Involve was recently in Kiev to work with Ukrainian organisation People First Foundation (PFF), in collaboration with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Whilst the context in Ukraine is very different to the UK, there’s a lot for both sides to learn from these exchanges; for example, that any successful engagement process starts with a clear story.
PFF is a foundation whose mission is strengthening democracy in Ukraine through dialogue, active communication and monitoring. Their ambitious programme of work starts with research into the state of democracy and civil society. Ultimately, they hope the findings will inform a People’s Charter process for Ukraine. To do this, PFF is looking to actively engage citizens across the country in the issues that matter to them and to do this they want to use both off-line and online engagement activities. We spent four days with PFF building their knowledge of engagement, highlighting inspiring examples from across the globe and supporting them to develop their own mobilisation strategy.
The country has a relatively young democracy but is facing massive challenges in how government and elected representatives perform their democratic duties. Ultimately PFF wants to change this and it wants to do it by engaging citizens. Today, most citizens feel far removed from the State and this is reflected in very low levels of trust and expectation. Despite some early promise, Ukrainian society is infused with corruption and abuses of power. People see both government and opposition focussed on shoring up power for themselves, shadowy funders and a lack of openness and transparency. Citizens feel that they are left to their own devices and recent history tells them not to trust in the ruling elite.
Not the easiest set of circumstances to sow the seeds for popular and wide-spread engagement, but it’s exactly in this context where engagement is most important and potentially the most fruitful. At their core, the challenges Ukraine faces are not that different from what we see in the UK. Fuelled by negative experiences and stories, barriers for citizens to engage in the UK are in essence quite similar. Even a recent media focus on the rise of Britain’s political elite has echoes with the Ukrainian situation. Apathy – “nothing will change, so why bother” – is high and trust in political decision-makers low, and this stops people from engaging.
So, in the UK, we recognise the big challenge faced by PFF: How to motivate people to engage in this project and, ultimately, with democracy. How do you (re)build trust in a country where the very term ‘democracy’ is as contaminated as one of Ukraine’s most famous landmarks at Chernobyl. How to transform the situation so that, slowly, democracy is associated with a system that works for citizens and where citizens have the power to make meaningful changes to their own lives?
There are many parts to this process but the critical first step is getting the story right. Start with a clear idea of what you’re trying to achieve. If you can’t articulate your own values and aims then how can you communicate them to others? Frame your message so that people can buy into it.
More than this, ensure that the message is tailored to your different audiences, otherwise it risks being bland and missing the target. Make sure you explain why you are trying to develop an active group of citizens, and moreover, explain what’s in it for them.
Be willing to have a dialogue about the issues that matter to them and use their hopes and concerns as the hook for your message. Remembering, of course, that these issues will be different for students than they are for middle-aged women or young working-class men. Aggregated together all their issues are the starting point that can be used to link back to the overall aim of strengthening democracy.
In Ukraine it is not just the democratic present that breeds distrust but less recent history of the Soviet-era. People will challenge your vision and find fault. This is legitimate because trust has to be earned and faint hopes have so often been dashed. Recognise that many will see what you are doing through the eyes of history, your challenge is to respond by framing your message as a vision for the future.
Ingrid Prikken & Dr. Andy Williamson
Image by Sharon Drummond