New directions: How can we accelerate youth participation through participatory budgeting?

The role of young people as independent actors in their own right, able to define and become architects of their own future has changed over the years. Left to choose themselves young people in Europe want to participate. Many tools for youth participation already exist.

In our previous blogs we looked at formal education and different models of pedagogy, at youth work in communities, and the impact of youth led direct democracy, including the issues around leveraging social media in positive ways.

In our most recent blog we looked at approaches such as hackathons, cultural exchanges, sortition and so forth as means to promote the rights (and the responsibilities) of young people and how they offer new ways young people might shape and influence their world. And their present day school, neighbourhood or city as well. Young people don’t perceive themselves as future citizens. Arguably that is simply what adults tell them they are, as a way to put off the full potential of youth power to another later time.

In fact, in light of the way young people are engaging in direct democracy, the challenge may better be framed as;

‘to bring greater impact, how might we help young people channel their appetite for participation’?

Impact, in this case, meaning deploying types of participation and learning that lead to lasting change, to the benefit of young people and wider society.

Participatory Budgeting, and in particular its use in schools and within informal youth work settings offers a way for young people to express their citizenship and get greater access to real resources and real power.

As former Vancouver chief city planner Brent Toderian once commented:

“Remember, the truth about a city’s aspirations isn’t found in its vision. It’s found in its budget.”

Replace the word city with school, or community, and we see how money matters, whatever the setting. Participatory budgeting’s unique focus on democratic resource distribution ensures that when placed in both formal or informal spaces used by young people, and when structured to enable their participation and learning, the decisions are youth-led and impactful, as shown in our many case studies.

Taking the next step, and combining participatory budgeting with other processes, such as legislative theatre, or deliberative citizen assemblies can add additional legitimacy and depth to the work of educators and youth workers and enable more young people find the power in hearing the echo of their own voice.

Photo by TienDat Nguyen on Unsplash

New directions: Innovative models of youth engagement in Europe and beyond

The role of young people as independent actors in their own right, able to define and become architects of their own future has changed over the years. In our previous three blogs we looked at formal educational settings, informal youth work and direct democracy. In this fourth blog we look at how democracy, problem solving approaches and youth empowerment has crossed over, and in our final blog we will explore their links with participatory budgeting

Participation 2.0:

Over 60 different models of participation, both adult and youth focussed, spanning some 30 years or more was outline in a recent blog by Sally Hussey. One model particular to youth work that is getting increased interest, particularly in a European context, are initiatives that bring young people from different contexts together to talk through common challenges and see themselves as ‘citizens in common’ with others. Many are being funded by the European Union, or run through various foundations. One such example being “Turn On Youth Participation 2.0”. In one of their blogs they say:

A young person, participating in youth associations of any kind, in groups, learns skills and assumes responsibilities that will be useful for their future and for the development of the community in which they live.”

As far back as 2001 the European Commission White Paper on Youth was promoting the concept of ‘No Democracy without Participation.’ Intercultural learning and the promoting of ‘Youth in Action’ was central to many policies and funding streams, especially for linking core European countries (where a democratic culture was perceived to be strong) with newer member states of the EU.

Hackathons and collaborative design.

Design sprints, or other short, energetic processes to solve problems have become common. Often taking inspiration from concepts of business entrepreneurship and computer programming, people are forming into teams to address issues in a collaborative way. Enabled by new digital connections, and spurred by the Covid 19 pandemic a wide range of hackathons are listed on the EU sponsored Digital Response to Covid19 website.

Within school settings, especially to develop science and technology skills, hackathons have become increasingly commonplace, with a well structured format, and games, tools and resources such as the ‘hackathon for schools’ website from the UK.

The principle being to build upon the interests that young people already have, and let their desire to explore lead their learning through problem posing, rather than communicate knowledge from teachers in a ‘banking’ model of education critiqued by Paolo Freire.

Legislative Theatre for creative learning

Alongside a whole range of creative approaches to involving young people, as part of our project we connected to Legislative Theatre. Though not directly participatory budgeting it is a complimentary practice, one significantly also rooted in the homeland of Paolo Freire, as it evolved directly from the work of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

Pioneered by practitioners such as Katy Rubin, who founded TONYC’s legislative theatre method, it is increasingly been used in Europe and beyond. In our project we had the privilege to host a Legislative Theatre workshop delivered by Katy Rubin.

The use of creative methodologies like these, using theatre or other creative learning approaches and the use of informed deliberation has much to offer young people.

Deliberative policy making

In 2019 over 150 young people in Ireland held a youth assembly on climate change, which met in the Irish national parliament’s debating chamber. In Australia in 2021 there will be a youth climate assembly aiming to take the voice of young people to the COP26 International Climate Conference in Glasgow. On a global scale there is a plan for a 1000 strong citizens’ assembly to focus attention on climate change aimed at the same conference.

Through the use of Sortition, a method for ensuring diversity of participation that sits at the heart of deliberative processes like citizens’ assemblies, the voice of young people will be guaranteed. As long ago as 2014 the Youth Parliament of Belgium proposed Sortition as an effective democratic innovation.

Globally, 16% of the world population is aged between 15 and 24. This represents a huge untapped resource. In a global citizens assembly of 1000 people the use of Sortition guarantees at least 160 of those participants will be in the 15-24 age group.

In our final blog we will link these themes back into our work in the PB youth Accelerator project

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

New directions: Democracy: A dangerous tool in the hands of young people?

The role of young people as independent actors in their own right, able to define and become architects of their own future has changed over the years. In our previous two blogs we looked at the evolution of empowering institutions and informal education. In this one we look at what happens when young people act themselves, such as in the school strikes for climate.

Frustrated by the slow pace of adult action on the emergency of climate change Greta Thunberg’s now famous schools strike for climate has spawned a wave of similar actions by young people. Some adults contest that Thunberg has been manipulated into becoming a symbol within a wider climate activism movement. That probably does the impact of seeing other young people in active ‘rebellion’ less credit than it deserves. In an opinion piece by two UK academics in the Guardian newspaper the writers say:

“We risk losing credibility with young people if we cannot take action in support of the defining cause of their generation”

In the USA data shows that by 2018 young people, (ages 18-24) are three times as likely to have attended a demonstration or march than in 2016. Similar increases in the use of e-petition websites by young people have been seen. Social media and the internet has changed how young people engage with democracy. The role of social media, whilst sometimes a concern in the way it amplifies ‘fake news’ and creates echo chambers has undoubtedly replaced more formal spaces for democratic youth engagement.

“Social media especially allows for young people to easily support, promote, and engage in causes of interest”

This quote, from the USA based ‘Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement’, which focuses on democratic youth engagement, shows the global impact of new civic spaces, where young people take part in civic and democratic life.

Even despite Covid19 the 2020 #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations swept across the globe, and looking further back the Arab Spring has been credited as the first globalised demonstration orchestrated on social media, with hackers playing a crucial role in keeping open online connections. In a 2011 report from the University of Washington, during the week before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation the total rate of tweets from Egypt — and around the world — about political change in that country ballooned from 2,300 a day to 230,000 a day.

Whilst direct action doesn’t always lead to positive regime change, what is true is that a representative democratic culture no longer inspires young people. The internet has played a significant role in that, as it means young people become exposed to its ever more diverse messages, and sense their own agency through identifying with role models and influencers. In our final blog we look at more structured (and often more democratic) methods of youth engagement, linking them back to our work on participatory budgeting.

New directions: Informal Education and Youth Work

The role of young people as independent actors in their own right, able to define and become architects of their own future has changed over the years. In our previous blog ( we looked at how institutions shape children, and whether education might evolve to be more empowering through taking a problem solving approach such as participatory budgeting.

In less formal settings we have seen a matching evolution in ‘youth work’. One that often started in faith based positive activities for young people, but which has evolved a rights based approach in recent years. We owe a significant debt in this transition to the Ladder of Participation, first identified by Sherry Arnstein.

In Roger Harts 1992 youth ‘ladder of participation’:

The bottom three rungs, which are labelled as manipulation, decoration and tokenism, are identified as ‘non-participation’.

The top five rungs… represent the higher and presumably more desirable levels of participation (from Cahill and Dadvand 2018)

Whilst not meant to offer a route-map, but rather stimulate dialogue on the possibility of youth led action it spurred others to propose new models. Less hierarchical models considered domains or ‘degrees of participation’. Linking together participation with empowerment led others to talk of ‘pathways to participation’.

The conceptualisation continues, with an increasing focus on the mutual benefits to both adults and young people through shared control, (rather than conceiving power as being handed from one to the other.)

Leading finally towards a ‘pedagogical political participation’ model, where decision making power is progressively handed over to young people’s independent control. Cahill’s paper on reconceptualising youth participation goes into all these in greater depth.

Questions remain, some already identified by Paulo Freire; does participation, as a planned process, always lead to better outcomes? Will social justice be the inevitable result of participation? Might ‘empowering’ young people through their participation simply replicate existing cultural, economic or social inequality?

These questions are relevant to the Youth PB accelerator project. We believe that PB is a useful approach to talking about young people’s agency, voice and empowerment. But that any PB process needs to be based in values, youth rights and in good practice.

Nevertheless, whether adults like it or not, young people are taking the initiative. In formal ways, supported by adults, or sometimes on their own initiative.

In our next two blogs on the evolution of youth empowerment we look at a range of practices, which range from direct democracy to structured forms of deliberation, and finish this series with our last blog by linking back into participatory budgeting.

New directions: Evolutions in youth participation

The role of young people as independent actors in their own right, able to define and become architects of their future has changed over the years. In thinking this through, from an adult perspective, we might look back and reflect on how the concept of youth participation has evolved over the decades since the student led protest movements of the 1960s and the first Summer of Love. Much has changed. 

The most obvious change has been a shift from a world where children were seen as naturally the subjects of adult power to more empowering ideas of youth autonomy, leadership and agency. 

It is also here we enter into the territory of youth culture and youth voice, of rights and freedoms, and even rebellion. In this series of blogs Jez Hall considers the evolution of youth participation. 

The institutions that form the child

There are two fundamental institutions, structured largely by adults, which we need to acknowledge. Firstly, the family, with its ‘natural’ hierarchies and roles. Where parents first create children and then model them in their own image. Nurture them, love them, raise them well hopefully. But also impose upon them by shaping them in their own image.

The other great institution within young people’s lives are their schools. Education is rightly seen as an essential pathway towards independence, economic benefits and maturity. But arguably there are two fundamentally different forms of pedagogy that inform how they operate. One which might be crudely called the ‘banking model’, where schools fill young people with useful knowledge, get them to practice in order to pass exams and along the way shape ‘school appropriate’ behaviours. 

On the other hand, in the ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the famous Brazilian thinker Paolo Freire argued that schools should become spaces for liberation through problem posing. The impact of Freirean ideas on education has been profound, but not universal. Few schools teach radical liberation. However might participatory budgeting reflects a more empowering approach to education. A problem posing process of spending real money, where children and young people can exercise responsibility, and shape their learning based upon principles of the rights of the child.

The concept of an empowering school is not a new one. The Scottish Improvement Hub uses a model that shows how many sectors need to work together to improve children and young people’s outcomes. Education and growth is about more than teachers. However progress towards liberated, empowered education is not always easy, as identified by Tony Lawson, a senior lecturer in Education in a 2011 article:

Government educational policy increasingly has defined the structural contexts of education, the content of the curriculum and the practices of pedagogies in the classroom.

In our next blog we explore how similar ideas have evolved in informal education.

Photo by Sophia H. Gue on Unsplash