Engaged citizens who want to serve their communities as local representatives often know little about how local government works. They want to use their vision and goodwill in local office but they are scared of diving into the dog-eat-dog world of politics. We give them the confidence, knowledge and skills they need and support them through civic education, networking, mentoring from an experienced local politician and a small grant to help them and their community on their way.
Across entire Czechia - at least 35 towns/cities/villages.
In a well-functioning democracy, going from community leadership to local office should be a natural progression. There should be a path for people who want to take their community service in this direction and guides to help them make the transition smoothly. But until Via Foundation opened this program and started this initiative, there was no education or support for active citizens before they run for local office, only courses for people who had already been elected. In the past some political parties had run programs for local candidates, but currently to our knowledge only the Czech Pirate Party does. But since the vast majority of local representatives (approx. 70%) are non-partisans, these political party-run programs are not options for them.
The program targets active citizens or community leaders who have decided to or are seriously thinking about running for local office. Often, they have already led a significant project or activity and would now like to contribute even more to their communities by serving as local representatives. In other cases, they strongly disagree with how their towns are governed and want to be an active part of changing the local political environment. Across the board we focus on engaged citizens who have the motivation, skills and networks to be impactful local representatives. Most of the recent program participants have been female (80%), often parents, and most often aged 30 to 45. We have participants from large cities, mid-sized towns as well as villages of a few dozen or hundred residents.
Altogether there will have been three cohorts of participants by the next local elections in 2022. Each class has about 13-15 participants. They receive very complex support, which consists of education in civic participation, municipal duties, responsibilities and budgets, and leadership; skill-building in e.g. communication and negotiation; guidance from a mentor, who is an experienced local politician; coaching; and the option to apply for a mini-grant for their own project. Peer exchange, where participants share experiences and gain inspiration and feedback through online meetings, is also a valuable program component. In sum, the program is a combination of civic education, networking, contact with local politicians and work (mostly) for their communities.
Potential participants submit applications describing their community, awareness of local politics and expectations. After the first round, we held interviews for the second. One round of the program lasts 9 months. Graduates may then join our alumni group, a semi-autonomous group which we support with further meeting and learning opportunities based on the group’s priorities. We put great emphasis on the needs of the group, an individualized approach and networking.
Given that this will be the program’s fourth year, we plan on evaluating the entire duration of the program before the local elections in autum 2022.
There will be 40 people from at least 35 towns/cities from the majority of regions in the Czech Republic better prepared to serve as local representatives. When they assume local office, they will use their new knowledge about civil participation methods, how municipalities work, what the challenges are and what it actually means to serve in local government, thus contributing to improved governance in Czech municipalities. One participant described the results: “I grasped how municipal councils work. My mentor answered all of my questions. She taught me how to find my own place in the system and how I can contribute to the development of our community. I would recommend the program to anyone who cares about where our country is headed. Because if we don’t do something about it, who will?"
The very core of the project is to prepare active citizens to take on the role of local representatives. We have a complex approach to preparation based on civic education, mentoring from experienced local politicians and support for participants’ own projects. In civic education we explore topics including leadership and values, open town hall, legal basics for local representatives and civic participation in practice. We also work on developing participants’ skill sets, e.g. in communication and negotiation.
In parallel we support participants in holding community discussion forums about topical local issues, which give other community members a chance to learn about social or political problems and express their opinions.
The key reason why Via Foundation started this program is that we watched how community leaders whom we had supported in other programs went on to become local politicians, taking their values and emphasis on civic engagement with them to local government. We realized how important it is that they are prepared for this new role. We surveyed 180+ of our grantees and other engaged citizens to learn about their motivations, expectations, challenges and needs in relation to running for local office.
The team is composed of Tereza Mádlová, who previously worked on a leadership program at Via Foundation, and Štěpán Drahokoupil, a political scientist who studied how several local initiatives founded non-party candidate lists and ran for local elections in his Ph.D. thesis.
Funding requested from Civic Europe
Grant support for participants - approx. 12 events - educational/informational events implemented by participants in a community in their village/city: 5 600 EUR
Project management, support and coordination: 11 500 EUR
Mentoring support: 2 500 EUR
Alumni group coordination and support: 800 EUR
Educational events for participants - 3 "hands-on" events: 2 000 EUR
Project evaluation: 1 900 EUR
PR, communication: 2 300 EUR
Administrative and project operational cost + overhead: 4 300 EUR
We would be very interested in learning about other users’ experience with similar programs. Specifically e.g.: What was their/your approach and what support did they/you give to participants? What do you think the right candidate should know before s/he runs for local office?
Just a few days before the election week we received the program evaluation report from our external evaluator. The findings completely blew us away – even without the final election results, the report made it clear that we had good reason to be enormously proud of our work and of the individual journeys each of our participants had taken.
The report summarizes interviews conducted with twenty selected program participants. It also includes knowledge obtained through intermittent feedback questionnaires and interviews we did during the program. In the report the evaluator sought to find answers to the following questions:
To what extent do the participants feel prepared to enter municipal politics after taking part in our program?
How did the different parts of the program contribute to this?
How are they using (or not using) the newly acquired knowledge in practice?
How has their attitude towards municipal politics changed?
What are their visions and values going into the 2022 elections?
What are the differences between male and female program graduates?
All of the interviewed participants subjectively stated that they feel ready to enter municipal politics. This statement, however, did not mean that their knowledge is comprehensive and bulletproof, but rather that they value that the program gave them insight into essential areas and topics. They feel that they gained a basic idea of what a municipal elected official does, have a lot of contacts, met inspiring people and created a network of people whom they can call when they are at a loss. The participants describe this as very reassuring and expressed that they are more confident that they can do it.
The participants shared that it was empowering and motivating to meet regularly with people who have a similar worldview and want to enter municipal politics. It brought them reassurance that they are not alone as they face their problems and that many places deal with similar obstacles. A sense of belonging and understanding, mutual support and inspiration on the shared journey through the program were described by all participants as essential values of our program.
Each participant had the opportunity to work with a mentor and apply for a mini-grant. The mentors we selected were people from practice and the choices were based on participants’ preferences. Some participants said that working with a mentor helped them change their attitudes and patterns of behaviour and considered it to be a very important moment in their journey through the program. For example, they shared that they now know that it is good to invite people to cooperate and ask them for help when needed. Or that instead of asserting our truth it is better to communicate and find compromises. We quote one specific impact related to women: “Some female participants also described how new knowledge and skills, combined with the fact that they were able to bring funds and added value – consultations and workshops with experts – brought them more respect and recognition and hence a stronger position in a mostly male community”.
After completing the program, participants understand that they can be active co-creators of municipal policies and that the possibility of positive change exists, and they are ready to lead their communities towards positive change. They do not want to merely look for and point out the mistakes of their opponents: they want to bring their own meaningful vision and try to show how things can be done differently. All of the participants spoke about the fact that the program strongly shaped their vision for the municipal elections in 2022. The main values they brought to the elections were openness, competence and responsibility. As future elected officials, they seek to support residents in communicating their needs and not being afraid to contact their representatives. The participants want to keep reminding residents that decision-making is not only the privilege of a chosen “elite” group, but the responsibility and the right of each and every one of us. As the report states: “They described how their courage and willingness to bring positive change was strengthened. The project also enhanced their belief that positive change is possible.”
The only direct recommendations that participants had for improving the program were requests for some kind of seminar that would focus specifically on the practical aspects of candidacy and campaigning – for example how to build a candidate list or how to run a campaign.
"I'm sitting under the stairs in the fire station and just can't believe it, 10 out of 11 seats are ours!" "I'm going to be a deputy mayor!" or "It couldn't have been worse."
After three years of running Via’s Taking the fear out of local politics program, our team sat down as an impromptu election staff to watch the vote count in the Czech local elections. We were watching 10 specific regions and 35 municipalities and city districts closely. 38 of our program participants, located in different parts of the Czech Republic, had courageously embarked on a quest to win a seat on their local council. They had decided to do so after spending a year with us in intensive preparations that included mentoring and learning focused on how a city council works and public participation - to make their cities open, transparent and livable.
On Saturday, September 24th, the day we had all been looking forward to finally arrived. Throughout the afternoon, we were in contact with the participants - people who we had been accompanying on their journey to become strong community leaders. Some reported from home, others met with their own teams in local cafés and restaurants. They agreed that this was a pivotal moment for them. By the evening we could already see that 63% of “our” candidates, i.e. 24 people, had won seats on councils. The success rate of their candidate lists even reached 91%. And our participants were more confident and asked for top places on them - a total of 66% were in the first three places on the candidate lists.
Another important phase is now beginning: post-election negotiations. We will soon find out how many of our participants will be leading their municipalities, which will place them in a position with a fundamental influence on how their cities function. And they certainly have quite a good chance - some of the candidate lists achieved victories of 82.9%, 49.8% or 47.5%. We already know that one of our participants will be in charge of introducing a participatory budget in a town of 30,000 people. And we expect more good news!
More great numbers and a thank you
A total of 48 people participated in our program over the past 3 years. In the end, 38 of them (i.e. 79%) decided to run for office – 71% of these candidates are women and 29% are men. The rest are staying active, applying their new knowledge and skills while contributing their communities more effectively. We would like to express our appreciation to everyone who participated in our program. Just thinking about entering municipal politics requires a lot of courage. We have witnessed successful stories, but also very challenging ones. Politics is a difficult discipline and everyone who tries to make a change deserves a big thank you.
How long does it take to find a mentor for one of our participants? Well, sometimes less than 15 minutes. I admit that it is a simplification of the long process, but this year in some cases it only took 15 minutes to get a positive answer from a local politician whom we had asked to serve as a mentor in the program "Taking the fear out of local politics".
Our program runs from November to June and in our current third year we have 23 participants who have already decided to run or are seriously considering running in the upcoming local Czech elections this year. Even though it is not our primary goal to get women into local politics, we are glad that 18 out of the 23 participants are women.
An important part of our program is mentoring of our participants by experienced local politicians. The program also includes training sessions, workshops (online and offline), a case clinic, and the opportunity to obtain a grant for one's own project. The goal of mentoring is to give our participants “a taste of being in politics” so they are better prepared for what lies ahead if they do run for office. This means they may adjust their expectations and goals and learn from their mentors.
How do we look for local politicians who could serve as mentors in the program? By the time we write to a specific politician, we have already done a lot of work. When interviewing potential participants for the program, we ask them if they have ideas for potential mentors. When they are accepted into the program, we follow up on their suggestions and identify concrete topics that are most relevant to participants. We also take into consideration things such as gender, region and the size of the participant’s village, town or city. After participants do their homework and come up with topics, we have a discussion about potential mentors from among local politicians in their region. Our participants very often have their own suggestions, but sometimes we recommend people we know from past years of the program. Only a few mentors serve for multiple years, which means that each year we have a brand new group of mentors. This is a harder and more time-consuming approach, but after three years of running the program we can see how important it is to start with the needs of our participants rather than having a pre-selected group of mentors who would be available to them.
After choosing the topics and specific mentors, it is our job to contact and persuade the selected politician to work with us. Even though there are a lot of new mentors every year, we get a lot of positive responses and only rarely a refusal. In the current year we had only one potential mentor decline our invitation, out of 22 mentors whom we contacted.
When a mentor agrees to serve, we organize and facilitate a meeting between the mentor and the participant. The mentor and the participant introduce themselves and talk about the topics that will be the focus of the mentoring. They develop a list of specific tasks during the meeting. We (Via Foundation staff) do not take part in subsequent meetings.
What does the mentoring look like? The mentor and participant have up to 10 hours of interaction, which can take on various formats. It is up to them to decide. Some of them visit each other in their respective towns, while others prefer to work online. Their meetings range from one-hour online meetings to half-day in-person meetings.
It was October 2021, late in the day, and my colleague Tereza and I were just finishing up a WhatsApp call with a job applicant, Kristína. We were hoping Kristína would join our program team.
We knew our workload would skyrocket in the upcoming weeks as we got ready to launch the third year of the program "Taking the fear out of local politics", so there was not much time to get someone to boost our team’s capacity. We had arranged the call as quickly as possible, even though hiring someone over the phone is typically not the best scenario. Nonetheless Kristina seemed like a good fit and we were overjoyed when she accepted the position. The probability of not overloading ourselves with tons of work in the upcoming third year of the program had just increased.
We spent the next two weeks planning the initial meeting for the program’s year 3 participants - 23 community leaders who are considering running for local office so that they can continue serving their communities from a strategic, municipal vantage point. Thanks to new support from Civic Europe, we were able to scale up our impact and support about 10 more participants than we had in the program’s second year.
By the time we hired Kristína, we had already assessed almost all of the 50 applications that we had received, conducted interviews with short-listed candidates and let the selected 23 community leaders know that we would be spending the next 7 months together. During the applications and interviews we try to uncover the applicants’ needs, ideas and the contexts in which they work. During the first two years of the program, we had learned that the key is to find the right community leaders and support them.
Our program supports participating community leaders by providing:
education in legal affairs, citizen engagement, leadership and municipal budgeting
mentors, who are experienced local politicians
a community project grant
opportunities for peer to peer support
guidance and consultations throughout the program
In November, we met our new participants at a venue next to Letná Waterworks in Prague. We had briefed ourselves on the current COVID-19 measures, bought face masks, hand sanitizer, paper and flipchart pads and asked our participants to send in photos of their favorite places in their towns and villages. Our program team of three staff was ready for the meeting.
All of our participants arrived at least a few minutes before the official start time. That was a first good sign that we had picked the right people, individuals who are engaged and interested in the program. We spent the morning getting to know one another, mostly using various participatory techniques from non-formal education. We also included some of the things we had picked up at our Civic Europe meeting in Eger. In the afternoon we had a great training on leadership and we finished our day over beer and wine in the evening.
Following the meeting in Prague, we met separately with each participant to discuss what they would like to get out of the mentoring process. We identified specific topics and questions as well as specific local representatives who might make good mentors. We also prepared for the next training sessions and meetings. We are thankful that we have Kristína on board to help us.
Written by Štěpán Drahokoupil