Democracy Day: Civic participation in action
Paul Braithwaite, Head of Innovation & Voice, The Community Foundation Northern Ireland (CFNI)
At CFNI we believe we have a role to play at the heart of social transformation, providing a voice for the community and a space for collaborations to come together shifting the power back to communities. We’re working towards a society where everyone can prosper and live in peace and that is why we want to empower the local community to effect change.
Therefore we have kicked off 2020 by launching our new Civic Innovation programme which supports initiatives that put people at the centre of decision-making in Northern Ireland. The Civic Innovation Programme uses a combination of intensive project design support, expertise on public participation and grant-funding support with the aim of deepening local democracy, open to all voluntary, community and social enterprises in Northern Ireland.
As a result of the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2017 public trust in government and politics is at a seriously low ebb and we believe a key part of the solution to is to give people a meaningful, informed say in decision-making. Creative ideas for how to do this, from citizens’ assemblies to digital democracy, to participatory budgeting, are being implemented all over the world. Democracy Day provided a unique opportunity for the people and organisations in Northern Ireland to take a lead in contributing to this wave of democratic innovations. Power-sharing in Northern Ireland was restored in January 2020 with the publication of the New Decade, New Approach agreement which detailed a citizens engagement strategy, proposing at least one citizens’ assembly a year as part of the new deal. This has come on the foot of the Community Foundation’s funding of Northern Ireland’s first citizens’ assembly in 2018 and an accompanying process of engagement with politicians to persuade them of the useful role they can play in unlocking fresh thinking and resolving deadlock around key issues. A small but impactful step to putting people at the heart of decision making in Northern Ireland.
The programme formally began at the Community Foundation’s Democracy Day event on 29th January 2020. Over 100 attendees came together and with a room bursting with enthusiasm it highlighted the clear need and willingness for the community to be more involved in decision making in Northern Ireland. At this event, participants had an opportunity to ‘pitch’ their ideas for projects to one another, as well as get some inspiration from international and local contributors working in the fields of public participation and democratic innovation. Three speakers brought their perspectives from outside Northern Ireland. Newcastle University’s Dr Ian O’Flynn spoke about the challenges facing democracy and how to develop deliberative democracy in divided societies. The Democratic Society’s Kelly McBride gave an overview of different ways in which digital democracy has been encouraged in the UK and abroad. And the founder of Citizens UK, Neil Jameson, discussed the history and power of community organising.
Community organisations came to pitch on a wide range of topics and challenges from health issues, disengagement of the unemployed through to the absence of a Community Rights Act in Northern Ireland. Examples included:
- The Integrated Education Fund who are seeking to challenge the segregated school system as a result of duplication of school provision by consulting and engaging communities around possible school amalgamations.
- NI Youth Forum who highlighted the need for a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly to overcome young people’s disconnection and exclusion from the democratic process and
- Garvagh Development Trust who want to support people to address the local effects of climate change and loss of biodiversity.
- At a Global Cafe discussion, the 30 pitchers sat around tables discussing and debating their ideas. Groups merged and demerged, and the audience decided on 14 groups to take their idea through to the next stage.
All of the 14 teams will receive a small grant of up to £5,000 to test their idea at a small scale or to undertake necessary preliminary work such as research or political engagement. Following the completion of the small grants phase, each team can then apply for a major grant of up to £50,000 to deliver their project over an 18 month period, with up to 10 projects being supported.
The Civic Innovation programme is designed to support the improvement of local democracy. It is the only independently funded programme of its kind in the UK or Ireland. Across the entire programme, the Community Foundation will seek to tap into the groundswell of democratic innovations taking place around the world and provide opportunities for grantees to learn from this and showcase their own work.
The programme is supported by a consortium of independent funders including the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.