Parliament Watch Italia
From 2016, according to a regional law, every year Sicilian municipalities must implement participatory democracy projects. Available resources are about 5 millions euro per year. About half is unspent, wasting the opportunity to bring excluded citizens back into decisional space. Our idea is based on a campaign that aims to build collaboration between CSOs and Municipalities for a strategic use of these funds.
In Sicily, Southern Italy, with field activities in 5 to 10 small local contexts.
Outside big urban centers, showing some signs of “civic renaissance”, in many Sicilian rural areas, local politics has been affected for decades by conservative mindset, clientelism, vote-buying and protection of Mafia interests. Besides some isolated examples of civil resistance, this environment has deprived civic engagement of any meaning causing the lack of civic cohesion described by this call.
This context is recently getting better. Nonetheless, municipalities, citizens and CSO, in many cases, still suffer from lack of participatory democracy culture and practice. This is the reason why fostering the condition to effectively apply the participatory democracy law and build participatory practices to spend the allocated funds might be fundamental to turn the tables.
The reasons why the participatory democracy fund is not used lies on both sides of the process. Municipalities often underestimate – or are scared by – the opportunity. More than half of them don’t publish the call for citizens’ projects or don’t give enough visibility to it. The project provides them with the guidelines on how to best engage citizens according to the law prescriptions. On the citizens' side the law is not sufficiently known and, beside an issue of competences, there is a widespread lack of trust in collaboration with local institutions. Therefore, the project addresses civil society, taking care of diverse representations, with all the information that allows them to actively engage, encouraging – where needed – forms of organization of non-represented interests.
We make contact with the responsible office in every municipality. We ask those already spending to present their experience. With not compliant municipalities we advocate in collaboration with local civil society properly informed to seize the opportunity presented by these funds. Our campaign also invites the wider public to the project website where citizens can get information on the funds’ use in their region and local context, finding materials (regulations, guidelines, best practices) on how to take part in the process.
We select and visit 5 to 10 “early adopters” where civil society and/or municipalities show great interest in our “call to action” and provide them with step by step assistance.
In 12 months from now, we expect to be able to document on our website:
- an increase in municipalities’ compliance measured by a growth in public notices concerning participatory actions timely and clearly published;
- a growth in participatory spending, to be measured by the number of territories concretely starting to use the funds;
- more citizens’ engagement, in terms of an higher number of projects presented or advocacy actions to stimulate funds’ use;
- better interaction between citizens and local authorities attested by a collection of narratives and best practices (e.g. timely and comprehensive share of information, public debates and meetings or any other form of participatory technique).
The participatory democracy law and the related funds represent a unique chance to foster knowledge and practices related to two pillars of local democracy: citizens participation and collaboration with the government.
Setting the conditions to spend these funds by building knowledge and competences for both CSO and administrations – and better oversight on the process’ quality – will enable instances of collaboration that could easily demonstrate the feasibility of a community driven by common interests. Gathering around a co-designed playground or a senior center, local communities will feel empowered and renew trust in their representatives who granted them their right to democratic engagement.
Since 2016, PWI has worked to activate participatory processes at the local level, in Sicily. We believe that alliances between citizens and local governments are central to restore a healthy democratic life in our communities and to allow citizens to regain agency within civic and public spaces. Our efforts move in two main directions: construction of a solid, well-organized multi-stakeholder civic community, advocacy to public administrations to show them the importance of a widespread citizens’ engagement in projects of high societal impact. An important part of our work consists in raising funds to sustain these activities. Therefore, we cannot tolerate that most of those regional funds specifically designed to implement citizens’ involvement are wasted.
Funding requested from Civic Europe
Office expenses 2000
Personnel costs 46000
Travel and accommodation 5000
External services 20000
Social media advertising 5000
We would be happy to receive advice and suggestions concerning innovative, informal strategies to involve citizens in participatory democracy practices that may prove effective in the involvement of subjects who, though willing, have never lived collaborative experiences before.
On Friday 5 and Saturday 6 November 2021, we held our first Policy Lab.
A “Policy Lab” is a space where CSO, committees and citizens meet experts, technicians, institutions and academics in order to discuss the current policy and develop ideas, proposals and suggestions to improve it.
Our Policy Lab was born from the need to discuss with those who have taken part in participatory processes in Sicilian municipalities, finding out together how to improve the current law for a better spending.
What did we do?
During these two days, we worked with more than 70 participants: technicians and citizens coming from all the Sicilian provinces. There were representatives from institutions, as well as members of more than 40 CSOs.
The event, hosted in the Agorà Fattoria Sociale, in Santa Maria di Licodia, a small town in the province of Catania, started with an introduction by Professor Giovanni Allegretti, one of the most influential academics.
Then, the participants split into five thematic roundtables focusing on different aspects of the application of the law on participatory democracy:
- From law to municipal regulations. How to facilitate a fair and effective application?, facilitated by professor Giovanni Allegretti (Ces – University of Coimbra) and Medea Ferrigno (Presidio Partecipativo del Patto di fiume Simeto)
- How to ensure civic monitoring of participatory processes?, facilitated by Francesco Saija and Giuseppe D’Avella (Parliament Watch)
- A law on participatory budgeting or a law on participatory democracy?, facilitated by Patrizia Caruso, Marco Polvani and Francesca Zambito (ActionAid Italia)
- How can we build spaces for civic lobbying?, facilitated by Federico Anghelè and Mattia Anzaldi (The Good Lobby Italia)
- How can technology help us?, facilitated by Stefano Stortone (BiPart)
We made three different rounds of discussion, in order to give participants the opportunity to switch tables, enriching the discussion and the results.
Finally, all tables shared the outcomes in a plenary session.
Touching the present and looking to the future
The Policy Lab gave us - and all the participants - the possibility to touch different realities, sharing experiences from different parts of the Region and from different point of views.
Participants went back to their realities empowered with more information, civic competences and tools to monitor the law and advocate for its correct application.
We gathered lots of experiences, ideas and suggestions not only during the roundtable sessions but also during the informal moments. Taking stock of them, we have systematized all the reports to build a concrete proposal to improve the implementation of the law on participatory democracy in Sicily.
The Policy Lab and our journey will continue, towards a real and better use of funds for participatory democracy in Sicily.
Five years after law approval, it is impossible to verify its implementation, effectiveness and impact through official information. The official data collected and disseminated by the Region are poor in content and not very timely. This generates obvious problems, such as the lack of clarity on the resources actually available or the difficulty for citizens to verify the quantity and quality of spending. On the local authorities side, there is a strong lack of accountability: the documents required for carrying out the processes are not always available and are almost never published with good evidence. A fact: out of 391 municipalities, only 52 have a website page dedicated to participatory democracy. More generally, the lack of information and dialogue characterizes the entire process and without complete, timely communications capable of reaching all citizens, participation is not achieved.
As a first response to this problem, the "Spendiamoli Insieme" project has built a reliable source of information on the history of participatory democracy in Sicily from 2016 to today and, subsequently, has promoted a narrative of the process that highlights its values and mutual usefulness. This awareness campaign had two channels: the stories of local communities who spent “together” and “well” the funds dedicated to participatory democracy were told and promoted on social networks; a press campaign was carried out together with the regional newspaper “La Sicilia” di Catania. From 18 April to 23 May, the newspaper published a series of articles on the topic, for a total of 16 pages in 11 different issues.
The articles are based on the data, with specific quotes, of the project and host the reflections on the implementation of the law that this information allows. On April 18, in the first of the 11 pieces, in addition to the data on a regional scale (with the title: "Two virtuous big cities then only wasted opportunities"), the pages host some in-depth boxes: the first is "A website and a team for understanding “, and is dedicated to the Spendiamoli Insieme project; then "Monitoring public money, a right and a duty" reflects on the need and chronic unavailability of reliable and understandable data on public spending processes in Sicily; finally, the box “In two years, 7 changes and too many holes” presents the regional law on participatory democracy. The second issue is dedicated to Agrigento. The title is “Primacy between lights and shadows. 80% of available funds spent ". Two pages follow on Catania and its province. The main title is "Under Etna lost a million in 3 years and the choices are always for a few close friends". The article highlights the low numbers of participation in Catania. For the fourth issue, the title is for Trapani, defined as the “mirror of Sicily” due to the limited data available. The series continues with Caltanissetta. The newspaper says "A stop after the record. In 2017, few money was returned: 16% of the funds". The next issue is for Messina and its province. The newspaper headlines: "Messina better than the regional average but little transparency on institutional sites". About Ragusa: "Virtuous capital, 11 municipalities still in the dark" is the title. For Enna, the newspaper emphasizes the lack of regulations. The cycle ends with the pages dedicated to Syracuse ("The projects go through and 80% of the municipalities have the regulation") and Palermo with the negative record of the capital which returns almost 300,000 euros every year. The province is also “Black jersey. 50% of the funds go up in smoke every year ”.
The press campaign had a great echo and allowed the project to get wide recognition. This led to opening the dialogue with Regional institutions on how to improve law implementation, as it is told in the next episode of our project journey.
We organized all the documents and published them, creating our website www.spendiamolinsieme.it. Information about participatory democracy is systematized in a clear and easy-to-read way, municipality by municipality, year by year.
Citizens can have easy access to all available information on participatory democracy in each Sicilian municipality, from 2016 to 2021. A large map of Sicily shows the regional situation, coloring in green the municipalities for which we have found documents, in grey the municipalities without information.
On March 19th we launched our web platform www.spendiamolinsieme.it during a zoom conference, with many participants from all Sicily.
Third step: Keep monitoring
Our network is constantly monitoring, increasing the number of collected and organized documents. The platform is regularly updated and citizens can contact us to tell their stories and report documents to be added to our database.
As of November/December 2021, we have reached the total of 3400 documents and 650 newspaper articles. And we keep growing...
Since 2016, according to regional law, every year Sicilian municipalities are required to spend 2% of the funds they receive from the Region with forms of participatory democracy, thus involving citizens in proposing and selecting the projects to be implemented with these funds.
Every year about half of the available funds is unspent, wasting a large part of the opportunity to promote active citizenship and rebuild the trust between citizens and local administrations, a relationship widely in crisis in Sicily.
Our project idea was born to face this challenge, increasing civic literacy and building a proposal to improve the application of the Sicilian law on participatory democracy. We want to help local communities to spend these funds and to do it in a better way.
A civic monitoring action
We started our project in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, tackling our first challenge: the lack of a comprehensive and reliable source of information on participatory democracy in Sicily.
We realized that citizens couldn't have a clear and complete view of it. They had to surf into the bureaucratic system, the websites of municipalities, unofficial pages, social networks, and newspapers to get access to the necessary information and have an idea about what was happening or had happened in their territory.
We then began an intense civic monitoring action: our researchers, volunteers and partner associations (Action Aid Italia, LetteraEmme, Presidio Partecipativo del Patto di Fiume Simeto, … ) created and shared a method to collect all the available information on participatory democracy in Sicily. From November 2020 to the 1st project release date (19 March 2021), we managed to collect about 1300 official documents (public notices, regulations, and resolutions) and 300 newspaper articles regarding participatory democracy in the 391 Sicilian municipalities from 2016 to 2021.