Leading by Doing: Digital Transformation for Civic Engagement

In this unique youth exchange in Estonia, young people from five countries discovered how they can make participatory processes work – they were given the chance to create a fictional youth organisation and practise democratic leadership methods while engaging their communities by using innovative technology.

For me, participation has two sides: engagement and participation. If engagement is professional, and leaders are kind and loving, participants will have a great experience, and will be willing to participate in the future as well. This also happened to me. I had an amazing first engagement experience as a volunteer, so I wanted to continue volunteering. Anett Linno project coordinator

Young “Civic Hacktivists” gathered in Tallinn, in August 2021. The objective: to explore how digital transformation can support civic engagement! Anett Linno, project coordinator, told us about the concept:

I understand that the youth exchange was based on a simple but innovative idea participants were supposed to create a fictional youth organisation?

Exactly. Before the programme, participants were asked to collect leadership case studies from their own organisations and with ideas to resolve problems in their communities or wider society. During the youth exchange, they pitched those ideas and formed six project teams within the fictional organisation to implement them, using online platforms.

What inspired you to connect engagement with digital transformation?

Previously, I worked at World Cleanup Day, where we trained leaders to organise cleanup events in their countries. That included designing projects, forming teams, and engaging partners and the public. There I understood that, when used properly, digital platforms can increase engagement. When I joined Citizen OS, a non-profit organisation that provides a free and secure open-source platform for citizen initiatives and collective decision-making, I saw that many communities we work with notice crucial issues and have great ideas for solutions, but don’t have the knowledge to make them happen. I thought, if I were a young community leader or young person, it would be cool to know how to design engagement projects and how to use technology for engagement.

What was the first step in project planning?

We asked the Estonian National Youth Council (ENL) to help us validate whether our project idea was important for youth leaders and youth organisation members at all. They conducted a survey among 160 youth organisations, and the results supported our hypothesis. As it was during Covid-19, it came out that organisations found it difficult initiating projects and engaging people, since very often they couldn’t meet face-to-face and projects had to be online. Besides, leadership was an issue, as most youth organisations were led by members, but lacked the skills to engage members in decision-making. That’s where we got the idea to include participatory leadership approaches in the project.

What worked well and what didn’t, when it came to implementation?

The concept of creating a fictional organisation was practical and hands-on. Participants chose the name “Global Young Heroes”. They agreed on the values, working methods and leadership style, and elected board members each evening. But, of course, we had several failures during the programme too. For example, if running it again today I would include more theory about engagement methods. I would better explain how democracy works, what the main pillars of open society are, and why it is important to know what happens to the data when we use technology. Also, providing participants with reading materials and videos, and organising online gatherings about these topics before the youth exchange, could have made it flow even better. That said, it was fun, and in the end we gained plenty of experiences about where we can go wrong and what are the best ways to engage people.

Could you describe the target group? Who were the participants?

We aimed to involve young people who were interested in democracy and technology, and had some experience either in civic initiatives or in youth organisations. But the group was very diverse in terms of knowledge. Some people didn’t have any experience in the field, while others knew a lot about argumentation and critical thinking and have been in debating clubs in their countries. At times, these participants were bored. Next time, I would give them more encouragement to share their expertise with their peers.  

Talking about engagement, how did you make participants an active part of the process?

It was fantastic when young people worked in teams of 3-5 people. They joined a group based on the issues that inspired them, such as fake news and information overflow, local issues, environmental and climate change problems, prevention and control of juvenile delinquency, cooperation between policymakers and young citizens, etc. During this group work, I saw young people engage in deep conversations, become emotional and share passionately about their personal experiences. At the end of these active discussions, they had to come to conclusions, as there were time limits. To validate the ideas, young people used our organisation’s Project Design Toolkit which includes several tools. For example, the design thinking methodology, which is useful for knowing who are the people whose problem we are solving and who we need to engage into our team, as partners and the wider public”.

As for the learnings, what do you consider the highlights of the week?

On the day about digital transformation, young people analysed engagement platforms such as Jhatkaa, OpenPetition, CitizenOS, Facebook, YourPriorities, GoPetition, Manabalss and Change.org. They had to pick and use one to present their engagement project with their team. For them, it was eye-opening to see that Facebook is not for everything! They realised through experience that different platforms can be used for different purposes. Another highlight was when they finished designing their projects. They had 2-3 hours to publish their project idea, including the problem and a solution on the Citizen OS platform and share the link on different platforms asking for feedback. It was awesome to see how dedicated they were in their work and how happy they were when real feedback started to come in from the people they had reached out to.

How were participatory leadership methods included?

Sometimes we need to shake things up and make people depart from their usual thinking patterns, so we tried a number of different approaches. While the fictional organisation had traditional leadership, we also practised being in a team where there was no leader at all. We observed that, in this case, some informal leaders emerged and took the lead. We learnt participatory leadership mainly through open and collaborative decision-making, where the board members of this fictional organisation had to engage its “employees” always to the decision-making process and they (the board) didn’t have the decision-making power per se. In project teams, as they did not have the project leader, they had to discuss and come to a consensus on each decision — sometimes the discussions were emotional, as team members who were not ready to change their minds, were passionately protecting their position. And even in these situations, teams still had to come to the mutual decision and move on with the project. We also had a WhatsApp and Facebook group in which communication is still ongoing. We have had two online meetings since the youth exchange, both organised by volunteers from the group, and we keep each other informed about new learning opportunities, voluntary jobs and further development of our project ideas.

Were there any difficulties you ran into from an organisational point of view?

Since it was our first such project, it didn’t help that we had to implement it during the pandemic. The Bulgarian team couldn’t come because they got sick, and we had to replace the Portuguese team with Latvians, as back then in Portugal Covid-19 rules were too strict participants would have had to be in isolation for ten days upon arrival in Estonia. Luckily, we had GEYC, our Romanian partner, who had lots of experience in the field and helped us find other project partners.

How important was the collaboration with your partners?

It was essential. We decided to collaborate with youth organisations with activities aimed at young people and youth communities, which were our main target. We had many calls with our partners before the programme started, to make sure we selected participants that were super enthusiastic about the topic. Also, our partners arranged online meetings with participants before the youth exchange to discuss their project ideas and leadership case studies, which they were supposed to bring along to the youth exchange. At these meetings they got to know each other, exchanged contacts and agreed on practical points such as how to travel.

What about logistics?

Our team for this project at Citizen OS was composed of four people. We started organising the event during an uncertain period of the pandemic. It was extremely difficult to find places in Estonia for the summer. Prices were high, and everything was already pre-booked. In the end, the House of the European Union in Tallinn provided us with rooms. On some days, we had activities in our organisation’s office, and for two of the days we rented rooms in another place. Although it was raining a lot, we could do some of the activities outdoors, such as working in small teams, and a Treasure Hunt in Tallinn Old town where people had to find certain places and make funny pictures at historical locations. Finding restaurants was challenging too, as pandemic regulations said that no more than ten people could sit at a table. The solution we used was to divide our group between two restaurants.   

Do you have a recommendation for those who are eager to organise similar initiatives?

Don’t be afraid of failure! If there is an issue and you have a solution, start applying it. Even if you have never done it before, you will gain experience on the way. This has been my personal mindset as well. After I obtained my Masters, I founded an organisation to help small business owners. Basically, I failed, but it was a super important experience for me. It happens with Citizen OS as well. Very often we don’t know exactly what works well, but we try, we test different methods and we find out. Doing gets it done, so just do it!


Before starting the project planning a survey among 160 youth organisations was conducted, and the project idea was backed by data.

Project coordinators

Anett Linno

Anett Linno has been active in different civic engagement projects for about 15 years. She worked at Let’s Do It Foundation, and contributed to building the network of World Cleanup Day where more than 20 million people came together worldwide to clean the planet. She mentored, helped and inspired 34 teams in Asian countries. She has a diploma in Psychology, and a Masters degree in Adult Education. She currently works as CEO at Citizen OS Foundation, a free e-democracy platform for collaborative decision-making, discussions and petitions.

About the project

Supported by:

Erasmus+ / Youth Exchanges

EU Youth Programme Priority:

Digital Transformation


Digital Participation

Youth Participation / Skills Development and Volunteering


Organisers engaged 22 young people from 5 countries to increase their knowledge and skills about participatory leadership and how to design civic engagement projects in the challenging post-COVID-19 context. The 6 real-life civic engagement projects released on the Citizen OS platform attracted many people, generating feedback and discussions!

Organisations involved:

Citizen OS (Estonia), YO Dagne (Latvia), Coconut Luxembourg (Luxembourg), GEYC (Romania), Afsarder (Turkey)


Photo of Lilla Gosi
Lilla Gősi

Lilla Gősi is a freelance journalist and trainer. She writes, draws and uses the combination of these two for telling stories and creating non formal educational activities. She graduated in Communication and Media and History of Art. She has been publishing since 2012 in the most popular Hungarian weekly magazine, Nők Lapja. She is an active blogger. She loves working with groups and asking questions. She comes from Hungary and lives in Italy since 2017. She participated in several European training, exchange and volunteering projects. The main issues she cares about: promoting sustainability, critical thinking, inclusion and art. In her free time, she enjoys art, culture and travelling related activities.