Józsefváros Office of Community Participation

Budapest (Hungary)


The Office of Community Participation, established in 2019 in Józsefváros, was the first participatory municipality office in Hungary. It was established after the new opposition mayor, András Pikó, was elected to office, created in March 2020 following a decision by the local council. Since its inception, the office has started laying the foundations of participatory mechanisms and processes, both with regards to the operation of the Municipality and with regards to including citizens into local-level decision-making and city planning, or urban planning, is the process of designing and regulating the use of space in urban areas to improve residents’ quality of life. It involves managing land use, transportation, environmental protection, and resource distribution to ensure sustainable and functional urban development. City planners aim to create livable, efficient, and attractive cities through strategic decision-making and public engagement. This case study of a participatory tool is not describing one particular process. Instead, it describes the process of implementing, both in principle and in practice, participatory mechanisms and processes into the operation of the municipality. Consequently, some of the dimensions that refer to given aspects of participatory processes may not be directly applicable to the Józsefváros case as the Office of Community Participation, in fact, developed and implemented a number of different participatory tools in its relatively brief history. These were tools that were introduced both to facilitate internal (within municipality) cooperation and participation, as well as external (the municipality engaging local residents and communities) interactions and the inclusion of citizens. Hence, due to the fact that there were a number of different participatory processes, many of which are still ongoing, the outputs (or inputs – depending on how we look at it) and their impacts are diverse and not always known to us.

Hungarian municipalities are rather behind in terms of implementing participatory mechanisms and processes into their operation and decision-making on a local-level. The main aim of the establishment of the Office of Community Participation was to improve the inclusiveness of the municipality and the district, by involving those affected by given development projects of given policies into the decision-making process. By extending the influence of local residents and by enhancing their engagement, the municipality aimed to reach better physical and community development processes and, in general, build trust and improve the citizens’ relationship with their local government. This is particularly important in a context like Hungary, where, by now, many democratic institutions (at least on the national stage) have been hollowed out and where the responsiveness and accountability of the central government is practically non-existent. Adding to this the individual’s relationship to authority was always rather ambiguous in Hungary historically. Consecutive regimes and governments dis-incentivised people in participating in public processes or the public sphere instead of fostering ownership through participation. This by no means started under the Orbán regime, but passivity of the general public and individual’s reluctance to participate in any initiatives (be it local, national, civic, etc.) got to a worryingly low level, which is one of the reasons Orbán was able to extend his powers so freely. Progressive municipalities that are usually led by opposition coalitions started introducing forms of participatory governance is a democratic method that includes citizens in decision-making to influence public policies and resource management. It promotes collaboration between officials and the public, enhancing transparency, accountability, and trust by ensuring diverse community input into governance to enhance the overall levels of civic-political activism involves individuals and groups engaging in actions aimed at influencing social, economic, and political changes. It encompasses a wide range of activities, from protests and petitions to advocacy and electoral participation, aimed at promoting rights, justice, and policy reforms. This activism seeks to hold authorities accountable and drive societal progress through active civic engagement and political participation. and to develop ownership in those who engage in such processes. The establishment of an office for community participation is a concrete step a municipality can make in the direction of this broader goal.

As indicated above, participation in Hungary is at its infancy and not many municipalities are experimenting with it. The introduction of the Office of Community Participation in Józsefváros was the first instance of formally embedding the aspect and practice of participation into local governance and policymaking on a municipal-level in Hungary. Previous administrations experimented with participation in some instances (e.g., participatory planning is an approach to urban and community planning that actively involves stakeholders, including residents, businesses, and government entities, in the decision-making process. It aims to create more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable outcomes by ensuring that the perspectives and needs of the community are integral to planning projects and policies. This method fosters shared ownership and accountability in the development process.), yet this was done to a very limited extent in an ad hoc fashion and not as part of a broader strategy. Based on this, we can view the maturity of deliberative democracy as being rather underdeveloped as a baseline, hence changes that occurred after 2020 are to be examined if we want to understand its maturity today.

The Office of Community Participation is part of the formal local administration and as a result, its costs are part of the municipality’s annual budget. The office is part of the mayor’s cabinet but has its own staff and head of office. The office is integrated into the organisational chart of the municipality and its tasks were codified by a decision of the district council.

The Office of Community Participation organises and carries out a number of different participatory processes, using different tools of participation, hence they have used a range of methods to recruit participants. That said, the recruitment of participantsRecruitment of participants involves identifying and engaging individuals to take part in activities, studies, or projects. This process is crucial for gathering diverse inputs, ensuring representativeness, and enhancing the validity of outcomes. It typically includes strategies like outreach, advertising, and incentivisation to attract and enroll suitable candidates. into given participatory processes remains the biggest challenge for the Office and the recruitment takes up considerable human and other resources. In general terms, the aim of the Office is to strengthen the communities of the 8th district of Budapest and to involve local residents in the decisions that affect all of them. Their work is organised around the principles of clarity, transparency, accessibility, fairness, and solidarity. They have worked on: 1) developing channels of transparent and accessible communication and dialogue between the municipality and local residents (e.g. website, Facebook, community forumsCommunity forums are public spaces or digital platforms where members of a community gather to discuss common interests, share information, and address collective concerns. They serve as a hub for dialogue, resource exchange, and support, facilitating community engagement and connectivity.), 2) supporting the creation of a client-friendly municipality (e.g. toll free – green – number, customer service), 3) implementing short, mid and long-term processes of consultationConsultation is a process where individuals or groups seek advice, feedback, or expertise from others before making decisions. It’s commonly used in various contexts, including healthcare, law, business, and public policy, to inform actions or policies by considering diverse perspectives and expertise. This collaborative approach aims to enhance decision-making quality and outcomes by incorporating input from relevant stakeholders. and participation (e.g. consultations about public space interventions, participatory budgetingParticipatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to allocate part of a public budget. It allows citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritise public spending projects, and then vote on which projects should receive funding. This process aims to make budgeting more transparent, inclusive, and reflective of community needs, fostering greater public involvement and accountability in fiscal decision-making.), 4) developing local communities and supporting grassroots organisations and NGOs (e.g. community events, engaging immigrants), 5) supporting local residents to organise themselves (e.g. training and advocacy support for dog owners, information materials for public housing residents), 6) supporting active citizenshipActive citizenship refers to the engagement of individuals in their community or society to improve conditions for others, promote the common good, and protect human rights. It involves participating in activities such as voting, volunteering, civic activism, and community service, aiming to influence decision-making processes, policy development, and social change. Active citizens are informed about social, political, and environmental issues and are committed to contributing positively to their community and society at large. and solidarity (e.g. volunteering) and 7) carrying out research, data collection and evaluation.

Recruitment to these activities was done through online calls on online forums (Facebook), municipality website, etc., through calls in printed media (local newspaper), leafletingLeafleting involves distributing flyers or leaflets to share information, advertise events or services, or promote causes. It’s a direct marketing or activism strategy used to reach a broad audience in public spaces, through door-to-door delivery, or in specific venues. Leafleting is often employed by businesses, political campaigns, and social movements to raise awareness, encourage participation, or influence opinions., canvassingCanvassing is a method used primarily in political campaigns, marketing, and grassroots movements, involving direct engagement with individuals through door-to-door visits or phone calls. The goal is to gather support, solicit opinions, promote candidates or causes, and sometimes to conduct surveys. It’s an effective strategy for personal interaction, aiming to inform, persuade, or mobilise individuals towards a particular action or viewpoint. and sit-outsAs a method of recruitment for participatory processes, sit-outs involve organising events or meetings in public spaces where individuals can learn about and sign up to participate in initiatives such as community projects, planning processes, or civic engagement activities. This approach allows organisers to directly reach and engage potential participants, providing information and answering questions in a casual, accessible setting. Sit-outs can effectively attract a diverse group of participants by making the opportunity to get involved visible and approachable in the community’s everyday spaces.. A valuable lesson learned by the Office was that more resource and time-consuming modes of reaching out to citizens, such as, canvassing and sit-outs are more effective tools of recruitment because they attract more attendees. However, due to limited capacities of the Office, they cannot employ these tools with regards to every process they organise.

A focus group studyA focus group study is a research method where a small, diverse group of people are gathered to discuss and provide feedback on a specific topic, product, or idea under the guidance of a moderator. This qualitative technique is used to explore participants’ attitudes, perceptions, and opinions, offering in-depth insights that surveys or quantitative methods might not capture. with both local administrators and local residents suggested that a notable hindrance of the entire process so far has been related to inclusion. Regardless of the Office’s considerable efforts to recruit participants into deliberative or participatory processes, the circle of people included and activated remains rather limited and it is very often the same active citizens that participate in processes which significantly hinders the overall impact of the Office and the inclusiveness of the municipality.

The birth of the office coincided with the beginning of the Covid pandemic in March 2020, which meant that they had to organise their activities in a flexible way, going online, then offline as public health regulations allowed. While this has allowed many people to follow their work from home, it also meant that they were not able to meet residents face-to-face as much as it would have been necessary in order to build a more personal relationships with residents at the initial phase. Furthermore, marginalised groupsMarginalised groups are communities facing discrimination or exclusion due to factors like race, gender, or economic status. They often experience limited access to resources, opportunities, and rights, resulting in social and economic disparities. Addressing their challenges involves promoting equity, inclusion, and removing barriers to participation in society. had a higher barrier of entry during Covid, due to lesser access to devices, the internet or the knowledge about participating in online forums organised by the Office. This improved significantly after restrictions on movement were permanently lifted, and therefore barriers to participation were reduced. However, in-person meetings didn’t result in the successful inclusion of citizens from all social groups equally.

While the Office put a particular emphasis on the inclusion of people who face disadvantages in the district such as low-income residents, women, people with disabilities, people without access to the Internet, non-Hungarian speakers, it is clear that they need to work even more to make sure that more people learn about the work of the municipality and take advantage of the opportunities to have a say in its functioning.

The idea of the office was formulated before the new administration got elected into office. It was an idea of the then candidate mayor and the future head of the office who both have civic backgrounds and wanted to build a more inclusive and more responsive local government that saw citizens and NGOs as partners.. The establishment of the Office was made official after the mayor won the election. Starting off, the office was incubated as part of the regular work and meetings of the mayor’s cabinet.

At first it was difficult to find a physical place for the Office as it was not clear whether it should be inside or outside the building of the municipality, so for a while, they moved from one office to the next. Then, they finally found a spot in the municipality building that was suitable to their needs. From the outset there were considerable tensions and conflicts between the newly established Office of Community Participation and the rest of the mayor’s office, but this later smoothed out as both sides learnt more about each other and understood each other’s approach.

One important turning point in the development of the office was the pandemic because it created conditions of crisis and urgency to which the rather small and agile structure of the Office of Community Participation was more suited then the much larger and more rigid existing local governing structure. The local government all had to act in a very fast and flexible way, which made the new tools of the Office inevitable for the municipality to be able to face the public health crisis. It was also during this time that more traditional local administrators learnt to appreciate the new approach and attitude of the Participatory Office.

By today, the Office has been consolidated as part of the mayor’s cabinet and as part of the formal public administration of the municipality. Many of its processes and workflows are developed, yet many are also evolving as they gain new knowledge and expertise in participation. Some of the tools for participation are one-off processesOne-off processes refer to activities or events that are designed to happen just once, rather than being part of a regular, ongoing series. These can include unique meetings, projects, or initiatives intended to achieve a specific goal or address a particular issue without the intention of repetition. , but many tools are used on an annual or semi-annual basis across the district, in different neighbourhoods.

The establishment of the Office in itself is a hugely significant step and could have far-reaching impacts. With some of the limitations mentioned above, the Office has transformed the logic of governance in Józsefváros and made the municipality much more responsive to the needs, views and expectations of local residents. Processes can be adjusted and refined, yet this case can serve as good practice for those looking to enhance participation.

The Office regularly appears in the local media through its calls for participation and consultation, they regularly give presentations at conferences and participate in professional exchanges. They have also appeared in local and national media in interviews about their work, but also due to the awards they have received. At the same time, the Office and its head continue to be/attacked by the local opposition media (associated with the previous mayor) and the national pro-government media, being depicted as political agents of the mayor and not really as serving the interests of residents of the district. Furthermore, the promotion of their new and more progressive approach of local governance is sometimes still met with resistance by old-fashioned administrators. And even though there is political will by the municipal administration to make participation an integral part of all levels of local governance, in practice, there are limits on the realisation of these ambitions as of yet.

With some of the limitations mentioned above, the Office has transformed the logic of governance in Józsefváros and made the municipality much more responsive to the needs, views and expectations of local residents. Processes can be adjusted and refined, yet this case can serve as good practice for those looking to enhance participation in their respective contexts.

Even though the Office of Community Participation had many successes under a short period of time since their inception in 2020, there would be room for development and a need to involve more resources to improve on them.

– Limited resources and capacity: The municipality and the Office of Community Participation have limited resources and capacity to engage with all the citizens in the district, which may make it difficult to ensure that everyone is informed and involved in decision-making processes.

– Incomplete participation: In some cases, citizens may not participate fully in the participatory processes, either because they are not aware of them or because they lack the time, interest, or capacity to engage in them.

– Limited communication channels: The Office of Community Participation uses online and offline communication channels to engage with citizens, but there may be limitations to the effectiveness of these channels in reaching all members of the community, particularly those who are not digitally literate or who may not have access to the internet.

– Lack of agency: Some citizens may feel that they lack agency or the ability to influence decision-making processes, particularly if they have not been involved in them before or if they feel that their views are not being taken into account.

– Political polarisation: The political context in Józsefváros may also pose challenges to participatory processes, particularly if there is political polarisation or a lack of trust between different groups or stakeholders in the community.

– Cultural and linguistic diversity: Józsefváros is a diverse district with a mix of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, which may pose challenges to effective communication and participation in decision-making processes.

Focus group interviews were conducted to assess the impact of the Office and learn about its successes and challenges experienced during their brief, approximately 4 year-long existence. A focus interview with local public administrators uncovered the following:

An interview participant who works for a company providing services to local residents expressed frustration with the lack of constructive criticism with regards to participatory processes, and felt that many town hallsTown hall meetings are a way for local and national politicians to meet with their constituents either to hear from them on topics of interest or to discuss specific upcoming legislation or regulation. and residential meetingsResidential meetings are gatherings held within a living community or neighbourhood, often in someone’s home or a communal living space, to discuss local issues, plan community events, or share information. These meetings aim to foster a sense of community, facilitate decision-making on residential matters, and encourage collaboration among neighbours for the betterment of their living environment. are unconstructive. The deputy mayor, on the other hand, noted that people tend to be critical of local government, and suggested that the work of the Office of Community Participation should be compared with that of other local administrative bodies. A local councilor agreed, stating that they believe participatory processes in Józsefváros are more carefully developed and carried out than those in other municipalities.

Another focus interview conducted with local residents uncovered further room for improvement. Despite the overall satisfaction of most local residents present at the interview, some noted a lack of strategic vision in planning participatory activities, and felt that many of the programs were created and carried out with some degree of short-sightedness.

Overall, these challenges highlight the need for continued efforts to ensure that participatory processes are inclusive, accessible, and effective in engaging with all members of the community, particularly those who may be marginalised or underrepresented.

The Office of Community Participation can serve as a good practice example to local governments looking to formalise their participatory processes and trying to embed participation into all of their internal and policymaking processes. Before the establishment of the Office, participation in Józsefváros had been promoted only to a lesser degree, with regards to some district development or planning processes, yet always in an ad-hoc fashion. Therefore, the Office serves as a case study of how a municipality, within a few years, can go from having no or very few participatory processes to applying a wide range of participatory tools to facilitate inclusion into local level decision making.

The Office, as such, as mentioned previously, instead of representing one given participatory tool or process, promotes a wide range of tools and processes. Hence, this case is better suited to inform other municipalities looking to develop participation as part of their local governance in a holistic approach. It can serve as a very useful blueprint to municipalities looking to go from low levels of participation used in local policymaking to having participation as an integral part of their operation and how they engage citizens.

Furthermore, the case of the Office of Community Participation might not be that useful to municipalities with a more extensive experience in developing participatory projects and processes, because many of the issues described above are characteristic of a municipality building workflows and processes from the ground up to make sure that participation in Józsefváros is built according to the most suitable structure, within the local governing structure.

The Office of Community Participation in Józsefváros, Budapest, inaugurated in 2019, marks a pioneering effort in Hungary to integrate participatory mechanisms within municipal governance. Initiated by the election of opposition mayor András Pikó, this initiative aims to enhance inclusivity and cooperation between the municipality and its residents, against a backdrop of declining democratic responsiveness at the national level. By establishing various participatory tools, the Office sought to improve local decision-making and urban planning through active citizen engagement. This effort underscores a significant shift towards a governance model that values transparency, accessibility, and community involvement. Despite facing challenges such as resource constraints and the need to engage a diverse and sometimes marginalised population, the Office has made strides in fostering a more inclusive and responsive municipal environment. The outcomes from Józsefváros offer critical insights into the potential of participatory governance. They highlight the transformative effect such practices can have on enhancing trust and collaboration between citizens and their government. Moreover, the initiative sheds light on the complexities and obstacles in realising full participation, emphasising the necessity for adaptable and innovative approaches to inclusivity. This case significantly enriches our understanding of participatory and deliberative democracy, presenting a viable model for other municipalities aiming to deepen civic engagement. It underscores the importance of continuous learning and adaptation in participatory processes, offering lessons for creating more democratic and empowered communities.

Website: https://jozsefvaros.hu/english/2022/08/participation/

This participatory practice has been analysed as a case study also within the EUARENAS project. Further information can be found here.