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The Democracy Reloading trajectory has given me focus on youth participation

The Democracy Reloading programme has set a lot of things in motion in the field of youth participation at the municipality of Nijmegen. Thanks to the continuous attention youth policy officer Lieke Peeters has given to the subject ever since; she has created renewed attention and support among young people, colleagues, schools, and other stakeholders. As a result, people now know where to find her for support and cooperation. 

Impact of youth participation in policy 

Lieke: “As the municipality of Nijmegen, we were already implementing youth participation, as agreed in the coalition agreement. We have an externally coordinated children’s council, youth council, youth lab, student officials we employ, and an enthusiastic alderman, Cilia Daemen. The problem was that we experienced distance from these initiatives and had little influence on the issues being discussed. Our policy needed to reflect the voice of young people sufficiently. So, our learning question during the Democracy Reloading (DR) project was: How can we increase the impact of youth participation in our policy and make it sustainable?

Mission: make activities more visible, strengthen and connect them.

We started with the Quick Scan (developed in the Dutch Democracy Reloading trajectory) of our Youth and Family Department. The research showed there was support for youth participation among the 25 colleagues, but the ‘how’ raised some barriers. As a next step, the so-called experiment during the trajectory, we started talking to all stakeholders about participation and distance from the municipality. An intern interviewed 300 young people, researched literature, and contacted other municipalities. I started talking to the children’s council, the youth council and student officials.

Young people expressed a desire to know what happens to their advice. And what the final result is. So there is a responsibility there for us to provide sufficient follow up to them.

Furthermore, they said: ‘Come over and visit us too!’ So visit us at school and the community centre, and not just through the formal system of meetings and calls.

Moreover, the research taught us more about what each partner in the field does. And how this relates to each other. Another side effect was that the alderman and the Youth Department knew exactly what was happening through the meetings. Young people and schools also realised their participation is important thanks to the meetings.

Soon, we understood our lesson, and with it our mission: to make all existing activities and advice gained visible, strengthen them and connect them. So that colleagues, young people and involved partners alike know where they can hitch on.

The solution: not one big step but many small ones

‘Looking back, it was not one big step – one designated solution – that the trajectory brought us, but rather many small steps. These are already having an effect now, but much more in two or five years. For most of the project, I pushed the issue everywhere: “You are now talking about young people; can they personally participate? This way, I pass on the awareness I have gained to others. We now receive more and more questions about youth participation and requests for support or cooperation.

‘Another step we took thanks to our greater focus on young people is the Social Service City Take Over that we brought to Nijmegen. We will likely link the Social Service Programme with youth participation. Internally, during the Democracy Reloading process, we collaborated with the civic participation department; which is yet another step: we wanted to find out if we could make joint policies on participation. As a result, youth participation was mentioned in the council information letter. This again showed that we are also working specifically with young people, apart from all the other civic participation processes.’

The youth council is consciously broadening its target group partly because of our discussions. This is thanks to the input from the facilitators and fellow council members through my participation in Democracy Reloading. As a result, I learned much better what is possible. Together with the youth council, we visited schools to collect answers. This trajectory brought about a different way of working for us.

The pathway as an incentive

‘What made the difference? The action plans I made during the Democracy Reloading meetings forced me to act and prioritize youth participation. We had this intention earlier, but it regularly got stuck. This focus allowed me to bring people close and connect them. For example, the youth council now meets regularly at the Youth Lab. This seems small, but it leads to more connections and cooperation between the two parties. Across the board, there has been more connection between youth councils, for instance. Earlier, they also talked to each other but ran outside the municipality. We can now steer more, something that developed organically.’

Valuable exchange with other municipalities

I found the programme and the exchange with other municipalities fun, engaging, and valuable, as well as learning with and from each other. For instance, I noticed that another participating municipality is already much further ahead with online forms of participation than we are. I am now investigating whether we can use their tool for this as well. It is a lovely extra effect.

Now that the learning process is over, I am looking for ways to give youth participation a permanent place in my work. The tasks in my position consist of so many more topics. The spontaneously arising plans, such as spending a day discussing equity in education with young people, are acceptable. But it is precisely the administrative part that I need to give a structural place to brief the aldermen and take the council along… Being visible in short, so that all the steps I have taken in recent months are described. These preconditions ensure that youth participation is permanently secure. And that the subject does not depend on me alone. Not to mention other departments within the municipality where there are opportunities for cooperation on youth participation. Urban development or environment, for example. To be continued!