Participation revisited

Many recent articles and discussions suggest that there is a direct relation between real participatory power of young people and their readiness to get involved in the political process and public policies. This can mean all sorts of things such as voting rights from a lower age; learner centred-ness in education and thus concrete participation in the development of school and higher education curricula; participation in the creation of public spaces in urban areas and rural development; involvement in ecological programmes and a stronger recognition of the consumer status of young people and hence their contribution to the economy. Politicians tend to overlook this; future elections might be won with the votes of the 60+s, but what about the real power of young people? Will it exist in a corresponding line to their participation in voting at all sort of levels, local, national, European? Or is there a very different pattern of participation preparing itself; efficient, real but not reflected in voting procedures? What is the key to understand the power aspect of participation of young people in public policies?

Looking at this, a reflection on the changing nature of public policy in the youth field comes to mind — from government to governance, from purely state action to a negotiated co-production of public policies in co-operation with the civil society, i.e. non-profit organisations, including youth associations. The role of the state might become less and less visible in the future and what a country can mobilise in terms of voluntary energy can become crucial for fields such as social services, health care, ecology and education. All this has to do with being able to associate young people to public affairs and to do this with the clear intention to also give them roles and responsibility very early. Someone who can develop a computer company in the garage can also have his or her voice heard in the city council; who understands complex computer programmes at young age can also contribute to the teaching of mathematics and informatics at school and trendsetters in modern lifestyle sports can also say a lot about the organisation of urban space. Everybody in politics claims the participation of the young — in what exactly? In what they think young people should participate in? Or could they also engage in some risky co-operation project? It is true that youth participation is crucial to overcome apathy in the political process — but honest policy, close to the people, can do this job even better and if there is none or not enough of it, there is no need to spread moral panics about the young and their distance to public policies instead. Youth participation cannot be had cheaply any more; it has to come over as a real offer to share the power and it is time that this happens.

For the Council of Europe and the European Commission to work on the participation of young people in public affairs is part of their youth policy mandate, be it in the new policy following the publication of the White Paper on youth for the Commission or in the daily practice of co-management of funds and programmes between public youth authorities and NGOs in the Council of Europe.

But this is not enough; the institutional practice needs to communicate with research findings. This way the couple public authority — civil society enlarges into the triangle public authority — civil society — research community and intentions are confronted with evidence. It is for you to judge whether recent research enlarges the quality of the discourse on participation.

By Peter Lauritzen

One of the leading figures of European political education.