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MEANINGFUL PARTICIPATION: CRITICAL TO THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Futurist and Founder of the School of International Futures, Cat Tully, shares why meaningful participation is so critical to the future of democracy and to social change.
Image source: Shutterstock

How do you ensure that citizens of any given country, state, county or city are heard?

How do we ensure their participation in the future of our world, especially our young people, who will inherit our world in the decades to come?

How do we make sure that no one is left behind? And how do we do our part, as good ancestors, to set the foundation for a better future for future generations?

In an increasingly polarized world, it’s…well…complicated.


Can merely showing up once a year to vote for a slate of candidates cut it anymore? As we face a slew of complex issues, from climate change to the rising cost of living to gender and racial equity to a renewed fear of nuclear war -- just to name a few -- a new model is needed that calls for a higher degree of participation in civic life. This is the premise of meaningful participation, a global movement that policy makers around the world are exploring to ensure that policies are fair and responsible for generations to come.


It’s here, at the intersection of democracy and foresight, that Cat Tully, futurist and founder of the School of International Futures (SOIF) is seeking a new vision for our world – a better, more fair, more sustainable world for both current and future generations. It’s a vision embraced within the SOIF mission: As a values-led organization, SOIF empowers people to use participatory futures and foresight to drive societal transformation through their organizations, communities, and countries.


“It stands to reason,” said Tully, who serves as managing director of SOIF, “that if we want the future of the world -- the future of any particular country -- to reflect the values of people, that we would ask them. That means asking the youngest generation, not just the older folks making all of the decisions today, but the people who will be making the decisions tomorrow. That’s where we start.”


Image: Cat Tully, futurist and founder of the School of International Futures (SOIF)

For example, noted Tully, at COP 27, young people’s perspectives about the future should be reflected. Tully is especially proud that the Next Generation Foresight Practitioners (NGFP) is hosting a participatory workshop at the Children & Youth Pavilion at COP27 to explore probable futures in the climate and energy space. The NGFP will use SOIF’s intergenerational fairness assessment, to create a genuinely meaningful way to assist young people in setting an agenda, holding decision-makers to account, and operationalizing their stated commitment to future generations.


Prior to forming SOIF, Tully served as Strategy Project Director at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Senior Policy Adviser in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Before working in government, she worked in strategy and international relations across the not-for-profit and business sectors, including Christian Aid, Procter and Gamble.


In addition, Tully is a global board member of Academics Stand Against Poverty and a member of the United Nations Learning Advisory Council for the 2030 Agenda. She is a non-resident fellow at the US Government Accountability Office’s Centre for Strategic Foresight, and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Chilean Council of Foresight and Strategy. Tully founded SOIF ten years ago with the intent of helping policy makers and business leaders improve the present and the future by using foresight and futures methods to make better strategic choices about the future, to improve the quality of their innovation, and make their organizations more resilient by better understanding and managing risk.



“We help to build the capability to make organizations future-ready,” she said. “And we also build networks of practitioners to create the capacity to build better futures.”


UNDERSTANDING MEANINGFUL PARTICIPATION

COP 26 - Future youth march, Glasgow, UK Image source: Shutterstock

Over the course of the past 10 years, Tully says the phrase “meaningful participation” has been gaining increased interest from a wide number of groups, from philanthropists to policy makers to corporations, such as the Unlock the Future Coalition, OECD/OPSI participatory youth and intergenerational fairness, and the UNSG Our Common Agenda.


Involving more people, more authentically and more deeply in policy decisions is at the heart of this global movement. But as a new generation – Generation Z – enters adulthood and becomes involved, the movement is taking on a new vibrancy.


“The legacy structures that Generation Z is inheriting are potentially less than any generation beforehand,” said Tully, “where there has always been a kind of incremental development, growth and optimism, Generation Z is right to be questioning the status quo, and is therefore, more politically active.”


According to Tully, legislators, philanthropic organizations, and corporations say they want to get young people involved in the process, but the reality is that many of these same organizations only want to hear “comfortable things.”


“There is all sorts of evidence that poor engagement is worse than no engagement, Tully said. “It creates a legacy of distrust.”


So, the transformational potential that comes from participation and engagement doesn’t actually happen unless it’s meaningful, stresses Tully.


WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE MEANINGFUL?

The first step toward establishing meaningful participation is to create participative processes. Whether that’s dialogues around sustainable development goals, or community conversations in thinking about the future of a city or a town, or having national conversations, such as citizen assemblies, around important issues affecting an entire population.


While bringing people together to talk is important, the other part of the equation may be more critical – conducting conversations “in a meaningful way in order to achieve both legitimacy and transformative quality insights that allows people to get to new ideas and actually get to mandates to operate,” said Tully, who cites the work of the Finland parliament’s Committee for the Future, which is “actually engaging with the Finnish population.”


Part of the problem in engaging with citizens in a more meaningful way may be the aging structures that some representative democracies continue to rely upon. “There’s a real sense that representative democracy has run out of road,” said Tully. “It’s kind of done an 80-year cycle and needs some serious refreshing and renewal. Connecting representative structures to deliberative democracy seems to be a key form of renewal. And harnessing meaningful participation is a part of each.”


LEVERAGING FORESIGHT

Tully and other members of SOIF believe that foresight can play a critical role in how organizations develop meaningful participation with their constituents. But she cautions that it’s not about presenting a handful of scenarios or simply putting aside some money and time to think about the future. Rather, the use of foresight needs to be just as authentic and meaningful as the entire process.


“We’re taking people on a process of transformation,” said Tully. “The reason why futures and foresight is so important is because the people at the top of an organization are the people who may be least able, at the end of the day, to understand how the world is going to be different at a time of turbulence because they are vested in the status quo.”


“The value of foresight is it gives a systematic way of bringing evidence about the future to policymakers, in particular, and politicians.” Tully added. “It can validate useful, influential insights, material and input from citizens who are otherwise discounted as being not expert, not valuable, or not having the professionally valid experience.”


But Tully notes that to goes beyond that. “Foresight can build the legitimacy of less influential and less valued voices.”


Again, Tully points to young people, who are often not valued for their insights. “Generations Z, Alpha and the upcoming Beta are going to be the leaders of the future. They’re going to be inheriting that shit show in 20-years-time. So, their view and participation in conversations on what NOVEMBER 2022 COMPASS 43 the world’s going to look like in 20 years is extremely important.”


The key, she notes, is building a vocabulary that helps people understand the paradigm shifts, the challenges, and the new processes that will be needed to make change. One of the tools she uses is the Three Horizons Framework, developed by futurist Bill Sharpe, as a practical tool in building meaningful participation.


Image source: Canva


“As E.F. Schumacher said: We’re midwives to the new and hospice caregivers to the old,” Tully said. “It’s about weaving different stakeholders both intergenerationally young and old into a coalition of change, enabling them to connect and understand each other, and despite their current differences in vocabulary and change, help them collectively envision a desired future.”





STEWARDS OF THE FUTURE

Tully observes the reason that foresight and policymaking are so interesting together is that they’re both, fundamentally, about power. It’s about who’s creating a desired future. Who’s in that future and who’s not. And what resources will be applied, and how much.


“I think foresight has a lot to contribute to policymaking,” Tully said. “Power naturally waxes and wanes between different communities in ways that are not predictable but are systematic. You can apply reasoned analysis to this process and capture the underlying assumptions about how, for example, technology might impact equality, housing, and democracy. So, if we can encourage civil servants to think of themselves as stewards of the future, rather than directors of the future, I think that would be really powerful.”


Embedded within her thinking about meaningful participation is the element of action – transforming participation, conversation, ideas and consensus building into real, tangible action.


“The ability of a community to come together to explore their own collaborative futures is a deeply politically empowering act,” said Tully. “It’s not only about imagining a better future, but it’s also about shaping it AND being prepared for alternative futures.”


In these turbulent times, Tully believes that democratic institutions and processes at the federal or national level of representative democracies is becoming more and more distant to the lived experiences of their people. “People are looking for other solutions to express themselves,” said Tully. “And that’s why I think efforts at the state and local community level are becoming much more important. That’s where I think the next generation of democratic activity is going to happen.”


“I have a lot of hope for our younger people,” added Tully. “They’re excited about their futures, but they’re also really scared about their futures, too.”


ADDITIONAL READING

If you’d like to learn more about meaningful participation, Tully recommends the following resources:


 

Stephen Dupont

Stephen Dupont (he/him), APR, Fellow PRSA, serves as the editor of Compass, a quarterly magazine published by the Association of Professional Futurists (APF). In addition, Dupont is vice president of public relations for the Minneapolis creative firm Pocket Hercules and is a frequent writer and speaker focusing on the intersection of foresight and communications. He is seeking his master’s degree in foresight from the University of Houston.

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