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Leveraging champions of change

Jan 07,2019 - Last updated at Jan 07,2019

Social media platforms have provided Jordanians with an unprecedented forum to engage in dialogue, share personal stories, experiences, opinions and concerns on matters that are dear to them. The World Wide Web has given way for people to engage in fast and frequent online engagements like never before. Social media platforms have made the transfer of knowledge between people much easier, led to increased citizen awareness on emerging social and economic issues and provided access to fast public news announcements by local and global news agencies. Fast and quick is what distinguishes online forums.

It is vital that we pay attention to the effect that virtual online forums have infused amongst Jordanians today. Whether Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, such forums have created a sense of community for Jordanians and have given people the opportunity to brand themselves in leading change. For example, scanning through Facebook will reveal a wide array of proactive individuals, groups and organisations; some of whom are social justice activists, journalists, human rights advocates and enablers of youth and women.

Others also find Facebook as the ideal place to post complaints about a wide array of different community issues that range from unemployment and poverty to improper garbage disposal services or the lack of proper sanitation to criticising decision makers or someone who is unworthy of handling a public service job.

This demonstrates the extent to which people desire to be engaged in matters that are important to them, and most importantly, to be heard. Moreover, despite standards of conduct being set and monitored by social media platforms, the online world remains untamed and is not free from anger, hostility and intolerance. Particularly when it comes to differing views and perspectives. This, I believe, is a consequence of lacking a culture of dialogue in local communities.

The virtual world lacks mechanisms for reaching consensus and common ground. In light of this ongoing trend, we need to ask: What are we doing to enable citizen face-to-face dialogue and deliberation? What lies beyond the virtual community? People are leveraging social media platforms for their own advantage. But this is not enough, nor is conducive to Jordan’s development aspirations. Jordanians, particularly the youth, have not found an adequate space for face-to-face dialogue and deliberation with fellow citizens and public officials. I am specifically referring to public town hall meetings.

There is a need for proper community engagement efforts outside the realm of online social media platforms. It is paramount that we seek to harness people’s collective wisdom, give it a legal frame of work and turn it into collective action towards real community action planning. For example, every time people gather to converse and decide to reach consensus in traditional “majles” or “diwan” style meetings, they are, in fact, giving effect to the vision of the decentralisation process and are representing public opinion that is capable of informing decision makers in a democratic manner and a bottom-up approach. This is the essence of the decentralisation and municipal laws of 2015.

The decentralisation and municipal laws of 2015 call for greater citizen participation in the decision-making process at the governorate and municipal levels, but still lack a clear frame of work. Almost two years passed since the elections took place. Citizens and observers have not seen clear or strong intentions by these councils to forge direct communication lines with citizens, nor have citizens received public invitations for dialogue with their local councils to set development priorities. The question that ought to be answered today is: How do local councils plan to reach out and engage citizens in decision-making processes at municipal level? How do they intend to infuse a sense of ownership amongst citizens in developing their own communities? Despite shortcomings, it is still early to judge local councils’ performance for many reasons. Some of the reasons are vague visions and missions, poor communication between local councils and citizens, lack of role definitions and duties for council members themselves and clashing roles between local councils, executive and governorate councils. Finally, and most importantly, there is lack of experience and awareness on community-engagement techniques. In other words, proper ways to work with and seek peoples input when making decisions. These are but some of the reasons that hinders their performance.

Democracy gets its legitimacy by the extent to which the public gets involved in public policymaking. Therefore, today, there is a need to adopt proper public participation techniques and to institutionalise such techniques in every local council’s scope of work. A great opportunity lies within the decentralisation vision and we ought to make it a success.

This demands civil society organisations to fill the gap. Community engagement responsibilities need to be transferred to experts in the subject matter. Non-profits, whose focus is civic collaboration; youth and women’s empowerment and public participation need to work with and train local councils’ members to adopt adequate public participation tools to seek citizens input. Moreover, experimentation with proper public participation tools in the near future will require further legislation to facilitate the councils’ work. Town hall meetings in every governorate must provide citizens with a forum to gather and hold democratic dialogue that will seek to include people in dialogue concerning their community’s challenges.

Public meetings need to be advertised and publicised in a proper manner so that citizens can sense the seriousness and urgency to attend such meetings and thus enable people to work effectively with local councils.

This is the first step in enabling and empowering citizens to acquire a sense of ownership in the decision-making process, at least at the municipal level.

 

The writer is founder of the International Association of Facilitators Jordan Chapter, an initiative to promote a culture of participation towards driving positive change in organisations and communities in Jordan. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times. [email protected]

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