24th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe (Strasbourg, 19-21 March 2013)

      Debate on Fostering active citizenship - Making local democracy thrive

      Speech by Blanca SOLANS GARCÍA, General Director of Citizen’s Participation, External Activities and Co-operation, Government of Aragón, Spain

      The current context requires a process of democratic regeneration. The political disaffection of the citizens, the distrust towards institutions or the social, political, technological and cultural complexities demand, obligate us to design a new way of governing, a deep change in the values of the organization and action of public authorities.

      The White Paper on European Governance of 2001 already established proposals tending to deepen in democracy and increasing the legitimacy of institutions. In essence, it standed up for the opening of public decisions to the citizens' participation, understanding that it is necessary to get over the exclusivity the public authorities have in the management of public issues and to acknowledge the plurality of social agents that can intervene. Without a doubt, the guide that must inspire politics nowadays is the model of multi-level governance.

      But, why should we encourage citizens' participation? In the first place, because it has become a real legal obligation. In this sense, I would like to highlight how the Treaty of Lisbon brings the framework and the legal tools that are necessary to face the future challenges and to respond to the expectations of the citizens. In particular, for the construction of a more democratic and transparent Europe, the text recognizes the principle of participative Democracy by means of new mechanisms of interaction between the citizens and the institutions, such as citizens' initiatives. In our internal legal system, the Spanish Constitution proclaims the citizens' participation as an essential axis of the democratic rule of law. Thus, in its article 9.2, the Treaty proclaims that public authorities must facilitate the participation of all the citizens in the political, economic, cultural and social life, besides it recognizes in the article 23 the fundamental right to participation in public issues, either directly or by means of representatives. Finally, the Statute of Autonomy of Aragón, 2007, as basic institutional regulation of our Autonomous Community, proclaims in its article 15 the right to participation, encouraging public authorities to promote social participation in the elaboration, realization and evaluation of the public policies, as well as collective and individual participation in the economic, cultural, political and civic spheres.

      Furthermore, and in the second place, I want to answer the question of why dealing with, promoting citizens' participation from the level of institutional conviction. We understand that a higher participation, as complement and improvement of the representative system, enhances public decision by incorporating all the abundance and variety of the knowledge and experiences of the citizens, it reinforces the support of the receivers of those policies because they were taken into account in the process of elaboration, generating a higher understanding of the final decision; it promotes social co-responsibility, moving, thanks to public debate, from individual interests to common interests; and improves the effectiveness of public actions, understanding that the effectiveness of the public authorities is not measured only in technical perfection or a criteria that tends to give priority to economy, but also in its adequacy to social needs and requirements and in its acceptation by society.

      Assuming this conceptual framework, the Aragón Government has been developing in the past few years an innovative strategy to promote citizens' participation. Aragón is an Autonomous Community (regional authority) of Spain, with a population near 1.200.000 people. We are an intermediate administration between the State and the local entities, taking into account that we consider provinces, rural areas and city councils as local entities.

      In 2007 the strategy "Aragón Participa" was created with the aim of promoting a new way of governing, a new way of taking public decisions, taking into account the voice and contributions of the citizens. This strategy is managed by the General Direction of Civic Participation, External Action and Cooperation, that is integrated within the Department of Presidency of the Aragón Government. This is a major strategic matter, given that the location of this project in the Department of Presidency guarantees a cross, global and strategic vision.

      The strategy "Aragón Participa" develops two great spheres of action: promoting citizens' participation in the policies of the Aragón Government and supporting local entities in their boost to innovative experiences of participation in their territories.

      Regarding the first sphere of action, the aim is to promote two-way communication channels of participation, active and deliberative, so that the Aragón Government can debate with all the economic and social agents, with society, the design and evaluation of its public policies. We have thus consolidated a new method, in which before taking public decisions, we open a process of participation structured in three phases: the information phase, in which we acquire the compromise of informing about the proposal of public policy; the debate phase, through which the citizens make contributions and proposals by means of public debates; and the feedback phase, in which the reasons for the inclusion (or not) of their contributions and proposals are explained to the entities, as well as the reasons for not including the rejected proposals.

      Besides we guarantee the public and transparent nature of this debate. Through the website Aragón Participa, all citizens can access the minutes of these participation processes and check the contributions of the participating entities and the answers of the Administration.

      This method incorporates as well the concept of multi-level governance. The current interrelation demands promoting the principles of collaboration, coordination and cooperation among Public Administrations. In this way, the processes of participation we develop, not only take into account the civilian society, but also the contributions of local entities. This scenery has allowed a better coordination of the policies of the Aragón Government, avoiding duplicities and improving the effectiveness of the public actions in the territory.

      The second sphere of action of the "Aragón Participa" strategy is focused in the support to local entities for the boosting of initiatives of citizens' participation. Our collaboration is justified by the absence of referents that are close to local entities, that find in our method an extraordinary channel for the development of their initiatives.

      The support we provide, economic as well as technical, is conditioned to the approval by the local Government of a political Compromise with citizens' participation. It is a document that gathers a series of measures with the ultimate objective of boosting a real public policy of citizens' participation. In this sense, we take as referent the Proposal Nº (2001) 19 of the Committee of Ministers to the Member States about the participation of citizens in public life in the local level. It highlights the need to define a policy of promotion of the participation of citizens in the local sphere and the requirement of implementing direct and flexible methods that can be adapted to the different local circumstances.

      Regarding the said political compromises, two ideas are fundamental to understand the philosophy of our strategy:

      - They are approved unanimously by all the political groups, understanding that the effectiveness of this project depends of the agreement and continuity in time, regardless the political party that governs in each moment.

      - We support the progressive approval of these Compromises, so that we do not seek quantity, but quality, because we are sure of the imitation effect that will follow in other local entities.

      The measures stated in these Compromises are diverse and adapted to the social, political and cultural reality of each territory. In particular, the measures stated in the Compromises are as follows:

      - Elaboration of diagnosis about citizens' participation: with the participation of neighbors, a diagnosis is elaborated about important aspects such as the situation of associativism, the existent participation channels and the quality of their functioning, or the evaluation of previous experiences.

      - Boosting of participative processes to involve citizens in strategic matters of the municipal life such as the public transport service, the protection and conservation of the environment, tourism, urbanism, the design and management of public spaces, associativism, economic development, entrepreneurship and self-employment, depopulation, age and rural zones, rights and duties of the neighbors towards the Administration or civic coexistence.

      - Approval of local Regulations of Citizens' participation: the principle of legal safety requires the approval of norms that guarantee the implementation of real and efficient ways of participation.

      With the aim of sharing the experiences boosted by the local entities, and as a channel for mutual learning, the Forum for Citizens' Participation in the Local Sphere of Aragón was created. It is composed by the Aragón Government, the Federation of Towns, Rural Areas and Provinces of Aragón and the local entities that have approved a political Compromise, and its purpose is to analyse the experiences and measures developed along the year. Nowadays, this Forum is composed by 29 local entities.

      While the strategy "Aragón Participa" has focused the project, as we have seen, in participative processes of deliberative and on-site nature, we have also made use of the advantages of new technologies to make easier the exercising of the right to participation. We are progressively adding channels of e-democracy, that allow the citizens, from any place in the territory and in any moment, to make contributions to public policies. Thus, we can affirm that today "Aragón Participa" develops a mixed strategy of promotion of citizens' participation through the boost of channels of direct, on-site debate and the opening of spaces for participation through the Internet.

      However, the effective consolidation of a strategy like Aragón Participa requires the boosting of a third sphere of action: promoting a new political culture based in governance.

      For this, we are developing trainings in matters of citizens' participation, directed both to politicians as well as technicians and citizens. Through congresses, courses and seminars, we spread the policy of citizens' participation and the knowledge about the existent tools of participation for citizens, provide training in techniques and management of instruments and processes of citizens' participation. Besides, with the aim of promoting a feeling of closeness, we promote dissemination projects that allow citizens to have a better knowledge of the organisation and functioning of the Administration and the institutions of government.

      The support to children and youth participation acquires special relevance within this line of action. We consider that the political culture in participation and democratic values should be embraced from the school, promoting that our young people grow and develop themselves learning to participate in the matters that affect them. From this point of view, we are promoting children councils and Children's Plans, taking into account the opinion of the children, as well as promoting debates with young people.

      Finally, I would like to finish my speech emphasizing the strengthening of the principle of transparency as essential element to guarantee a real and effective participation. Currently we are working in the design of a model of Open Government, understood as a government that acts inspired in the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration with the citizens. Together with the website Aragón Participa, we are building a Transparency Site, that will make available to the citizens in an accessible, clear, objective and updated way, all the relevant public information. The final consolidation of this strategy will be accompanied of the approval of the future Law of Good Governance, Transparency and Citizens' Participation, a text in which we are currently working.

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