I joined Involve just over a week ago and already it feels like I made the right decision (and hopefully the feeling is mutual). It’s a great team of lovely people genuinely committed to increasing citizen influence in policy-making. This is exactly what I studied in my Masters and PhD, so joining Involve seems a logical progression in my career.
Citizen participation has been my ‘vocation’ for several years, as a researcher but more importantly as a citizen dissatisfied with representative democracy (I’m Italian, so I have particularly good reasons for being unhappy with the current political system). My first encounter with participatory democracy was many years ago, when I read a few papers on the now seminal case of participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre. I became intrigued, as I saw a glimmer of hope for us all, and started studying more cases in India (Kerala) and the Philippines (Naga City, Bicol).
The infectious enthusiasm over Porto Alegre’s experience soon rubbed off on Western civil society and academia and participatory budgeting has now been embraced, at least in rhetoric, by many European governments. But, as it moved back to the West (after enjoying much popularity back in the 1960s and 1970s), participatory democracy started to lose that radical energy that characterised initiatives in Porto Alegre and Naga City, and it became entrenched in the technical discourse of New Public Management. People’s participation seems to be understood at best as a way of increasing effectiveness of service delivery, just another tick in the long list of outputs and targets; at worst as a tokenistic exercise. I feel that, among politicians at least, the emphasis on empowerment was partly lost to competing concepts of consensus building (over top-down decisions) and pre-empting conflicts. This approach, though, clashes against citizen organisations and community activists’ understanding of participation as a way of having some real say over public resources and decision-making, often exacerbating the already deep divide between them and policy-makers.
I decided to study these dynamics and what was happening in Europe a little more in-depth. Well, a lot more in depth: I ended up doing my PhD on the topic. My thesis is a comparative analysis of participatory strategic planning in four medium-sized Italian cities, all characterised by different socio-economic, political and cultural context (Italy is actually a great case study to compare local contexts because of the deep differences between regions, particularly along the North/ South divide). What I was most interested in was the types and resources of leadership – not just of a political kind – that can facilitate governance processes and how a facilitative leadership, which opens up to different stakeholders that will take the lead at different points in the process, develops and is sustained.
Involve’s work is particularly interesting to me: my focus on participatory processes so far has been very local, while they look more at public engagement at the national level and how to scale up the participatory dialogue to national policy strategies on complex and cross-cutting issues. NHS Citizen, the Open Government Partnership, the continuing work on Sciencewise are all challenging projects but with the potential of having a genuinely meaningful impact. I’m really excited of being part of this work. Finally, after years of going solo on issues of participation and citizen empowerment, I’ve found a good band and I have a feeling it’s going to be a rocking performance!