Engagement – a way towards active citizenship
Why are active citizens needed? Simply put, they are central to supporting and driving a vital democracy. In its best form, engagement can improve decision making, public service delivery and social outcomes while assisting in the push towards a socially sustainable society. In Sweden today, and particularly in Malmö, we see an increasingly class-based society, with a growing gap between rich and poor. Income, tradition and education play a significant role in Swedes’ commitment to active engagement. Even with nearly 50% of Sweden actively engaged in civil society organisations, we face many challenges, such as improving education, fighting unemployment and increasing social capital. City government is ill-equipped to solve these challenges on its own. We need active citizens in Malmö to bridge the gap between the people in our city and the municipality, institutions and organisations that represent them.
There are several myths when it comes to engagement and active citizenship, both in the public and civil society sectors. One we often hear is that people today do not want to be engaged: they just want society to serve them. We see something else. We see a system that has not developed with society and citizens. To reform this system, we need to look at different forms of engagement. Traditional civil society organisations, such as the Red Cross, will always play a role and engage people. But we also need new organisational models to engage citizens in new ways. Generally, Swedish politicians have been known to not only agree with this sentiment, but to extol the virtues of civil society and engagement. However, our experience leads us to believe that the current system is simply not ready or capable of actually listening to, and supporting, local initiatives. Municipalities are quick to share their occasional successes with public engagement, but this is not enough. A dialogue is needed. We believe that citizens need to feel that they are heard, supported and taken seriously by those who lead. These feelings are central to both encouraging engagement and increasing the level of commitment and participation of those most driven to support change.
Let’s take the personal experience of Alexandra as an example of this dialogue. She is involved in a process regarding her daughters’ pre-school. Temporary pre-schools have been established in Malmö as there are simply not enough to service the public. These temporary schools use very short-term thinking. For the next year and a half, Alexandra’s daughters attend a temporary pre-school while they wait for their permanent pre-school to be completed. Their school is under threat of moving, and no one knows where. Parents have become engaged to influence the municipality, and the politicians, to let the pre-school stay in the current location until the permanent one is ready. They are told that they have been heard and that their concerns are being taken seriously. However, their treatment indicates something else. E-mails are often answered with threats, passing blame to other parties is common and politicians’ minds change constantly. As an added insult, the parents – and Alexandra in particular – feel that their concerns have not been addressed. For Alexandra, this process has created the feeling that “her city” does not want her to be an active citizen. Political actors desire a dialogue on their own terms and do not recognise the value she contributes, even with an issue as important to her as her daughter’s pre-school.
If we treat citizens as incapable, separate from political decision making and only to be heard when it is convenient, we are never going to build sustainable societies. Frivilligcentra’s vision is to encourage citizen engagement by listening to, acting with and supporting citizens.
The discussion of top-down vs. bottom-up approaches can be found in countless fields, but of special relevance to this discussion are the roles they play in civil society and citizen engagement. Because governments, even democratic ones, use a top-down approach, citizens are often left feeling as though communication in governance is a one-way street. By working to combine approaches, Frivilligcentra Malmö actively encourages citizen engagement in Malmö. Our work and experiences have shown that successfully engaging citizens relies on open and honest discussion regarding their personal motivations and competencies. As such, we provide individual guidance and coaching for citizens interested in participation, engagement and volunteering. This is our bottom-up perspective. We see today that many of Malmö’s citizens want to be engaged. But not everyone knows how to get involved, for various reasons.
We address this by working to create, strengthen and increase awareness of engagement. We create by guiding people to engagement; we strengthen by working with organisations to be more inclusive and we increase awareness for engagement by communicating through workshops, events and conferences. One example of our “awareness for engagement” is that 11 organisations have come together under one flag, Re:AGERA, during Malmöfestivalen, the biggest festival in Malmö. Frivilligcentra initiated and coordinated the process that led these organisations to share a tent so they can educate the public on civil society and engagement.
From the top-down perspective, we work on educating and engaging organisations and the municipality through the same process of creating, strengthening and increasing awareness. This can be seen in our work communicating the benefits of multicultural participation and holding organisational exhibition fairs at the local university. Our process has us working on both the individual and structural level as a means to building an effective, mutually beneficial dialogue.
Image: NASATags: Movement Profile