Engaging through a mist of distrust

Andy Williamson and Involve's Ingrid Prikken in Kyiv (Feb 13)

Andy Williamson and Involve’s Ingrid Prikken in Kyiv (Feb 13)

History can cause us problems in the present. My recent trip to the Ukraine was, like much of my work, about strengthening democracy. In this instance, working with civil society organisations to explore new ways that citizens can feel part of a democratic process that is, largely, lost to them. Easier said than done when everything in your history tells you it’s impossible. It’s like supporting a fragile flower so that one day it might have the chance to bloom. It’s about potential. And that takes a lot of belief.

Ukraine has a problem with political elites. Specifically, it has a problem with cronyism and corruption. People simply do not believe politicians of any persuasion are in it for the public good. Worse, most do not believe that anything they can do will change the situation. Add to that a traditional reticence to join up and put your name to a campaign and a genuine fear of the serious consequences for yourself and your family if you do. It hardly makes Ukraine fertile soil for grass-roots empowerment.

Let’s not be complacent here. In mature democracies we have been suffering from a similar crisis of trust for many years. And it’s getting worse. The British public hardly believes it has any influence and this is reflected in a wide range of falling indicators, from trust in politicians, through to democratic participation and voting. Our political class resemble an elite private club. Over one third were independently educated, the same number went to Oxbridge. Ninety percent went to university and almost 40% come from careers in the political sector. Our representatives are hardly representative and people are starting to notice.

Yet, perhaps that is all the more reason why new models of citizen engagement are needed. It’s certainly clear that change is unlikely to come from the centre, what chance then that it can eventually come from the edges?

Accepting that there’s a steep hill to climb, what strategies might work in building a campaign for citizen engagement and, ultimately, in building trust where little, if any, exists? Here are some reflections from a week in Kyiv:

You need passion, but passion can overwhelm people who instinctively distrust systems:

  • You need a strong vision.
  • But you have to move slowly, taking the time to build profile and credibility.
  • You must allay people’s genuine fears by being completely transparent about everything, including people and funding.
  • Distrust is often borne out of historical context, so frame what you are doing in terms of future value.
  • Close the circle by listening, sharing, reflecting and, above all, acting.

It’s about collaboration:

  • Frame your key messages for different audiences but remain authentic to your vision.
  • Build partnerships and trust your networks, empower them to act so they can carry the message forward in their own way.
  • It’s about viral too.
  • Be prepared to engage in a lot of debate with a lot of people.
  • Share and aggregate to keep the network active, alive and resourced.

It’s not about online or offline:

  • Effective engagement requires a blend of on- and offline to maximise impact and to build a sustainable network (and weak ties).
  • Offline offers richness and depth, online more reach and flexibility.
  • Online is a distribution channel to offline hubs.
  • Mobile is increasingly important.

Be in it for the long haul:

  • Trust is built through consistent action over time.
  • You have to give people a reason to trust you, especially when it’s easier not too.
  • Always act with integrity (and see ‘transparency’ above).
  • People might attack your cause if you are succeeding, but engaging with them distracts from your focus, detracts from your message and fuels their fire.

The road to engagement is neither straight nor clearly marked and, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.”

Now, did I write all of this for the Ukraine or the UK… or both?

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