Through an agreement with the Stanford Social Innovation Review, PND is pleased to be able to offer a series of articles and profiles related to the "business" of improving society.

Co-Designing Better Futures With Citizens

Co-Designing Better Futures With Citizens

In many countries, the dialogue between citizens and the ruling class is dysfunctional — if it exists at all. At best, citizens' influence is limited to their vote and street protests. Otherwise, they are relegated to being mere spectators of a game from which they feel and are excluded.

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that populist leaders have recently won national elections in Turkey, the United States, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and other countries. More often than not, these leaders have relied on fear-based rhetoric and scapegoated minority communities. Unfortunately, the increased pace of news cycles and the rise of social media favors superficiality and sensationalism over in-depth exploration and open debate of complex questions.

The challenge democratic politicians face today is to reengage with citizens in a constructive and meaningful dialogue that allows nuanced views to emerge, translates into tangible action from policy makers, and produces positive outcomes in people's lives. By opening space for public discussion where people can feel they are heard and respected, democratic societies can achieve better results while restoring trust in institutions and a sense of belonging within communities that are in danger of failing.

Many nonprofit organizations are exploring participatory democracy around the world. Through my consultancy, Openfield, which specializes in cross-sectoral collaboration and systemic change, I have advised several such efforts. They illustrate how countries can renew democracy and channel the tide of populist anger to achieve better outcomes.

Three Initiatives

Let’s look at three participatory democratic initiatives to see how they work.

Singapore | In 2011, Singaporeans became increasingly dissatisfied with rising inequality, rapid demographic transformation, and infrastructural strain in a crowded city. The general election that year yielded the worst result for the incumbent party since the city-state had achieved independence. The next year, the government launched Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) with three goals: identify solutions that could be implemented quickly; regain the trust of Singaporeans by encouraging their participation in civic life; and rebuild a unifying national narrative for an increasingly individualistic society.

The government ran the initiative via an OSC secretariat but designed and facilitated it so that citizens and communities could take ownership. The process began with a representative survey of 4,000 Singaporeans to identify problems that merited a larger public conversation. Next, more than 47,000 people participated in 660 community events across the country, and the conversation was extended online through extensive use of social media platforms and overseas with the active help of Singapore's diplomatic network.

The first phase of the process was open-ended and aimed to surface diverse views and ideas over five months. In a second stage, the conversations were structured around five broad aspirations — opportunities, purpose, assurance, spirit, and trust — and clustered into twelve themes to channel more focused and solution-oriented conversations.

The process culminated with the government launching quite ambitious policy changes in three areas: housing (for example, greater access to financial support for first-time buyers), health care (including universal and lifelong medical coverage), and education (including the redesign of its performance measurement framework). Not least, the initiative helped to restore trust in government and strengthened social capital within the country by fostering greater dialogue and empathy.

New Zealand | In 2018, the New Zealand minister for education decided to launch an overhaul of the country's education system, with a focus on the government's priorities around social justice and equity. The ministry of education believed, however, that the foundation for the new system should be designed by citizens and communities. The result was Ko¯rero Ma¯tauranga (Education Conversation), a year-long series of participatory activities aimed at engaging citizens from all walks of life.

To that end, the ministry team created a broad variety of options. Altogether, around forty-five thousand people contributed, first through an online questionnaire and then through hundreds of small, medium, and large events organized by and/or for communities.

The initial framing of the effort focused on long-term aspirations under rubrics such as "ways of learning," "ways of teaching," and "living self-fulfilling lives." The intent was to challenge conventional thinking and uncover the diversity of perspectives and experiences around complex topics before rushing to solutions. In the second stage, the conversation moved into more targeted consultation and co-design sessions on specific topics.

The level of participation on- and offline was unprecedented. Hundreds of ad hoc initiatives emerged out of the process and led to the formulation of a new vision for the educational system as a whole and new ideas for its ongoing programs, including reforms of vocational education, reviews of various curricula and  exams, strategies for tertiary education, and early-learning initiatives. As the reforms moved from the listening stage to program design, the minister vowed to systematize co-design for education policy making in the future.

France | In late 2018, the French people rose up in massive and sometimes violent protests against what they considered an unfair system that favored the wealthiest. Not even €10 billion ($11.15 billion) in social measures promised by the government soothed the anger of the so-called yellow vest movement (Mouvement des gilets jaunes). So the government decided to launch a "Great Debate" (Grand Débat) with the aim of creating an open space where the French people could air their frustrations and aspirations, and to tease out the issues behind many of the protesters' slogans.

To that end, the government created a digital platform to facilitate the organization of community-led events and collect input from citizens. The debates covered four themes: tax and public spending; ecological transition; democracy and citizenship; and institutions and public services. Citizens could express themselves through relatively closed-ended questionnaires (one per theme), through open contributions that everyone could comment on and respond to, and/or by uploading the minutes of the community events they organized. Some members of government and Parliament joined local debates.

In just two months, the French people responded with more than 1.9 million contributions and held more than ten thousand community meetings, both in France and abroad (for expatriates). To analyze the vast amount of data produced, the government hired two firms, with the entire process supervised by a trans-partisan ethics committee comprising five members independent from the government and recognized for their public engagement. The committee acted as custodians of the process and didn't hesitate to criticize the government when officials interfered in the conversations.

The government then reported back to the nation on what it had heard and what it had decided to do with the feedback. Some ideas were put aside deliberately — for example, mandatory voting — while others were allowed to move forward. They included greater authority and autonomy for local government; the creation of a citizen assembly for climate and biodiversity; easier access to citizen-driven referendums; and targeted tax cuts for some low-income groups.


From my experience with the three initiatives, I would suggest that there are four lessons for establishing the conditions needed for a successful participatory democracy initiative.

First, create a genuine opportunity for participants to engage in the process and influence outcomes. Randomly selected groups of citizens are in many ways wiser and more focused on the common good than activists and interest groups. Bypass intermediaries and establish direct dialogue with citizens to hear their unfiltered views. Ask them open-ended questions or give them problems to solve rather than solutions to provide feedback on.

Demonstrate genuine openness about the outcome from the beginning and make upfront commitments about implementation. While political leaders may find the effort risky, relinquishing control is a condition for achieving trust in the process.

Second, create a context for the conversation and let the public take ownership of it. Begin by establishing a clear purpose for the exercise. Set a limited number of engagement principles while remaining open about the journey; be ready to learn on the fly and adapt to the public response. Create a loose framework to structure and support the conversation but leave enough space and freedom for people to take ownership and surface what matters most to them. Throughout the dialogue phase, resist the temptation to control the conversation; just step back and listen.

Third, make it easy to engage. Create a safe and transparent space for dialogue where people feel comfortable expressing themselves authentically, even on issues they may find painful to discuss. Success depends on a collective ability to acknowledge and empathize with different points of view. Create mechanisms to show participants that they are being genuinely heard and respected.

Set up a publicly accessible digital platform to facilitate contributions at scale, and prepare to analyze the large amounts of data it produces. But make sure to balance online channels with an offline, community-driven series of events to allow for deeper and more meaningful contributions from across the country.

Fourth, turn outcomes into results. Translate conclusions into decisions, projects, experimentations, and/or policies. In your communication, create a clear line between the co-design process and follow-up actions so that people can connect their contribution to the final outcome.

In all the cases I've worked on or come across, I have found that a transparent and authentic co-design process has benefited all involved. Moreover, the solutions that have emerged from such processes have been, on the whole, reasonable, pragmatic, grounded in common sense, and understood and owned by participants. Citizens who participated in the process also developed renewed trust in their elected representatives and increased engagement in the community as they felt listened to, valued, and respected. To restore democratic vitality worldwide, we should further the full participation of all citizens in these and other ways.

Philippe Coullomb is CEO and co-founder of Openfield, a consultancy that helps leaders from across sectors deal with complexity and achieve their boldest ambition from vision to execution. He is also co-author of Collaboration by Design.