Is it possible for a society to have participation without having democracy?
The CPU was founded by the Central and Eastern European Citizens Network (CEECN) and it is hosted by the Civil College Foundation in Hungary. (We have since been joined by others from across all of Europe.) Having lived under regimes where “participation” was mandated by centralized authorities and free association was suppressed, we have an instinctive answer to this question: yes, it is possible to have participation but NOT HAVE democracy.
Therefore, we must strive to reach beyond simply “participating” without a broader sense of what it is we are participating in. We must strive to understand the big picture, and the root causes of the problems in our world today. In doing so we are working toward building genuine democracy in Europe.
Over the years the CPU has emerged as a unique education space in the tapestry of European civil society projects. It is where the “grassroots” and the “grasstops” gather to learn from one another in an event that is a mix of theory, practice and networking aimed at the questions of how we create a more just, open and democratic society. Further, we believe in the idea of “bringing the work home,” which is why participants in the CPU are also asked to begin planning in-country activities for Citizen Participation Week (CPW) which happens a few months after the CPU.
The CPU applies a forward-thinking pedagogical model, informed by the real-world experience of the planners, all of whom have backgrounds in adult education, organizing, and/or organizational development and management. We believe strongly in the principle of co-design, and we work closely with our member organizations as well as outside partners to develop the curriculum for the CPU that is relevant to participants and that provides useful historical and theoretical content.
The CPU is NOT a meeting held in a hotel conference room in which experts present papers they have written on the subject of civil society and democracy. We have found that a much more participatory approach is critically important to inspire local action. Furthermore, we have embedded planning for Citizen Participation Week into the curriculum of the CPU to ensure that the work that goes on at the summer gathering is disseminated into partner countries in the form of on-the-ground activities. These actions have taken many forms over the years including candidate forums, student debates, digital campaigns, press conferences, “open space” meetings in rural communities, community festivals, and volunteer clean-up days to draw attention to a neglected local parks—to name a few.
A fundamental element that undergirds our work is that of co-design. Both in terms of the curriculum of the CPU and the actions of the CPW which follow, we believe our role as a network is to create a deeply consultative process in which partner organizations speak their needs and challenges. The CPU and CPW events should then reflect efforts to bring innovative or creative approaches to the fore for both the benefit of the “grasstops” leaders involved in the affiliated civil society organizations and for the communities in which the CSO’s are embedded.
What do we mean by “co-design”? Some key elements for us include:
- A planning process that involves a wide variety of partners. We include individuals and organizations at different levels, ranging from consultation on broad themes to active development of the agenda.
- A process that is year-round. Developing the CPU agenda starts on the last day of the previous year’s CPU and continues through the work of a planning committee that meets with increasing frequency as the next round of events approaches. It is the role of CEECN to work with our network members year-round to identify issues and challenges that come up throughout the year. We then weave those threads into the programing for the next CPU and CPW.
- A process that is informed by constructive criticism. We have now run many CPU programs, and we are careful to always include a mechanism participant feedback in all our efforts.
- Democracy in action. If it is not clear from how we talk about it in practice, the theory behind our approach is to model the kind of participatory and responsive democracy that we are working toward in our communities and our broader European society.
Another key method that guides our work is praxis. We do not believe in “meeting for the sake of meeting,” and the CPU is definitely a working meeting. We believe that the point of gathering is to practice critical thinking, and to learn the skills, strategies and tactics that will be helpful in your work at home.
When CEECN was first founded it had a mission to increase citizen participation in Central and Eastern Europe in local and national affairs. After 40 years living under totalitarian regimes, there was very little in terms of a culture for participation in our member countries. Recognizing this challenge, the CPU set out to fill the knowledge gap and shift culture over time. One of the concrete tools that we brought to the fore at the CPU was the idea of community organizing as a way to empower communities from the bottom up.
This represented a shift in thinking for many in our network, even those who were experienced in the work of community development or other related fields. We brought speakers to explain community organizing techniques such as going door-to-door and we studied the best practices for developing local leaders and also problem-solved the challenges that come with that work.
The result of bringing community organizing into the curriculum of the CPU is that over time it began to be adopted in the day-to-day work of our partner groups. In turn, it became ever more embedded in the DNA of CEECN. Eventually, this change coalesced into the formation the European Community Organizing Network (ECON), an off-shoot network of our member organizations created to more fully focus on applying the skills of community organizing into our work. ECON continues to this day, and is now producing materials, holding its own events, and developing further the practice of community organizing in Europe.
From this example, you can see that the CPU (and the Citizen Participation Week) have served as an incubator for new ideas and practices which go on to achieve standing in their own right. We believe the same results can be achieved with our focus on developing the practice of democracy in Europe. For democracy, as we have stated, is much more than just “participating”; it is a frame of mind, a set of political and cultural institutions, and a practice for community and organizational life. If we can foster this next round of innovation and practical application on the principles of democracy in our shared society, we feel this would constitute a success for the next chapter in the change-making work of the CPU.