In June we were delighted to welcome Alex Hrabinová to our office in Edinburgh to begin a three-month internship, which was enabled by the Erasmus+ programme. Having now returned home to Slovakia, we asked Alex to reflect on her time spent working with the Demsoc team. You can read about her experiences below.
We’re always happy to hear from people interested in working in the Democratic Sector. We are able to support occasional internship opportunities, but it’s important to us that the placements are meaningful development opportunities and can fit alongside our existing programmes of work. If you want to chat, feel free to drop us a line at email@example.com.
After five years of studying Economics and two final theses written focusing on participatory budgeting in Slovakia, I found myself dreaming about seeing how it works in practice. At university, they told us all the theories about democratic regimes, systems and transformations – but we all know and even can feel that bringing about change and reform is not that easy.
The reason I chose Scotland was clear: I perceive it as an inclusive and innovation driven country, keen to share its experiences. The reason I chose The Democratic Society was even clearer: focusing on implementation of participatory budgeting processes across Scotland with embedding tools for digital democracy seemed like a perfect opportunity to expand my horizons of professional and personal interest.
First and foremost, when describing my experience with Demsoc, it is useful to say that I was paid during my internship, unlike many other Erasmus interns who may have to live off a small bursary from the Erasmus programme. From speaking with one of my colleagues, it would be in contradiction with their organisational values. They appreciate people interested in their work and make every effort to fairly support anyone who works with them.
Following their broader organisational belief coming from independent, non-partisan and non-political aligned background, they certainly consider the partners they work with too. I found it really affable hearing them talk about considering ethical principles and financial transparency of their potential partners as one of the criteria of their further digital tools research. Although it is increasingly difficult to maintain a flat organisational structure in a constantly growing environment – which requires increasing professionalisation – Demsoc is trying to be non-hierarchical and always treat their employees equally by insisting on providing an open and honest workplace; they focus on clear internal communication and prompt responses to all of their staff’s needs and concerns.
I met my colleagues for the first time in the middle of June when my internship started. I remember stepping nervously into the cosy office to meet my mentor and supervisor, but ended up having a relaxed conversation in a truly welcoming and supporting environment. We finished that day knowing each other better and networking with clients and associates at Demsoc’s regular HolyroodTweetUp event. What a great way to start this experience!
After meeting the rest of my colleagues, I quickly gained in confidence and lost any the nerves that I had. I think there must be something special about Demsoc that just bring the right people into the organisation! I always perceived the team as a bunch of very interesting, all very different but hugely compatible personalities who simply enjoy doing their job – and they do it so well!
During my time working with Demsoc, I discovered a level of creativity and innovativeness that I’ve never seen before. I think this difference might be in part cultural, affected by a different educational system, but mostly it’s about the people who like to share and discuss ideas together and who believe that ‘we’ is more powerful than ‘me’. They were supporting me all the time in developing my ideas and putting them into practice, engaging me in every learning opportunity that occurred.
So, what exactly I was doing during my internship? Because I was interested to gain an internal insight into all kind of issues around participatory budgeting, my first role was observation. I attended meetings with clients and partners, workshops, webinars and learning events from where I started to build a valuable knowledge base. Generally, I was positively surprised by the number of kind people I had a chance to meet during my internship. I never felt unpleasant in conversations I had regarding my language barriers. I learned that when people see you trying and if you have positive attitude and interest, you will get to know all sort of things.
Later on, I moved from observation to supporting delivery of the projects. For example, I was helping to finish case studies for the various PB initiatives running in previous project phase by analysing data from participants’ feedback. It was really interesting to see what people think about the process, what they like or what they would improve, but mostly that they do care about it and they wish to be engaged in decision making.
I learned a lot of valuable lessons and useful tips from case studies written by my colleagues, e.g. how important it is to plan everything properly in advance to make our project successful, what issues need to be considered more specifically, how long time various stages of the process take, but mostly how digital tools can support PB, what are the options and how to integrate them with offline processes. Drawing from these lessons, I further collaborated in designing preparation document for launch of the next phase of PB programme in order to communicate even more effectively with councils and community organizations in the future.
What I enjoyed very much was the possibility to be involved in the research on digital tools for participatory budgeting, finding platforms and tools for a refresh of Demsoc knowledge and building my own. I also had an opportunity to try some of those currently used by Scottish councils and meet their providers. Digital tools for citizen participation are not commonly used in Slovakia, however I believe this topic in the future will be relevant for us and by undertaking further study in this field, I will have a lot to offer back in Slovakia.
Doing this internship in Demsoc provided me with a chance to see everyday progress, it prepared me well to adapt to and act in new situations, to cooperate with people from other backgrounds and cultures and finally help me to make clearer my ideas about my professional career aspirations and goals. Getting back home, I will continue to build on this knowledge and I hope to catch up to their tempo soon. I can’t be more thankful for such wonderful people and lifetime experience!
Thank you for all of your contributions, Alex, it was fantastic to work with you! We wish you every success in developing participatory budgeting and democracy in Slovakia.
– The Demsoc Team