but its one of many ways. They need to be doing more proactively to work with people. And sadly for them, involving people in the political process in a meaningful way, means they have to give away some of their power too.

So if you take nothing else away from my talk, just take this key idea:

The idea I’m presenting is opening up governments — more transparency, and also increasing the opportunities for people to participate in decision-making beyond just voting in elections.

I talked about a variety of ways to do this such as taking part in a local budget decision, a conversation about important issues, or being part of political decision making online from the comfort of your home.

The EU needs to go to where people are and in some cases, that means getting up to speed with civic technology and getting out to online communities. I think there’s appetite for this kind of digital engagement - and perhaps digital democracy will become much more of a thing in our lifetimes. But that’s for you to decide! What do you think?

The response from the audience was far better than I could have imagined — I am still a bit buzzing from it tbh because they had so much to say! It was clear the ideas I’d proposed were in the same vein as they were thinking (or at least not wildly out of whack!). In the discussion with the young people, they added improvements or suggestions to the ideas I’d put forward, some of these included:

  • Fredrick from Norway suggested to build on the scrutiny and accountability theme, that we should have an advisory body (we couldn't decide if should be observer or involved) to ensure as many voices as possible are heard in the decision making process
  • Josh from Germany suggested accountability could be strengthened by having more online, with some form of penalty (forced to stand down by public petiton online perhaps) acting as an incentive.
  • Holly from Ireland was pleased that the recent Irish referendum on abortion had been mentioned lots and praised (by myself and Emily O’Reilly) as an example of where people can have real say on decision-making (including the citizens assembly to take the temperature check too) but wanted to go further beyond this, and suggested we have a way of getting people involved in the implementation process, ensuring citizen input all the way through.
  • YoungScot were representin’ and it was great to hear some more Scottish voices in the room — I didn’t know they were at the event at all so it was great when they piped up and heard some more Scottish voices in the room talking about the Year of Young People #YOYP2018 and things like Inverness Soup community projects where citizens are acting — up and taking more control over their own lives.
  • Lastly, there was also a proposal I quite liked about improving the European Citizens Initiative by changing it to European Citizens Decision (making it a decision making instrument) and we had a chat about the consultation and campaign ongoing on reforming the ECI (see #ECIreform)

If you enjoyed this and you’re still reading this (thanks!), you can even watch the full session online. (Alternative link here)

Find out more about the European Youth Event here or #EYE2018

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