The Importance of Being Active

Written by Paula Raužan,
President of the Local Democracy Agency Sisak,
Croatia, August 2016

Explaining why we, as citizens, need to be involved and need to get involved in shaping our communities in wider sense, seems like a washed-out story after decades of building “new, modern democracies”.

Nevertheless, here we are doing the same things, repeatedly. Governments at all levels are persuading us in smugly manner, that they are the ones who improved processes of consultations with citizens on “important” issues and that decisions are made in accordance.
For sure, there is some progress, especially with Internet era. Online consultations and online public debates are very popular. In Croatia, we are witnessing for past few years advanced online consultations on various topics; from law proposals, local spatial plans to funding opportunities. It is very good way to provide more intensive communication with interested public and increase participation.
But, is it enough?
If you do not have Internet connection, do not know how to use computer or even have no idea that Internet consultations are open – for sure is not!

I wonder very often, do I want to be consulted only on “important” issues? What if I do not know enough about the topic that will actually influence my life and/or my work? If I am not an expert, should I believe “the experts” to decide on my behalf?
No! I want be involved! I want to get explanation in a way I can understand and then decide on my behalf! This will everybody say. We have our rights and we want them respected! Why then very often people do not practice any of their rights? Voting, as very important civic duty but with minimum activity level, often engage small number of registered voters. A historical Referendum on accession of the Croatia to the European Union held in 2012, engaged only 43,51% of registered voters. Constitutional Referendum, held in Croatia in 2013, proposing amendment to the constitution defining marriage as being a union between a man and a woman, which would create a constitutional prohibition against same-sex marriage, engaged only 37,90% of registered voters (whereof 65,87% voted YES)!

So, we must wonder, what is important to our citizens? How to relate rights with obligations and civic duties? Decades of dedicated work of various non-governmental organisations working on citizens’ participations worldwide, proven that bottom-down approach that perceive citizens as passive consumers is not leading to sustainable change. Including citizens in shaping and developing their communities, especially youngsters, do lead to active participation and importantly to enhancement of local human capital.

The LDA Sisak is working on promotion of local democracy, human rights and active citizenship over 20 years, especially on volunteerism as a form of active citizenship and desirable social value. We find volunteering to be very important for creating social cohesion in community, and by cooperating within a community itself, is possible to connect citizens that do not have opportunity to meat otherwise and jointly contribute to changes. In 2011 we opened Volunteer’ Centre Sisak, operating within the LDA Sisak, a social infrastructure connecting those who need volunteers with citizens willing to volunteer. Since volunteering is a tool for involvement of citizens of all social groups to be active actors in developing their community, we went step further. LDA Sisak facilitated working group for development of Sisak local voluntary policy that gathered representatives of 20 CSOs and public institutions. Each member of the working group consulted their beneficiaries and contributed with highlighting important areas where volunteering can contribute to further elevation of life quality in Sisak. The policy was presented to citizens of Sisak via Internet (we follow the trends as well :-)) and during live public debate open to all interested stakeholders and citizens. Final version of the Policy was presented to the Sisak Town Council who adopted the

Town of Sisak Voluntary Policy 2015-2020 in August 2015. In December 2015, Town of Sisak established the Town of Sisak Committee for Development of Volunteering, coordinated by the LDA Sisak. The role of the Committee is to put the Policy into a practice, implementing concreate measures, especially in promoting positive values of volunteering, expansion of local network of volunteering organisers and creating local database of volunteers and organisers of volunteering. The Committee is taking over organisation of Sisak Annual Volunteer prize but this year will award organisers of volunteering and put exhibition of Sisak voluntary programs for the first time. The Committee is learning its modus operandi as it goes, since there is no similar practice to consult but enthusiasm is very high.

What we know is that volunteers engaged via Volunteer’ Centre Sisak are in 60% young people, often unemployed and not in educational system (NEET), stating that volunteer’ experienced increased their skills, helped in employment, and motivated to stay actively engaged in their local community life. By volunteering, they got familiar with different local structures and its scope of work. They even got involved in organising its activity and had possibility to directly influence to services offered to beneficiaries. Local structures opened themselves to citizens and used their knowledge and expertise in improving its services and developing new ones.
Nevertheless, working on local democracy and active citizenship is never-ending, challenging, frustrating, hard, rewarding, brilliant and definitely necessary! Because, what else?