Active citizenship is quite simply doing anything to express values or to achieve something for the common good.
Anyone in Ireland, regardless of nationality or residency status, can be an ‘active citizen’, and that is how we in The Wheel understand ‘citizenship’. Active citizenship can be done individually, but more often it is about collective activity and working together as part of community organisations. The state recognised the importance of volunteering and active citizenship in its 2009 report of the Task Force on Active Citizenship.
That report defined active citizenship as being about “engagement, participation in society and valuing contributions made by individuals, whether they are employed or outside the traditional workforce”. The report notes that “in practical terms, engagement and participation may mean membership of a residents’ association or political party or lobby group, or volunteering to help out in a local sports club, or caring for a family member or neighbour, or simply being active and caring about the local neighbourhood, the environment as well as larger global and national issues”.
However, active citizenship is about more than just volunteering time to local organized community initiatives. It is as much about people being empowered to participate in democratic decision-making. Nevertheless, a person’s ability to be an active citizen is not always guaranteed. Some people are better able to participate than others are, so redressing economic, social and political power inequalities across Irish society is required to foster meaningful active citizenship.
Addressing such power imbalances must start with ensuring (as argued by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice) that all people enjoy a minimum essential standard of living and, (as we argue in our report Money Matters), have an income sufficient to live with dignity. But even when people are materially able to participate, much more needs to be done to ensure people can meaningfully participate in our democracy.
The Government has established Public Participation Networks (PPNs) in all local authorities to provide opportunities for people to shape developments in their local authority area. We believe that such participatory governance processes and structures are needed across all public services if people are to fully participate in democratic decision-making. We believe its time now for Government to establish a set of rules and guidelines for all public authorities and state agencies, to clearly set out how they should engage with citizens and civil society organisations. Such a Participatory Governance Framework would empower people, singly and through organisations they are affiliated with, to be active citizens who participate directly in deliberations around public services and public policy generally.
At the same time, there is a clear onus on civil society organisations to do more to encourage and empower people to be active citizens by modelling democratic and transparent and accountable practice in their own day to day activities.
What Are We Working On?
In 2018, we concluded, in collaboration with the Carnegie UK Trust, The People’s Conversation – a programme exploring the relationships between the person (the citizen), civil society (or the voluntary sector) and the state. Fifteen groups took part in over 30 conversations, exploring the questions “what is shaping our future?” and “what do citizens expect and what is expected of citizens?”. The Citizens Rising report emerged from these conversations and sought to build a society where everyone can participate and make their full contribution.
The report identified five challenges which give us a framework for citizen empowerment:
- increasing participation in public decision-making
- developing and nurturing active citizenship
- building trust and respect
- making citizenship global
- resourcing and empowering citizens.
The Wheel and the Carnegie UK Trust have been working since then to raise awareness of the challenges identified and what is required to address them. We recognise that moving from dialogue to action is arduous and demanding. To aid this process, and to keep attention focused on responding to these challenges, we have worked with partners in the People’s Conversation to produce three new research reports to inspire and inform collective responses to the challenges.
The three reports (published in 2018) examine different aspects of the participation challenge:
- Powering Civil Society looks at the role of the community and voluntary sector as a vehicle for active citizenship
- Money Matters looks at the economic barriers to active citizenship and how to over-come them.
- A Two-Way Street looks at the missing piece in the participation narrative – the role of the public servant.
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