Participation is at the heart of democracy.
Meaningful participation goes beyond merely “taking part” in an activity or process, as might be understood in some languages. It entails the right of people to have a say in decisions that affect them, their communities and countries, and beyond.
Participation in democratic life consists of diverse ways in which people individually and / or in groups express and act on their needs and opinions, and how it impacts policies, actions and/or other developments towards social change.
In addition to participation being a right, participation can also provide benefits to all.
On the one hand, those who take part can have their opinion heard, contribute to change and learn in the process. On the other hand, decision-making bodies/individuals and their initiatives can in turn become more efficient, inclusive and/or relevant for everyone.
Participation in democratic life can have many interpretations and definitions. Some of the related concepts are
- civic / democratic / active engagement;
- civil participation;
- participatory democracy;
- active citizenship.
Participation is diverse
While voting or being a candidate in electoral processes or being part of formal organisations are certainly important and widely recognised, there are also other forms of participation. Some examples include engaging with other elected and/or representative bodies (pupils’ / student / youth councils, citizen assemblies, unions, etc.); signing petitions; protesting; volunteering; donating; posting on social media; reaching out to decision-makers; ethically boycotting brands or products for ethical reasons; among many others. It can also differ in magnitude – whether it’s a short public consultation process, shared decision-making, citizen-led action or everything in-between.
Participation can happen everywhere
Participation can be an individual and collective activity, initiated by institutions or those affected by the issue. It can occur in different places (at home, in formal or informal movements, in and outside of public institutions, etc.), at various levels (local, national, international, etc.), address different topics (healthcare, workplace, education, social causes, etc.) and impact different spheres (individual, interpersonal, community, institutional, public policy, etc).
Participation is about power
Meaningful participation requires sharing power with those affected by any decision. It requires careful consideration – who makes decisions and how, whose opinions, needs and interests are being addressed in the process?
It is especially crucial to consider this when involving people whose participation is affected by structural power imbalance and exclusion, including but not limited to racism, ableism, ageism, and sexism.
Participation requires information
For individuals or groups to be willing and able to join democratic participation processes, it is essential to provide them with the necessary information, preparation and support related to the content, goals, processes and expected outcomes of the activity. This also involves regular feedback on the impact of their participation. Ensuring that all participants are adequately equipped to take part will result in a more inclusive and empowering process.
Participation is a process
Participation as a process itself includes trials and learning, and is dependent on the context, form and everyone involved.
Designing an activity in a participatory way entails planning it according to the profiles and needs of participants. Therefore, information about participants, their contributions and expectations should be collected promptly, and, ideally, the target group of the activity should be consulted and/or involved in different phases (design, implementation, evaluation, follow-up). Additionally, the spaces and methods must be chosen to create safe, welcoming and accessible environment, fundamental for meaningful involvement.
Some ways to make meaningful participation a reality
Reflect on your own practices!
Whenever making decisions that affect others, ask yourself: who else could and should be involved, why and how? How can the existing ways and outcomes of participation be considered?
Join, expand and/or challenge current decision-making structures!
Identify the places in your school, workplace, community, local government, country or internationally in which you can participate and engage.
Develop engaging formal and non-formal education activities and/or join them!
Education can play an important role in helping people about their rights, as well as develop or improve the necessary skills and attitude to participate. It can happen through, for example, making decisions together in any learning space, experiencing a high-quality civic education curriculum and contributing to it, or implementing one’s own participatory project.
Use the potential and opportunities of Erasmus+ and European Solidarity Corps!
Participation in Democratic Life is one of the priorities of these programmes to encourage people to organise or join activities related to this. Designing and implementing the project in a participatory way can itself have an impact on participants and beyond. So how do we accomplish that? Check out more in the Youth Participation Toolkit.
Dive deeper into the Participation Pool to get inspired and learn more about it through experience stories, tools, research, and methods!