What are citizen initiatives?

Citizen initiatives can be defined as participatory tools which enable citizens to influence local institutions by collecting signatures. Depending on the legal framework you’re in, the outcome of a citizen initiative can be advisory or binding.

Two key advantages are linked to this type of participatory tools. They don’t require a large amount of effort. This results in a high number of participants, but also a reduced social bias compared to more traditional forms of participation. Using digital tools, such as the Go Vocal platform, can increase this even further.

Citizen initiatives come in all shapes and sizes, but following are the 5 main types:

  1. Referendum proposal: pushing forward a referendum regarding a matter of public interest.
  2. Agenda initiatives: pushing forward a public policy proposal to be considered by the council.
  3. Legislative initiatives: pushing forward a regulatory proposal.
  4. Abrogative referendum: responding to a policy or legislative proposal, aiming for its approval or rejection.
  5. Recall initiative: pushing forward a referendum in order to decide if an authority or government body will continue in charge or will be removed before the end of their term.

Now let’s get to the 4 key success factors that make citizen initiatives so successful.

1. Mean it

Although it may sound obvious, in practice a lot of legislation on citizen initiatives is hollow: these initiatives have no or limited impact, and the conditions are almost impossible to reach. In Italy, for example, the procedure concerning agenda initiatives is not regulated, so the parliament is under no obligation to discuss them.

There are 2 common pitfalls:

Limitations on the ‘What’

Although it makes sense to limit the scope of citizen initiatives to the competences of the local policy level, it can be discouraging to limit the scope much further. Still, this is happening in various places. In the Czech Republic, for example, a 1992 law prohibits initiatives on municipal budgets and taxes. But as almost any proposal in nature implies some sort of budgetary allocation, this law makes it de facto possible to exclude almost every initiative.

Space & time requirements

In some cases, local authorities have the option to boycott citizen initiatives. In Oregon (USA), citizens have 90 days to start an initiative to react against a new law, starting on the day that the law has been accepted by the legislators. However, the governor has 30 days to sign or veto the law, meaning he or she could consume ⅓ of the total time available to get the required amount of signatures.

2. Meta matters

This success factor refers to enabling citizen initiatives to also address their very own nature. Meaning that the scope of citizen initiatives should be widened to questions such as:

  • What requirements does a citizen initiative need to meet?
  • What topics can a citizen initiative tackle?
  • Who can participate?
  • How deep in the ‘law’ may citizen initiatives go? All the way to the constitution?

Widening the scope like this is important to truly make citizen initiatives a bottom-up participation method, and not solely window dressing.

In Jackson, Mississippi, citizen assemblies use citizen initiatives to collectively decide what their participatory budget will include and how it will be organised. In parallel, these assemblies are using citizen initiatives to institutionalise their own functioning. The latter includes making sure that the initiatives keep a sufficiently high level of autonomy from governmental bodies, and that undocumented inhabitants of Jackson can participate without the risk of being arrested.

3. Information, not persuasion

Political inclusion does not solely imply the involvement of actors that are traditionally excluded from the policy process, but also the generation of opportunities for realising quality proposals, by providing sufficient information. Some argue that due to the low level of resources available to citizens, decisions made via direct democratic processes can be ineffective, given the limitations of technical and expert knowledge.

One objection to citizen initiatives that is often heard refers to the actions of interest groups. Since initiatives require a high degree of mobilising capacity, as well as human and economic resources, there is a clear risk that they can be used by interest groups with more capacity to influence the result. These groups could ‘buy’ legislation by using persuasive campaigns to convince the public of their personal agenda.

Another objection to citizen initiatives refers to the possibility that decisions about interrelated matters can be taken in isolation. Citizens might for example vote in favour of two conflicting initiatives: in favour of increasing spending on urban planning and education and another calling for a reduction in municipal taxes. The two clearly being in paradox.

Facilitation and process are key to getting the information to the citizens involved. The successful citizen initiative approach in Taiwan illustrates this. Trained facilitators help citizens in the first phases of an initiative to find out the facts on the issue at stake, and to express their perspectives and arguments.

The Citizen initiative review (CIR) process could also offer part of the answer. This process has so-called ‘deliberative mini publics’ at its core. These are small groups of citizens (20-24) coming together on a specific issue during an intense couple of days. They try to get the ins and outs of the issue, before dispersing it to a broader audience. It also allows the citizens involved to get to know one another and to share empathy for their different perspectives.

4. Oscillation

A fourth and last identified key success factor in citizen initiatives is what could be called ‘oscillation’. It refers to making the issue at stake tangible, making it relatable to the citizens involved. And use these initiatives as hooks to relate to and debate broader issues.

The Save Dakar project crowdsources issues all around the Senegalese capital that are affecting people’s daily lives. Citizens could use their smartphone with geolocation to photograph and report things in their direct environment that were in need of improvement. The ‘Save Dakar’ initiative functions as megaphone towards local legislators. This approach didn’t only drastically lower the threshold of being involved, it also helps to shift the existing mentality in which citizens expect their government to take care of everything without any involvement.

In Jackson, Mississippi, it was made clear after a vast amount of sessions with the citizen assemblies, that people’s #1 concern was the many potholes in the streets. These potholes were causing damage to cars way too often. Launching citizen initiatives on this very zoomed-in level had many indirect beneficial consequences. Firstly, it made the citizens realise there weren’t enough public resources to fix all potholes, urging them to fix the worst potholes in their own direct environment. Secondly, the debate on this specific issue soon enough evolved to related larger issues such as poverty and inequality (not every citizen had sufficient financial means to fix their car from damage caused by potholes). Thirdly, people felt much more at ease to discuss such a tangible, zoomed-in issue. Due to the discussion, many of them learned to speak in public, making it easier for them to actively participate in a later phase on higher-level, zoomed out issues like racism.

As this comprehensive report clearly shows, citizen initiatives can improve local policy-making through citizen participation, no matter what part of the world your city or municipality is located. Keeping the 4 key success factors in mind while doing so will help you go a long way.

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