The Civic Empowerment Gap
Trite as it may sound, to many the European Union appears – even more than any other government – insufficiently inclusive, insufficiently transparent and too distant from its citizens. Even though EU policies increasingly affect our lives, we remain distant and disengaged from the EU policy process. Literacy about the EU is modest: 63% of citizens have little or no knowledge of their EU law rights and engagement is limited (as epitomized by the EU Parliament low voter turnout). Meanwhile, there are an estimated 30,000 corporate lobbyists operating in Brussels, dominating the EU policy process. While NGOs have increasingly been included into EU policymaking (there are over 1500 NGOs registered in the Transparency Register), they are typically under-staffed and, due to their pan-European orientation, struggle in connecting with citizens. In short, they are ill equipped to effectively represent the interests of 500 million plus European citizens on issues such as consumer rights, climate justice or gender equality. As a result, a civic empowerment gap is emerging. Political power is increasingly distributed unequally in what has been referred to as a David v Goliath battle between private interests and the public interest.
The key question is can citizens do something to change this dynamic?
Skill-Based Volunteering as Citizen Lobbying
In Europe, as anywhere else, there is a common misconception that the only two options for making a difference in our communities are to vote and to run for office. But there is a third, less known, way to make an impact: lobbying. Thanks to the information revolution, technology and emergence of the ‘do-it yourself’ ethos, lobbying is no longer a prerogative of well-funded groups with huge memberships and countless political connections, but is something that anyone can do. Unlike representative democracy, lobbying works. Ask the big corporations and civil society organisations that regularly engage in it! Citizen lobbying might involve, either individual actions, such as writing to your officials or posting a provocative blog piece online; or collaborative action such as when skilled volunteers, lawyers, academics or other professionals, help an NGO working for the public interest. Whether you work for an NGO or in the private sector, whether you are a young student or a senior professional, we can ALL play a role in lobbying for good. We believe that “skill-based volunteering” is a hugely important form of citizen lobbying with the potential to achieve a great deal.
Whether you call it pro-bono, skill-based volunteering, volunteering 2.0 or even “skill-sharing”, the idea that students, academics and professionals (young and old) can use their skill-sets, on a voluntary basis, to improve their societies is not new. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) began life as a volunteer organisation made up of professionals and academics intent on using their knowledge and skills to improve the position of Blacks within American law, politics and society. The Anti Slavery Society and Amnesty International both began life in a similar fashion. Historically, this kind of skilled volunteering was engaged in by the privileged and the wealthy, persons who could afford to generously donate their talents and time to improve their communities. Today, it is becoming apparent that not only the elites, but all professionals and educated individuals, regardless of socio-economic background, can and often want to find ways to use their skills to give back (especially Europe’s young who increasingly lack a sense of agency or ability to make an impact in the world). The attainment of education and the accruing of skills is no longer a preserve of the most privileged in society. In the EU today, in the age group 30 to 34, 30% of men and 40% of women have tertiary education. In some Member States, these figures exceed 50% and sometimes even 60%. This does not even take into account those persons who go into skilled education (i.e. vocational and applied education). The majority of people in Europe today possess socially and economically valuable skills of one kind or another.
A Global Movement
Across the globe, lawyers, graphic designers, communications specialists, accountants, business students and many, many more (including carpenters, plumbers and other trades) are dedicating a portion of their time (at no cost) to assist non-profits to work for important social causes. Volunteering might come in the form of writing a business plan, drafting a press release or running a social media campaign. The key is to channel individuals’ skills and talents towards causes they believe in.
In the US the skill-based volunteering movement is in full swing, pioneered by organisations like the Taproot Foundation (making business talent available to non-profits working to improve society), Pro Bono Net and Appleseed (enabling lawyers to both volunteer their legal skills to individuals in need of advice and work on broad systemic social justice initiatives), Datakind (engaging data science experts on projects addressing critical humanitarian problems) and St. Bernard Project (enlisting tradesmen to rebuild houses for disaster victims). We have even seen some corporations willing to turn to their public affairs departments towards lobbying for good.
In Europe the movement is perhaps more patchy but gaining momentum fast. In the legal field PILnet was an early player, linking lawyers all across Europe with non-profits in need of legal support. Domestic organisations providing a similar service have sprung up like aadh in France or Centrum Pro Bono in Poland. Beyond law, organisations dedicated to enabling all manner of business professionals and academics to volunteer their skills are emerging in Germany (Proboneo), Spain (Fundación Hazloposible), France (pro bono lab) and Poland (Fundacja Dobra Sieć). In the Netherlands a highly innovative project was launched as long ago as 1996: Beursvloer. It is an annual “marketplace” (or stock exchange) where companies, volunteer organizations and local authorities can meet and build partnerships, matching their supply and demand.
Skill-based Civic Engagement and EU Democracy
The connection that remains to be made is explicitly linking skill-based volunteering to EU democracy. The Good Lobby wants to make that connection, acting as a catalyst in the European policy space by forging unconventional partnerships to lobby for the public interest. By enabling anyone, be they a student, academic, lawyer or other professional, to provide assistance to NGOs advocating for important social issues, The Good Lobby intends to unleash the potential in each us to contribute to a more equal representation of interests in the policy process. This is not about “good” vs. “bad” lobbying. It is about including citizens into the most important decisions affecting their lives making sure that everyone can sit around the table and have a say.
There are a few encouraging examples of incipient “skill-based EU civic engagement”, i.e. citizens determined to use their skills and knowledge to make the EU work better. These have both inspired and served as prototypes for The Good Lobby. In a recent blog post we discussed the emergence of a handful of EU law and advocacy “clinics”. These clinics (university-based legal education projects) are dedicated to engaging law students in the provision of EU law and policy advice (for free) to individuals and organisations that might otherwise struggle to pay for such services. In so doing, they enhance communication between the EU and the people of Europe and between the people of Europe and the EU. For example, in 2015 the EU Public Interest Clinic in Paris saw New York University and HEC law students working together with academics and professionals from across the EU and NGOs such as Access-Info Europe, BEUC and Wikimedia to lobby the EU for judicial transparency, consumer rights and freedom of panorama (one project has even resulted in an Ombudsman investigation). These law clinics are just one example of how individuals can use their skills to tackle the EU civic engagement gap and lay down the foundation for an active citizenship in the EU.
Lobbying by the citizens for the citizens
The Good Lobby believes in this simple equation. NGOs working in the EU policy-making field are tackling some of the biggest economic and social challenges facing our communities (mass migration, economic and social inequality, environmental degradation, the promotion of public health and the protection of privacy) and they are often under-staffed and insufficiently connected to citizens. Meanwhile, all across Europe, there are students, professionals and academics with a passion for a range of social causes keen to volunteer their talents and skills. The Good Lobby aims to provide all of them, as well as their employers, with valuable skill-based volunteering opportunities… opportunities to get involved well beyond traditional forms of engagement, such as donating occasionally or signing a petition.
As we bring all these actors together an incipient and innovative form of EU democracy might timidly emerge. This is our mission at The Good Lobby, but we need you to make it happen.