As part of the Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE) project, we held a ‘Democracy Lab’ in Messina, Italy, in September 2019. It was the first such event and served as a dry run for future gatherings as well as for how other organisations can engage with citizens as part of their work.
These Democracy Labs are a component of PaCE’s engagement plan, which aims to make sure that democratic input and engagement occurs through all parts of the project. They will be held across Europe in order to simultaneously complement and disseminate PaCE’s findings. Its official objective is to probe the universal and the particular causes of the three types of populism (illiberal, nativist and anti-democratic) and how these phenomena manifest themselves in Europe today. This is achieved by seeking to learn the way European citizens get and process information, and how that shapes their voting decisions. One participant described the experience as “interesting and useful […] especially concerning the political and social context we are experiencing today”.
Fifteen local participants joined the Messina Democracy Lab in the city’s Tommaso Cannizzaro public library, which was organised and mediated by local partners, Associazione Ionio Messina and Startup Messina. “These meetings should be planned more often to not only increase the number of participants: everyone should participate in these workshops to be more confident with politics,” said one man. One young woman summarised her impression: “I will bring three words into my mind after this experience: awareness, participation and education.”
Each Democracy Lab will gauge citizens’ attitude towards democracy, how they understand it and what their priorities are with regards to the democratic process. These issues are debated in World Café style groups, with three sessions, each of which guided by standardised questions: Which information do you think is valuable to know before making a voting decision? How do you evaluate which information you can trust? What do you think needs to be done to ensure informed voting? “In my opinion, the result [of this workshop] is impressive because we discussed many topics, analysing every single aspect,” said one senior citizen. “It was useful for everyone to broaden the idea that was originally in the various questions,” he added.
The Democracy Labs are self-contained, one-off events in which participants have the full experience of the program. Nevertheless, the labs connect different elements of research within PaCE, and serve as a testing ground for ways to carry out research activities in the field.
“It was a very significant and a very motivating experience because I got the chance to talk with people I didn’t know before, of which I have absolutely no idea about their political opinions. With them, I have argued about relevant topics, such as conscious approach to voting. I want to say these meetings should be planned more often, involving more people. […] it would be nice to be able to discuss our ideas with many others”, explained one woman. Her observation goes in line with the democracy lab’s own objectives, which include to appraise how political decisions are formed within the community and to ensure that the research program constantly has a finger on the pulse of the real lives on European citizenry.
Moreover, the Democratic Society team’s experience of working with two local partners as a means through which to tap into local resources as well as the lessons learned in this experience can also be shared with other organisations that carry out citizen engagement projects. Significantly, the Messina Lab was the first of several others being planned across Europe in the months to come. If you would like to learn more about the Messina Lab, click here.
PaCE is a Horizon 2020 project funded by the European Commission. For this project, nine different partners across Europe are aiming to understand aspects of populist movements, to build upon the lessons from positive examples of connecting with citizens, and through this play a part in constructing a firmer democratic and institutional foundation for the citizens of Europe.
Find out more about the project on Twitter or at www.popandce.eu. Follow #DemocracyLab to join the discussion.