Interview with Elisenda Ortega about the project ‘Volem Decidir!
November 14, 2023
We interviewed Elisenda Ortega, Head of the Participation Promotion Department at the Barcelona City Council. She leads the project Volem Decidir!, which is presented within the framework of the European Capital of Democracy and aims to promote children's participation in the city of Barcelona, involving children and adolescents aged 8 to 17. Her experience in various innovative processes and her commitment to participatory democracy for children and youth make her the ideal person to tell us about this initiative.
1. What is ‘Volem Decidir!’ and how does it fit into the framework of the European Capital of Democracy?
The first right of citizenship in a democracy is the right to vote, that is, the choice of political representatives. However, a large percentage of people in the city do not have this right. We are talking about non-European foreign residents who cannot vote in municipal elections and children and adolescents. Perhaps we are talking about 15-18% of the population of foreign origin without the right to vote in municipal elections and about 15% of children and adolescents aged 0 to 17.
Not having the right to vote in representative democracy does not invalidate this population from expressing opinions, participating, collaborating, and building community. All residents of Barcelona, including our children and adolescents, have the right to be heard because their current well-being depends on the political decisions made today: the possibilities of security, learning, and leisure that the city offers them. Additionally, their future depends on it, as the city being built today will be primarily their city more than ours.
Volem Decidir! is the first participatory process of the European Capital of Democracy directed at all children aged 8 to 17 in the city of Barcelona. The process aims to answer the following question: How do children want to participate in city affairs? On what issues do we want to express our opinions, and in what ways do we want to do it?
The result of the process should be the creation of new forms and spaces of participation for children and adolescents in the city, representing a qualitative advancement in their participation in public affairs, making their opinions visible to society, and having a real political impact.
2. Can you explain the objectives of this participatory process?
Firstly, it is for all citizens to understand that children and adolescents have the right to participate, to be involved in the political decisions of the city, and for the City Council to be aware of the need to listen to them and treat them as full-fledged citizens.
Secondly, it aims to empower children and adolescents to be aware of their rights and responsibilities, especially the right to participate, organize, and intervene in public affairs. Their opinion matters, and it is their right to make it heard.
Finally, the process aims to discuss how the participation of children and adolescents can be structured with consultation, opinion, and decision mechanisms that are permanent in the city. In other words, to build new forms of participation for this population that are innovative, agile, open, and democratic, and that can have a real political impact on the city council and the city.
3. How do the stages of the project work? What is the purpose of each of them?
The process is structured in different phases. In January and February 2024, workshops will be held at educational centers, facilities, and leisure organizations for children and adolescents.
The workshops are divided into 3 sessions. The first one will address the right to participate, how the city is organized, and what it means to live in a community. The other two sessions will be dynamic to provoke and gather the opinions of children and adolescents on which city issues they want to be consulted on and how they would like to express their opinions, exploring different possible participatory mechanisms.
In March and April, the centers and groups that have conducted the workshops can exchange their opinions with other groups in the agora, which will be face-to-face meetings to discuss, agree, and vote on the proposals that have more support from the children.
Through Decidim.barcelona, proposals can also be submitted, support given, comments made, participate in debates, and vote on proposals. For the first time, children aged 8 to 13 can register and actively participate in the platform with the prior consent of their legal guardians.
The proposals with the most votes or support will be formally presented to the City Council for it to commit to implementing them at the closing ceremony of the process. But this event also aims to be a festive occasion, open to the entire population, celebrating the participation of children and adolescents in the construction of the city.
However, the process will not completely end because we aim to establish a Monitoring Commission formed by its participants, whose mission is to ensure the implementation of the proposals presented to the Barcelona City Council. This way, the process continues to ensure commitment and accountability for its future fulfillment.
4. What importance does children's participation have in the design of public policies?
Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states:
"States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child."
The Citizenship Charter of Barcelona in 2010, in its Article 22, also establishes that all minors "have the right to participate in the elaboration of the city's project, and the City Council will promote experiences and spaces for citizen participation aimed at children and adolescents."
Currently, if we speak in general about Catalonia and Barcelona, the participation of Childhood and Adolescence is less important than would be desirable, although significant steps have been taken.
Barcelona has a process like "Parlen els nens i nenes" (Children Speak), led by the Institute of Childhood and Adolescence, which is now in its 2nd edition. It involves conducting a comprehensive survey of 5,000 children about their well-being, conducting workshops in schools, and preparing an Agenda where children state their demands to the City Council to improve their well-being. This Agenda will be delivered to the mayor on November 21, within the framework of the International Day of the Rights of the Child and the European Capital of Democracy.
There are other very important experiences in the city, such as the proclamation by Laia and the Ciutadania Adolescent process, which introduce children and adolescents to the right to political participation and dialogue with the city council.
The European research project Imcitizen is also being developed at two schools in Sant Martí, promoted by the University of Barcelona. This project explores, together with other cities, innovative forms of children's participation.
At the level of other cities and countries, there are very interesting experiences that could be transferred to our home and have perhaps shown to have a greater impact on public policies. For example, the Children's Parliament in Scotland or Children's Councils in numerous cities, including the National Council of Children and Adolescents of Catalonia promoted by the Generalitat. In any case, the existence of a stable participation body or mechanism, city-wide, renewed periodically, composed of children and adolescents, undoubtedly ensures the monitoring of public policies and the possibility of permanent consultation and dialogue, a mechanism that, currently, Barcelona does not have.
5. What does seeking 'democratic quality' through this project mean?
When we talk about child participation and democratic quality, it is important to consider different aspects. On the one hand, childhood and adolescence are very diverse, and we must take into account the various intersections of gender, diversity of origin, functional diversity, as well as socio-economic and territorial differences. If Barcelona is a diverse city with inequalities, its childhood is also diverse, and we must keep this in mind when designing participation to make it as diverse and representative as possible of the city's reality. The call for participation made by the project Volem Decidir! is very broad because it not only addresses educational centers but also allows participation from childhood and adolescent facilities such as community centers and toy libraries, as well as from leisure entities such as youth clubs, groups, or sports clubs. Additionally, the recent development of Decidim.barcelona allows participation from families or directly from the child, as in this process, interaction with the platform will be possible at all levels. This is a significant change in terms of openness and inclusion compared to other processes. We are also making special efforts to ensure the participation of children and adolescents from all territories and districts of the city.
On the other hand, in child participation, it is necessary to focus on the feedback and traceability of the process. We want to emphasize this because often child participation serves to create an annual image of politicians with children, but accountability and response to what has been done and what has not been done regarding children's proposals in participatory processes do not always go beyond that. The lack of feedback on the process results can create the opposite effect of what was intended, generating frustration and more disaffection among the children themselves.
The Volem Decidir! process aims to break these dynamics and ensure the commitment and feedback of the city council in implementing the proposals made by children. For this reason, we have the Decidim.barcelona platform, which will collect all the proposals made during the process and all the support and votes cast. We also have the establishment of a Children and Adolescents Commission to monitor the implementation of the proposals that are part of the final result of the process, and this can clearly be a guarantee of democratic quality.
6. How can we ensure that the voices of children are heard and that their proposals are taken into account?
Well, sometimes it's difficult, even to ensure this in participatory processes aimed at adults. There are no magical formulas or absolute guarantees, but there are several factors that help make participation real and effective.
On the one hand, the traceability of proposals on the digital platform guarantees that children's proposals are not lost or forgotten from one process to another or from one year to another. We must consider that changes in childhood are constant (child development, changes in educational center, changes in interests, territorial mobility, changes in educational references, etc.). Therefore, if the information is available online, easily accessible, and adapted to their age, children themselves can ensure that their proposals are not forgotten.
On the other hand, like any other participatory process, it is essential that there be political commitment, political will to listen to children from a non-utilitarian and non-adult-centric perspective. Additionally, there should be a certain consensus among the different political forces in the City Council. Politicians and technicians must be clear that children are citizens and have much to say, much to contribute, and that their vision is original, unique, and valuable for society as a whole. Therefore, it is necessary to listen to and always take into account their proposals.
In this sense, it is important that the technical staff of municipal and administrative participation be trained in Childhood and Adolescent Participation and be aware that this participation must be approached in a singular and specific way, different from participation aimed at adults.
But ultimately, it is the whole society that must consider children and adolescents as citizens with rights and duties. This consideration must come through the media, educational centers, entities and associations, families, and society as a whole.
Another important factor is the existence of stable participation structures that are periodically renewed but endure over time, ensuring continuity in monitoring proposals and permanent dialogue with the city council. These structures, such as Councils, Parliaments, or Assemblies of Children, must have the support and accompaniment of specialized technicians who help children express and materialize their proposals without directing or guiding them in advance but promoting their autonomy and self-organization.
One of the most interesting proposals currently being discussed in terms of child participation at the European level is to provide children with decentralized participation spaces where they can inform themselves, express opinions, make proposals, meet, and even self-organize. For example, each district could have a space for child participation where children, adolescents, and families could be interested in public affairs, get information, express opinions, and make proposals. A permanent and supported space dedicated to child participation in each district of the city that offers resources and spaces for participation.
7. Who coordinates this project, and what potential does it have in Europe?
The project is coordinated at the executive level between the Directorate of Democratic Innovation, the Directorate of Active Democracy, and the Department of Child Promotion of the Barcelona City Council. However, it has the support, reflection, and knowledge of the entire Children's Participation Motor Group, which is a very extensive group composed of professionals from different fields. In operation since 2017, it is a space for work, reflection, self-learning, and the generation of interdisciplinary knowledge among municipal administrations and departments to advance child participation.
Currently, the Children's Participation Motor Group is made up of municipal technicians from different areas and districts, the Education Consortium, the Institute of Childhood and Adolescence, and the Barcelona Public Health Agency. Additionally, it has the technical support and coordination of two professors from the University of Barcelona, experts in child participation.
The Motor Group has created various materials and proposals to advance child participation in the Barcelona City Council, including a Guide to promote child participation in municipal services and projects and a collection of experiences in child participation that have been carried out in Barcelona.
From the Motor Group, we would like to exchange experiences with other cities in Europe and establish a network of professionals at the European level with the aim of enriching and promoting child participation in cities. This is a proposal that we can present to the ECoD Network of the European Capital of Democracy to strengthen child participation through collaborative work and exchange.
The axiom we must always consider when talking about democratic participation policies from public administrations is that there is no quality participation without child participation, just as there is no quality participation if it is not inclusive, diverse, and addresses all citizens.
8. What recommendations can you make about how child participation should be?
Like all participation, it should be well-informed, starting from materials adapted and understandable for children, accompanied by dynamics or pedagogical interventions by more experienced individuals but always trying not to directly or indirectly influence children's opinions.
Child participation should make the child feel like an integral part of the community to which they belong, helping them understand that this community is governed by common norms of coexistence that provide well-being and security for everyone, and that they can participate in their construction or modification if they find them unfair.
Child participation should promote inclusion and diversity and foster intergenerational dialogue, where the child can understand the perspectives of adults, the elderly, and other people in their community. It should help them empathize and establish constructive dialogues to achieve collective well-being. Similarly, it is essential for children to feel listened to with attention and respect by the rest of society, and their proposals should be valued and justified properly, in a way that the child can understand and recognize.
It is a participation that should try to be as little directed as possible by adults, respecting the rhythms and learning of children, and promoting their maximum autonomy and self-organization. It should empower them in the knowledge of their rights and give them as much confidence as possible to exercise them constructively, in the present and in the future.
It should be an autonomous participation from adult participation but with the capacity to influence the plans and projects that truly shape the city. For example, from the Children's Participation Motor Group of the City Council, the proposal has been formulated to have a specific budget for children and youth in the next Participatory Budgets, with specific debates, projects, and votes for these age groups.
How participatory processes aimed at children and adolescents are communicated is very important because it is necessary to use channels that are specific to them and have nothing to do with adult communication channels. When we engage children and adolescents in participation, we must start from the spaces where they are (education and leisure) and use specific communication spaces such as children's information TV programs or widely used social networks among adolescents, such as TikTok.
And I want to mention something that we often forget or overlook: the participation aimed at children and adolescents should be fun, enjoyable, where they can express themselves with the tools and forms they like and are familiar with. This is why the adaptation of participation platforms to children and young people, such as Decidim.barcelona, is crucial, as it enables their participation in multiple formats such as video or podcast, with all the guarantees of respect for the privacy of their data and their safety.
9. Whom should be involved in this project, and how do you think this participation can benefit the city of Barcelona?
Many individuals and entities need to be involved. Firstly, the political representatives of the Barcelona City Council need to be involved so that they are aware that children and adolescents have a lot to say and contribute to the city. Educational institutions are another key element in the success of the process. In fact, the Ministry of Education has already incorporated the vector of Democratic, Critical, and Committed Citizenship with Global Awareness into the school curriculum as one of the aspects to work on in the life of the educational institution. The project Volem Decidir! aligns with this line of work and contributes important elements to continue addressing these issues in both primary and secondary schools.
In addition to educational institutions, the novelty of the Volem Decidir! project is that it includes the facilities and leisure entities of the city: recreation centers, play areas, youth clubs, groups, etc. These entities will have the opportunity to participate in the process in a self-driven manner, through specific materials that are being developed to guide monitors and educators to implement workshops in their spaces with the help of external advice. This allows us to expand the spaces and not limit participation to the school environment but also involve the entire non-formal education sector, i.e., the entities and recreational facilities that also play a very important educational role.
Finally, the process aims to involve families and individual children so that they can participate from home or autonomously. This will be possible for the first time with Decidim.barcelona, which has incorporated a module that allows the validation of the child's navigation by their legal parents or guardians.
The visibility of the process at the social level in a general sense is also crucial because it is necessary to ensure that society perceives children as citizens capable of contributing elements that benefit us collectively. This is a long-term challenge that the "Volem Decidir!" project aims to contribute to significantly. We must be aware that when children participate in urban planning and the design of public spaces, safer and more attractive environments can be created for them, where they feel like creators, responsible individuals, and take better care of them. Moreover, children often have a unique perception of the problems and challenges in their community. Their participation can help identify issues that adults may overlook and generate innovative and original solutions.
Child participation is an effective way to educate children about the importance of democracy, citizenship, and civic responsibility. It teaches them how democratic institutions work and how they can participate constructively in society, their community, and their city. Without a doubt, Barcelona can benefit from recognizing the vision and opinion of its children and adolescents. Including them in political decisions is about building a society for everyone, a more inclusive and diverse society, more democratic, thinking about its future, and learning to collaborate and build collectively.
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