Connecting communities, kindness and citizen participation

November 13, 2019

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by Sarah Davidson, Chief Executive

There is appetite for change across the UK and Ireland. Citizens want to feel more connected to the places they are in and the people around them, and to have a greater sense of control over the decisions that affect them. They want to be active rather than passive, and to work together to shape the society in which they live, work and play. Campaigns such as Fridays for Future are testament to that. And while these focus on mobilising the general public, new methods for citizen engagement are also being imagined.

Ireland was one of the first countries to host a Citizens’ Assembly, a method of participatory democracy that randomly selects participants to discuss issues of national importance. Across the world, these Assemblies have tackled issues ranging from abortion, same-sex marriage, and climate change in Ireland, to electoral reform in Canada, land use policies in India, and nuclear waste in Australia. We have increasingly seen the power of people coming together to influence change in new environments and circumstances, using a variety of convening approaches.

We believe that kindness and citizen participation are connected. Recent research told us that 3 in 5 people in Ireland think that their community is a kind one. Levels of volunteering are higher in Ireland than in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and we suspect there is a link between these high levels of volunteering and community action and people’s experience and perception of kindness in their communities.

If kindness and citizen engagement are understood to be mutually inclusive, then society needs to create the conditions for kindness so that people feel positive about participating in democratic life. But what are the ‘right conditions’? Evidence tells us that what is critical are the spaces and places that enable people to meet, to come together and feel belonging. The Carnegie UK Trust has found that such relationships lead to better outcomes: kindness in communities and organisations can drive societal wellbeing.

Today, on World Kindness Day, the Wheel in partnership with the Carnegie UK Trust is publishing a report that offers a blueprint for actions to support a more inclusive Ireland. The report brings together the views of people who took part in small group conversations about their shared future, where discussions naturally turned to the great challenges of our time: the persistence of poverty, the climate crisis and growing inequality.

These conversations told us that there is a desire for more citizen engagement in the decisions that influence our lives. If we use more deliberative approaches and convening tools – whether it’s simply encouraging meetings around kitchen tables, or establishing more formal panels, juries and assemblies – we might have a greater chance of tackling these very issues.

Participation, community engagement and localism are the key principles of an Enabling State, an approach to governance that takes a holistic approach and values the capacity of individuals to inspire change, starting from the local context. At a time when active participation is more vital than ever, we need to support communities to be kind.