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Article Article January 15th, 2018
Cities • Legitimacy

Making engagement meaningful in Helsinki

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A growing number of nations and cities are seeking to involve communities in decision-making, says @tommilaitio #FindingLegitimacy

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How is the city of #Helsinki involving communities in decision-making? @tommilaitio explains all... #FindingLegitimacy

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Community engagement is essential for legitimacy but it is an ongoing process, says @tommilaitio #FindingLegitimacy

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There is no doubt that community engagement is essential for legitimacy. With trust in government declining around the world, we see a growing number of nations and cities working to increase the participation of communities in decision-making processes and in all aspects of public life.

For Helsinki, the concept of community engagement and cocreation of public policy is not new. The city has successfully been using participatory design since 2012, from reshaping museum experiences to city bikes projects. Last year, over 12,000 teenagers in all of Helsinki's districts took part in a participatory budgeting process of their neighbourhood´s leisure activities. Moreover, Helsinki was the first city in the world to appoint a chief design officer, and it has been a world leader in moving to an open data approach.

Alongside a major restructuring of City Hall and the development and launch of Helsinki's City Strategy 2017-2021, the city recently introduced a new engagement model, aimed at establishing a continuous dialogue between the city and its residents. “Each resident of Helsinki has the right to feel they are a true Helsinki person and to do something significant for their community. In Helsinki, it is easy to be of help to others.”

Engagement is a high priority for Helsinki, and City Hall has gained valuable insights into how it can be made meaningful for residents as well as for the city's employees.

Engagement begins with a good understanding of people's needs

The starting point for any successful community engagement is understanding the needs of communities. Engagement means more than thinking in averages; it requires acknowledging communities as individuals with different interests, skills, needs and ambitions.

To ensure that the diversity of people's demands is reflected in the new engagement model, the city of Helsinki embarked on a two-year-long cocreation journey with residents, community organisations, and Helsinki's business community. Three founding principles for engagement emerged from this process. Firstly, use the experience and expertise of the community; secondly, increase people's ability to live a free life and make choices; and thirdly, make participation more equal across the city in terms of access as well as empowering vulnerable groups.

Engagement is successful when participants feel valued

Tone and timing are crucial drivers of successful engagement. To engage a representative and diverse proportion of the population, government needs to use the right language and find a way to present the problem in a way that resonates with its communities.

Engagement needs to happen at the onset of a problem, at a stage in the process where communities feel that they can truly shape policy formulation. It loses its meaning when communities are merely asked to validate existing ideas. It is also important for government to feed back to the people involved, and let them know how their inputs have affected processes and outcomes.

Implementing the new model in City Hall and with frontline staff

Developing a new engagement model, however, does not immediately translate into better engagement. The city of Helsinki understood that in order to turn words into actions, more had to be done to get its 41,000 civil servants on board. To achieve that, the city partnered with design agency Hellon to develop a Participation Game for its employees. The aim of this interactive board game is to encourage city staff to think creatively about how they can improve the dialogue with communities, without any predefined strategies or methods.

The game is usually played with a team of 10-15 players and consists of four phases. It begins with an assessment of the engagement situation and the stakeholder groups, and is aimed at developing a clear understanding of who is involved and what their interests are. In the second phase, participants evaluate engagement methods that have been employed in the past, trying to identify what worked and what didn't.

The third phase includes a set of flash cards describing the different engagement and feedback tools that support participants in translating their ideas into action. The final phase of the game involves choosing up to three new methods to be tested as potential solutions to the identified issues. The process is overseen by a trained facilitator, who ensures that the relevant information about engagement is extracted and that progress is made on defining a  development plan for the selected solution. The game takes  90 to 120 minutes to complete.

The game has received extremely positive and enthusiastic feedback from users at all levels of all City Hall's departments. It has now been played hundreds of times across Helsinki - by teachers, nurses, youth workers, librarians and museum curators, as well as the executive teams in City Hall. It has inspired them and helped them to think outside the box about how to reach different audience groups. Even when some staff members have initially been sceptical about the idea of playing a board game, they have come away feeling that the game helped them in making choices and gaining new skills.

Legitimacy: a continuous journey

Helsinki has made extraordinary progress in fostering meaningful collaboration with its communities. The new engagement model contributes to what is already a high level of trust in Finnish institutions. But the model is not static, and the city recognises that strengthening legitimacy is an ongoing process. The model will be adapted over time to the evolving needs and aspirations of the community, and City Hall will continue to think of new ways to engage with the people of Helsinki.


What is legitimacy to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with communities to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI. 

Find out how to get involved in our Finding Legitimacy project 


Written by:

Tommi Laitio Executive Director, culture and leisure, city of Helsinki
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