Thursday, 2 October 2014

What does it take to make an active citizen?

'Smile! It's Contagious' by
Daniel Go under a CC license
An active citizen is a citizen with the proper sense of responsibility towards society. That's, indeed, a vague and ambiguous statement that can hardly serve as a definition. Just to contribute more to confusion, active citizens are not necessarily activists - at least not under the negative light that occasionally has been shed on the term. The problem is that there is no formal definition for active citizens, just examples placing them as the good guys of society, the ones doing the right thing, from respecting the environment to voting and from properly voicing their opinion to volunteering for a good cause.

Does a society need active citizens? Certainly yes! Could a society do without those? Maybe. But it would need to heavily rely on other mechanisms to ensure its proper function, should the majority of its members choose not to fulfill their responsibilities. Imagine, for instance, a society where people would neglect the environment and, instead, only pollute.

Active citizens can drive societies further ahead of what laws and established norms could, on their own, achieve. They could do that possibly at a lower total cost, mobilising more diverse resources and, most likely, managing them more effectively.

The question is, how does a society (or a state) encourage active citizenship. Especially in times of weak economy and overall uncertainty. What do people need in order to grow from plain individuals to active citizens within a dynamic society?

Inevitably, I'll be doing some not-properly-documented brainstorming here but feel free to correct me:
  • People need to be inspired by someone or something. This could be done via a role model, a motivational speech, work experience, culture, personal interactions with others, etc.
  • People need the time to process ideas, to reflect, plan, discuss and reach decisions.
  • People need the space and the means (or resources or support) to implement their decisions, to setup, run and monitor their plan.
  • People need to have margin for failure.
  • Should success come, people need to be able to benefit, at least morally and emotionally so as to, in turn, inspire others.
That's a small collection of 5 rather naive and quite ideal points. In practice people won't have the privilege of all those - at least not at the same time. However, there are feasible steps that societies/ states can take to make the environment friendlier to active citizens. For instance:
  • Setting/ improving a clear and easy-to-comprehend legal framework for citizen welfare (health, education and further development, employment). Just for the sake of the argument, having healthy work environments with proper time of paid leave and decent minimum wages would allow people to think beyond work as a means of survival. Adding incentives could help a lot (e.g., leaves for charity work).
  • Encouraging corporate social responsibility both in the private and in the public sector so as to benefit society directly but also to further expose people on (some) values with relevance to active citizenship.
  • Establish policies providing a framework for citizen initiatives and (some) access to resources, e.g. simple processes for establishing non-profit CSOs, providing access to data, allowing access to and use of public spaces, providing public funding for certain citizen initiatives, providing legal advice and business plan support, etc.
  • Promote the culture of active citizenship, e.g., via education or via promotion of successful initiatives.
  • Interact with citizens - active and not-so-active - in motivational ways (invite input, listen, discuss, provide feedback).
  • Adopt good practices, invest on results and work towards causes highlighted by active citizens, etc., thus demonstrating that getting actively involved leads to positive change and benefits society.
I'm sure that there is more to add to the list. I'm also well aware that measures to that direction do exist in nearly all countries in the EU. However, there is always more that can done, even with little resources available. At challenging times, this is a promising path worth investigating...

[Of course, many, many others have voiced (a variety of) thoughts on this topic in the past. The video below is from the TEDx talk of Dave Meslin. Some of his points do have local only relevance but most apply rather widely.]

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