Active Citizenship

“We are social creatures, our behaviours are shaped and constrained by social norms and expectations. Negotiating change is best pursued at the level of groups and communities. Social support is particularly vital in breaking habits, and in devising new social norms and more sustainable patterns of consumption. Government can play a vital role in nurturing and supporting community based social change.”

Motivating Sustainable Consumption, Professor Tim Jackson, University of Surrey

‘Civil participation, even for fun, is socially valuable in its own right. It contributes to wider goals of social inclusion and solidarity, whether or not it leads to political engagement. It is through voluntary associations in civil society that social capital is generated and mobilised, strengthening relationships between citizens, developing a sense of connectedness and fostering norms of trust and reciprocity.’

National Council for Voluntary Organisations Civil renewal and active citizenship: a guide to the debate in 2005

There is an extensive discourse on Active Citizenship, the history of which can be traced back at least as far as ancient Greece. Exploring the origins and meaning of the concept, particularly in relation to young people, the Europe Region of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (Europe Region WAGGGS) and the European Scout Region observed that

It can be argued that the concept of active citizenship was first borne in the city-states of ancient Greece, when the status of “citizen” differentiated free men from slaves and guaranteed certain rights and responsibilities. These privileges and duties included participating in the government of the city-state where authority to govern came from those who had been designated “citizens”. Citizenship therefore came to be seen as the state of being a member of a particular country and having rights because of it. However, as it has developed over the years citizenship has become more than a formal relationship between an individual and the state. Citizenship has also come to mean the character of an individual viewed as a member of society, belonging to a community of shared values and mutual identity.

Mindful of the growing sense of alienation and disengagement amongst a growing section of society, particularly the young, from established political processes and institutions and processes, the paper cites a number of sources to explain this trend, for example the European Commission’s White Paper “A New Impetus for European Youth ” (2001) :

It has become a frequent point of discussion among decision-makers at European and national level over the last few years that the numbers of young people involved in the traditional structures of society is declining. It has been argued that young people feel representative institutions are out-of-touch and not accessible to them, particularly individuals from marginalised or disadvantaged backgrounds, and that young people overall are less ready to participate in the traditional political and representative structures.

The paper goes on to explain some possible reasons for this, citing a Youth Forum Position Paper of April 2002  “Lifewide Learning for Active Citizenship European”

Many reasons have been proposed as to why such a decline is taking place: the rapid pace of social; economic and political change has led to the breakdown of traditional communities; young people no longer have a sense of belonging to one distinct community but develop relationships which are more fluid and transitory; or that people have become more individualist and no longer have the time to spend on community activities.

Finally, the paper observes that youth participation in the ‘democratic system’ is declining :

only 4% of young Europeans think that political parties are the most important structures to encourage the active participation of young people in society. In addition, for many individuals, voting in elections is often not enough to make them feel that they are having an effect on government decision-making processes.

However, invoking the European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life, the paper concludes that

What is true is that without active citizens, society as we know it would not exist and the active participation of young people in decisions and actions at local and regional level is essential if we want to build more democratic, inclusive and prosperous societies.

However, a broader perspective and analysis of perspectives on active citizenship is provided by Take Part – an initiative supported by the Department for Communities and Local Government and The Learning and Skills Council to promote the Together We Can campaign to enable more people to work with public bodies and the decisions about local services. Take Part seeks to provide programmes of active learning that enable people to gain the skills, knowledge and confidence to become empowered citizens – citizens who are able to make an active contribution to their communities and influence public policies and services.

In their paper “The national framework for active learning for active citizenship”, Take Part undertake a thorough and comprehensive analysis of the need for experiential informal education projects to develop active citizenship and civil renewal.

Active citizenship is concerned with more than learning ‘the rules of the game’, and how to participate within existing models and structures. From Take Part’s perspective, active citizenship should be defined more broadly to encompass active learning for political literacy and empowerment, addressing structures and relations of power and working to change these, where necessary, in the pursuit of social inclusion and social justice agendas (Lister 1997). It also relates to how people can promote community cohesion and social solidarity, thereby strengthening civil society as well as empowering individual citizens.

‘Civil renewal’ is about people and government working together to make life better. It involves more people being able to influence decisions about their communities, and more people taking responsibility for tackling local problems, rather than expecting others to. The idea is that government can’t solve everything by itself, and nor can the community: it’s better when we work together. There are three key ingredients to civil renewal:

1. Active citizens: people with the motivation, skills and groups with the capability and resources to bring people together to work out shared solutions.

2. Strengthened communities: community groups with the capability and resources to bring people together to work out shared solutions.

3. Partnership with public bodies: public bodies willing and able to work as partners with local people.’

A broad agenda for civil renewal is needed, which recognises the autonomy of civil society and highlights the importance of building connections within and between communities as well as with government: strengthening civil society must be an end in itself as well as a means of achieving other ends.

Take Part are emphatic in advocating the principles of social justice, a term some might find overly political, but when defined in the appropriate terms, can be understood to be an integral component of a modern liberal democracy, citing A Theory of Justice by John Rawls :

Social justice is about changing systems and shaping cultures in a way that will guarantee full citizenship, creating ‘a just and fair society with freedom and equal opportunities for all in terms of: liberty, opportunity, income, wealth and self-respect.

Furthermore, citing The Strategic Framework for Community Development :

It is about enabling people to claim their human rights: legal, political, civil, social, economic and environmental, to meet their needs and have greater control over the decision-making processes which affect their lives.

And finally, citing the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations :

The concept of social justice highlights barriers to full citizenship through inequality: restricted access to employment, goods and services; under-representation in political, economic and community decision making; marginalisation in society; segregation; direct discrimination; harassment, intimidation and violence.

To conclude, the broad aims and needs that Synergy seeks to address and meet can be effectively summarised by referring to Take Part’s three-fold approach to advancing equality and diversity, key principles that underpin Synergy’s work :

  • supporting people to challenge attitudes and behaviour of individuals, and practices of institutions that discriminate against and marginalise people;
  • making sure that barriers to attending and taking part are reduced as much as possible – so that learning opportunities are open and inclusive to those who want to take part;
  • bringing diverse groups of people together and facilitating authentic dialogue around differences and commonalities to try to reduce the perceived barriers between them.