This toolbox responds to a major European challenge: the need to strengthen legitimacy, identification and engagement within the democratic public sphere. It investigates the ways in which social movements coupled with local government reform initiatives manifesting themselves in local-level experiments, create momentum for political change that include more inclusive and participatory forms of governance.

We refer to a toolbox of participation, in which we understand these tools to offer means of including people into decision-making or governance processes as well as the management of public goods. This provides stakeholders, such as urban practitioners, administrators, bottom-up organisations, as well as communities with tools, instruments, methods, and good practices to extend their knowledge of participation on a practical level.

The Experimental Toolbox of Participatory Methods has been developed under the framework of EUARENAS -Cities as Arenas of Political Innovation in the Strengthening of Deliberative and Participatory Democracy, a Horizon 2020 funded project by the project partner Eutropian, an organisation developing collaborative planning processes in various cities in Europe.

The Toolbox is set to address a double objective: first, it assists the pilot cities in the implementation of their action plans by presenting and analysing the tools they can use during their pilots, and by presenting them suggestions on how to transfer these to their cases; second, on a wider scale, the online participatory toolbox targets urban practitioners looking to study, plan or implement a participatory tool. These could be people working in the civic sector, at municipalities or other types of organisations.

In order to help users navigate through its many dimensions, the filter mechanism of the toolbox allows them to narrow down the list of items to a manageable number that satisfies specific needs. The filtering categories are the following: Methods/ tool; Scale of the process; Initiators/ coordinators; Participants; Level of participation; Duration; and Transferability.

For the Toolbox of Experimental Participatory Methods, we meticulously curated cases from diverse corners of Europe and beyond, aiming to capture a wide array of participatory approaches and geographic representation.

Each selected case, classified under six broader participatory methods such as participatory bodies involved in co-governance, mini-publics, participatory budgeting, digital participation platforms, bottom-up participatory initiatives, and citizens’ assemblies, stands as a notable example of democratic innovation, embodying unique strategies and outcomes.

In brief, with participatory bodies involved in co-governance we refer to a group that facilitates collaborative decision-making, actively involving stakeholders like citizens, community members, and representatives from relevant organisations; mini-publics’ denotes a small, representative group of individuals randomly selected from the general population to engage in deliberative processes; participatory budgeting is a democratic and collaborative process that empowers citizens to actively contribute to the allocation of a portion of public funds; digital participation platforms serve as an online tool or system specifically crafted to foster civic engagement, collaboration, and participation in decision-making processes; bottom-up participatory initiatives refer to a process or project that originates and is driven by the active involvement, ideas, and contributions of individuals or communities at the grassroots level; and lastly, citizens’ assemblies are a deliberative and participatory democratic process that assembles a representative group of citizens to collectively discuss and formulate recommendations on specific issues or policies.

Whilst there was no specific thematic criteria, a majority of the cases reveal a top-down participatory approach.

Moreover, we deliberately highlighted cases spanning various levels of geographic and administrative scales, ranging from local initiatives, such as the creation of platforms for participation like Quartiere Bene Comune in Reggio Emilia and Laboratori di Quartiere in Bologna, or the introduction of new institutional arrangements, like the Office for Community Participation in Józsefváros, Budapest, which rely on a combination of participatory and deliberative methods, to global endeavours, such as the World Wide Views on Climate and Energy (WWV) initiative that engaged over 10,000 citizens in more than 100 locations worldwide to deliberate on climate change and energy policies.

Notably, we wanted to prioritise the possibility of marginalised groups (youngsters, women, foreigners, lower income groups), recognising their pivotal role in advancing deliberative democracy in practical contexts, such as the Helsinki Youth Council that serves as a platform bridging young voices with local governance. This emphasis underscores our commitment to fostering inclusive and meaningful democratic practices across different settings.

Inclusion remains one of the main challenges in setting up and running top-down participatory processes on any administrative level. In the interviews we wanted to get response to the following questions: How do we engage participants beyond the usual suspects in participatory processes? How can we ensure that underrepresented or marginalised individuals and communities are also present and included, in particular children and youth? What are the best tools or methods for inclusive or representative deliberative and participatory processes? The toolbox provides answers and best practices to these questions, offering guidance on fostering genuine inclusivity.

It is often challenging to engage a substantial number of people and even if there’s interest in a specific participatory process, given segments of the population are much harder to reach and draw in (e.g. marginalised or vulnerable groups). The Toolbox showcases a few different proven techniques of inclusion. The Vienna Youth Strategy, for example, used targeted outreach to engage a large number of children and young people. Youth are usually particularly hard to reach and make them interested in participating. For this end, the Vienna Youth Strategy process employed methods that lowered the barrier of entry to the process. (1) They created strategic partnerships with schools and youth centres, (2) engaged most youth within-school-hours, and (3) used trusted adults like teachers or youth workers to facilitate the workshops. This led to over 22 thousand youth participants in the overall process.

Another noteworthy method of inclusion is the method of sortition which was used by many of the cases described in the Toolbox (e.g. UK Climate Assembly, Vorarlberg Citizen Council, Barcelona Climate Assembly, Newham Permanent Citizen Council, Brussels Mixed Parliamentary Committees and G1000). Although more and more widely used, especially in the context of citizens’ assemblies, sortition as a method of recruiting participants is still rather unknown even though it is the most suitable tool we know to ensure true representation of populations in participatory processes. Sortition, also known as random selection, is used to form assemblies (samples) of citizens who are representative of the general population to deliberate. By randomly selecting participants, sortition ensures that various demographics (such as age, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status) are fairly represented, thus facilitating more inclusion.

Going beyond the somewhat outdated classification of Arnstein’s ladder of participation (1969) that describes how empowered public institutions and officials deny power to citizens, and how levels of citizen agency, control, and power can be increased, the toolbox explores the nuances and the extent of the delegation of power, giving an overview of primarily top-down processes. It questions whether politicians and decision-makers primarily aim for tokenistic processes or if they are genuinely interested in sharing power for better and more inclusive governance. Additionally, it delves into what other barriers to meaningful participation could be present beyond political will, providing good practices and interesting examples concerning these questions.

When it comes to top-down participatory processes the initiator (e.g. local, regional or national government) always aims to delegate a certain degree of power and authority to citizens. However, the degree and, hence, the meaningfulness of the delegation of power varies significantly from process to process. Some participatory processes can be tokenistic and do not actually aim to empower citizens beyond getting a seal of approval from them. On the other extreme end of the participatory spectrum we can place deliberative or participatory processes that can reach binding decisions, meaning that the authority has to automatically enact the decision reached by the citizens. Processes with binding decisions as an outcome are very rare. We didn’t find any mechanisms where the initiator doesn’t leverage some kind of oversight at the final stage of the process. Two examples of cases, however, where broad authority is delegated to citizens should be noted here. One being the Quartiere Bene Comune of Reggio Emilia where the municipality used co-design and co-management tools, creating a partnership-like relationship between citizens and the local government. Another noteworthy case in terms of the extent of the delegation of power to citizens is the case of the Mixed-Parliamentary Committees in Brussels. Though the initiators of the process wanted to give equal voting rights to citizens and elected parliamentarians, the constitution of the Brussels region did not allow for this. For the time being, the Brussels initiative includes a follow-up event nine months after the assembly, where the Parliament and government report back to citizens on the actions taken regarding their recommendations. This commitment to transparency and accountability distinguishes the Brussels approach, ensuring that citizen contributions have a lasting impact on policy and governance.