Why I won’t say citizen engagement anymore
I’ve always loved the term active citizenship. I find it motivating: it recognises contribution and social responsibility, and encourages both of them. What could be wrong with that?
As someone who believes in participatory democracy, helps governments engage community, and supports civic innovation, the thought of engaged and activated citizens is exciting.
I believe citizens play a critical role in democracy and that responsibility for the future is shared, not just the role of government. I want citizens to be active–to vote, participate in their communities and deliver positive socioeconomic change. I advocate for that. For democratic process, and for do-ocracy. So much so, that in 2017, when speaking at TICTeC – The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference from mySociety, I asked my designer to redesign the pillars of democracy diagram below to include citizenship – see the presentation.
But this term “citizen engagement” excludes people.
Citizen engagement excludes people who pay taxes and rates (directly or indirectly), permanent residents, and people who actively contribute to communities that don’t have citizenship status. It excludes people who are engaged and want to voice their concerns. People who have been displaced and actively trying to integrate into and build new communities.
The world is changing, people are moving–for love, family, work and safety. Our communities now include these people: people who access and contribute to our public services.
If we want these people to be engaged, contribute and share responsibility, we need to recognise the value they can and do offer our communities.
Last year, while working at the Centre for Civic Innovation in Liverpool, I met 50 people within 18 days who wanted to contribute to the local community. These people had responded to an invitation to share what they wanted to DO for their area.
They wanted to be a part of the change in their community, participate in the economy and help address social issues. We supported anyone who wanted to contribute, and with more than 50 percent of Liverpool’s population born outside of Australia, many brought fresh ideas from their country of origin.
I get it, citizens vote. It’s a privilege that is earned and awarded, and citizenship status provides access to services that others can’t seek. But if governments want to serve and represent the needs of their community, they need to listen to all residents and tax payers, not just their constituents.
If we want to encourage people and organisations to share responsibility and deliver change, we will need to engage and activate communities, not just citizens.
Using the terms citizen engagement and active citizenship excludes people. Community engagement is a good substitute. People and organisations engage and get active. You can also activate communities–places and groups–by engaging people and organisations.
I hope those of you working in these fields will join me in using the term community engagement instead of citizen engagement, and help others understand the value in doing so.