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Civic Improvement Through Citizen Engagement

It’s no secret that getting citizens involved in local government only strengthens local democracy. This is exactly what is happening in San Sebastian in the Basque region in Spain at present. The authorities in the city have created a special unit both in the city council working towards an appropriate balance of power between citizens and government. Attempting to repair decades of conflict, the idea of encouraging public participation is seen as a direct route to promote peaceful co-existence, as well as being just a good thing to do.

The Global Forum on Modern Democracy is being held in San Sebastian this week and the city hopes it will give the entire population an opportunity to get involved more directly in government. By hosting the Global Forum, they hope it will inspire a new type of inclusive politics built on a principle of cooperation.

The debate about the power of participatory citizenship continues to gain steam. Most urban areas have an issue with a disconnect from its citizens. The fast pace of construction and continued striving for innovation sometimes leaves little time for conversation between the local authority and the citizens. It is through trying to improve the relationships between local government and community groups, that we will see change being initiated.

Opening up platforms such as the Global Democracy Forum in Spain allows the public to share responsibility with the politicians and work on improving living conditions and policy making. Taking into account different interests is what citizen engagement should be about. But how to achieve this?

In 2013, the city of Birmingham, Alabama, implemented ‘Love Your Block’, a nationwide program that awards small grants to local volunteer groups that propose projects that will improve their neighborhoods. Before issuing a request for proposals, the city conducts extensive outreach to those groups to hear their concerns and to discuss potential solutions on which they and various city agencies can collaborate. Throughout this process, citizen volunteers engage directly with local officials in setting priorities for civic improvement.

Buckeye Civic Engagement Connection (BCEC), was launched in 2012 in Columbus, Ohio, and is comprised of undergraduate, graduate and professional students and alumni who are trained to collaborate in developing innovative poverty solutions that address one or more key areas of focus. Seeking to alleviate the problems of persistent and concentrated urban and rural poverty and provide a pathway out of poverty, they use the local human capital to increase educational opportunities for vulnerable youth that include experiential learning. To this end, Ohio State students involved with the Department of Social Change create comprehensive projects of civic engagement, allowing them to become informed citizens and gain valuable service experience.

Looking at these examples it should be clear that all engagement should be done on a local level for best results. Having a clear objective like the Love Your Block or BCEC initiative is a great starting point. Cities are so often broken systems, with citizens disconnected from each other and local government. Rural communities too can suffer from this disconnect when it is entirely avoidable. Rather than governance implementing policy and then getting a reaction from the citizenry, it would be better to involve them in the process from the beginning.

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