A knowledge sharing and translation event for participatory democracy practitioners, experts and elected public officials. The meeting was convened by the government as part of it's initiative to increase/improve government-citizen communications.
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Problems and Purpose
The Flemish government, committed to developing a communication strategy for 2014-2020, held the event "Participatie De Wol Bij Al Het Geblaat", bringing together leading innovators and practitioners in the field of civic engagement and public participation. The meeting offered an opportunity for individuals from diverse backgrounds to share their experiences with fellow practitioners, government officials, and researchers. In total, 32 case studies were presented ranging from health care initiatives to youth parliaments. The cases varied in scale as well, from small community engagements to national policy decisions. The event was, in short, a democratic innovation of its own; bringing together a range of experts to help design a more inclusive, participatory future for Flemish democracy.
 Participatie De Wol Bij Al Het Geblaat roughly translates as "The Wool in all the Bleating" - ostensibly used to describe the drawing out of participatory process under all the 'talk' or dialogue.
Background History and Context
Over the past decade, the Flemish government has made significant policy changes regarding openness and communication. The Departement Kanselarij en Bestuur (Department Chancellery and Government) is in charge of initiating, coordinating and implementing government-wide external and internal communication strategies often in collaboration with or on the advice of various participation experts and civic engagement practitioners. While this policy has been in place since 2004, it is updated every five years in accordance with the election cycle. The “Participatie De Wol Bij Al Het Geblaat" event was held at the beginning of a new cycle to help draft communication policy for 2014-2019 and develop a visionary strategy the government hopes to develop between 2014 and 2020. Most of the cases presented at the event were recent initiatives having occurred under the dictates of the previous five-year’s policy (2010-2014).
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The event was organized by Levurr and Kortom in collaboration with the Flemish government.
Levuur describes itself as an collective of ‘participation experts’ working with individuals from a various professional backgrounds to “assisting, promoting and installing active participation in decision-making.” The organization embodies the ideas it stands for since it is a cooperative with all employees having a seat in Levuur board of directors.
Kortom is a leading organization in the field of participatory governance. Since 2000, it has connected government officials with communication professionals to discuss, plan and implement strategies for a more open and participatory form of governance. While they see the new legislation as a step forward, they are committed to ensuring the institutions are in place to allow individuals to access and utilize their right to participate.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
There is little information on the selection of participatory experts and innovators but it can be assumed that they were contacts of the event collaborators, Levuur and Kortom, or known to the Flemish government. Nevertheless, there does appear to have been a diversity of view points and opinions represented since one of the keynote speakers, Manu Claeys, is a well known civil society activist and essayist famous for organizing an opposition movement against the “Oosterweelverbinding” – a controversial government development plan of the Antwerp ‘Ring Road’.
With the new communication policy and the drafting of the 2014-2020 Communication Vision, the blog “Toe Com St” was established to allow active participation from any individual in the process. It was through this blog that the event “Participatie De Wol Bij Al Het Geblaat” was announced and all minutes and activities were archived and made available for public use and comment. Open calls for participants were made on the Toe Com St blog, through the government’s website and on circulated on various social media channels. The sign-up form was located on the Kortom website; ticket prices were between 120 and 35 Euros depending on whether or not someone was a member of an invited organization and which events one wanted to attend (day time lectures and/or night time workshop).
The event was marketed to “communications officials, policy makers, politicians and anyone who has a "design question", and for anyone who wants to debate about it [the new government communications policy].” Over two hundred people attended.
Methods and Tools Used
The event's goals were knowledge sharing and translation - ie. practitioners, experts, and officials share knowledge and collective translate/transform that knowledge into more/better deliberative innovations and public participation methods. The main methods and tools used to achieve these goals were keynote presentations, individual and organizational project presentations and demonstrations, small group work, and a collaborative design workshop. Participants could also connect and interact through an online chatroom open during the event.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
The event was held all day on December 9, 2014. The morning was taken up with the presentation of case studies and various keynote speeches while the evening was dedicated to a collaborative design workshop or 'lab'.
The morning opened with a keynote address from scholar Filip De Rynck in which he advocated for smart connections and productive partnerships between policymakers and civic innovators.
Following that, participants were introduced to an online platform where they could submit feedback, chat with other participants, and interact with users not able to attend the event. The website was kept open for a while after the event for anyone to give feedback, ask questions, or review the ideas and conversations generated during at the conference.
Following this, participants were asked to choose which research question they were interested in and form groups of approx. 8 people that they would work with periodically to answer it. The questions available were:
Keywords: What Is Participation?
- What are the key concepts?
- Which angles, views or ideas resonate with me?
Ingredients For Participation: What Do We Need?
- What ingredients were presented in the studies and keynotes?
- What ingredients do I need to prepare a good 'participation dish' in my field?
Opportunities: What's Possible?
- What areas of address or opportunities can I see for my field?
- Where are 'germs of change'?
- What solutions appeal to me?
- What might work in my field?
Letting Go: What Should We Take Leave Of?
- What have I let go (from my role or function)?
- What do we have to let go together in our field?
Learning: What Did I Learn?
- What have I learned (from my role or function)?
- What have we learned from our field?
After group members introduced one another and brainstormed preliminary ideas on their question, there was a second key note speech. The speaker, Willem Frederik Schiltz, is a member of parliament representing a district in Antwerp, reported on his experience implementing a civic budget.
Eleven different case studies were then presented from a variety of participation experts, civic engagement practitioners and activists.
After lunch, the third key note address was made by Manu Claeys – a prominent civil society activist – on the power of citizens in 21stC democracy. Another two rounds of case studies were then presented with a short break for tea in the middle. The floor was then opened up to allow any participant willing (and ready) to make a short impromptu presentation of their experiences working in their respective background.
The research groups first assembled in the morning were brought back together to address their chosen question in light of what they had learned from the key note speakers and the case studies. Groups were also asked to think about what insights they would share with others and what three steps they are committed to taking in the next few weeks.
The evening program began at 6pm with two keynote speeches. The first speaker was public participation consultant, trainer and writer, Marije van den Berg. One of the project organizers behind ‘Stabslab Leiden’ a citizen action network dedicated to improving the inhabitability of their city, Ms. van den Berg’s spoke to the need for government officials to recognize and encourage participatory innovators and to support them with policy measures. Following this theme, the second key not address was made by participation expert Stef Seyeart who advocates more cooperation and collaboration between civil society organizations and government in the design of participatory processes. Mr. Seyeart declared that the governments have become complacent, relying on standard “participation processes” that are inadequate in engaging a dynamic civil society and citizen body. Instead, argued Mr. Seyeart, government representatives should actively seek out new, innovative ways to engage the public thereby making policy formulation truly ‘interactive’.
Having established an atmosphere of collaboration and participatory process design, the key notes speeches were followed by the ‘Design Lab’ where individuals (many from government or civil society organizations) met in small groups with participation experts and other conference-goers to brainstorm improvements or a ‘plan of attack’ for their initiatives. Below is a list of the design questions addressed:
- How to turn a one-day event Heritage and archival information sharing event into an ongoing dialogue process between all interested parties
Sports Participation – “Bloso-KICS Sports Information Center”
- How to ensure the innovation of participation networks remains in-line with practical considerations and committed to the open dissemination and sharing of information and resources
“Femma” – Gender and Social Policy
- How to make sure the organization “Femma” remains in active communication with its 60,000 members and 800 partner organizations
- How to bridge the gap between the movement as a whole and the wants and needs of its individual members
“LNE” – Air Pollution
- How to address air pollution in a way that does not rely on the enactment of overly paternalistic or coercive legislation
- How to get ‘non-believers’ on board / communicate the necessity of legislation on the use of petrol
“Regionaal Landschap Dijleland” – Environmental Conservation
- How to connect the diverse interests of various stakeholders around the RLD
“Flemish Government Agency of Arts and Heritage” – Cultural Conservation Policy
- What is needed from the Agency to fully take advantage of the opportunities provided by the long-term heritage conservation policy
- What kind of participatory process is needed and what can it reasonably be expected to achieve in a year
City of Leuven: “Interculturalisation” of the Arts Council
- How to organize more say in local policies for the ethnic cultural organizations
- How the diversify the council rather than just working alongside diverse representative from socio-cultural associations
- Whether or not it's possible to adapt the existing engagement methodology it or is it better to create a new forum altogether
Municipality of Asse: Building Internal Support Among Administration and Politicians for City-Wide Participation
- Many government officials are reluctant to take on the supportive, socio-economic role traditionally played by the Church
- Looking for ways to convince those who see an increase in collaboration with constituents as a burden
- How to build and enact internally-consistent participatory policy
Horizon 2020: a Sustainable, Inclusive and Robust Growth Strategy for Europe Through Stakeholder Participation
- How to design a process that starts with the involvement of the "Entrepreneurial Society" without immediately being taken over by major vested interests (politics, big business etc.)
Municipality of Olen: Dealing with Active Resistance Against Development of a Regional Road
- After initiating a community dialogue process and implementing a citizen action committee, the situation grew hostile and participants rebelled against the government development plans
- Now need to design a way to regain the trust of citizens and develop an honest and effective method through which to engage the action committee and move the project forward collaboratively
Parent Involvement in Free Education
- A school with a diverse array of attendees wants to involve parents in the design of a new playground; how do they proceed? What steps can they take?
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
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Analysis and Lessons Learned
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 "Reader Inspiratiedag participatie," Kortom, December 10, 2014, https://www.kortom.be/presentatie/6585/inspiratiedag-participatie--de-wol-bij-het-geblaat