Three Citizens Make a Democracy | Big Bold Cities

Three Citizens Make a Democracy

City as Community Catalyst

three colored squaresThree Citizens Make a Democracy


The Seoul Metropolitan Government is attempting to make citizen engagement central to its operating system, but it does not take for granted that citizens will have the capacity to engage with government. Rather, it invites residents to start small: form a group of three people. Those three people can approach their local district office or the neighborhood community center (called ‘village centers.’) They can receive advice on formulating a proposal, and they may be eligible for seed funding. The district officials and village centers, in turn, are supported by the Local Community Division of the Seoul Innovation Bureau, where administrators strategize about how to nurture and build active and engaged communities everywhere in Seoul. The three-citizen approach is also embedded in sectoral policy. For example, Seoul’s sustainability efforts rely in large part on ‘energy self-reliant villages.’ Any group of at least three people who want to spearhead an energy-saving program can form a ‘resident committee’ and receive training and guidance for a year, learning how to design and implement communal energy-saving practices. In communities with a strong activist fabric, such as Sungdaegol, the city’s support efforts have allowed community organizers to build thriving social enterprises. 

Democratic Challenge

To engage with participatory processes in a meaningful way, citizens need to acquire relevant skills and knowledge, and they need to be organized. But such assets are not present in every neighborhood. Governments can and do support and train community leaders in order to cultivate civil-society partners. At the same time, governments need to avoid creating faux-grassroots ‘astroturf’ groups and/or co-opting organic citizen movements, lest citizen groups lose their independent voice and become fronts for government interests.

How Did They Do It?

Mayor Park Won-soon, a former human-rights lawyer and democracy activist, sent a clear message to his administrators about the kind of city he envisions. 

“He emphasized the concept of community where people get together and care for each other,” Seoul Innovation Bureau Local Community Division Director Ms. Choi Soon-ok said. “He believes that building communities should be a major policy, and he wants to involve citizens in that effort.”

This push aligns with similar rhetoric at the national level, and its aim is to mitigate the negative side-effects of 30 years of rapid social and industrial change in Korea, including increased social isolation. Seoul’s efforts include:

Mainstreaming Community-Building: Energy Self-Reliance

Seoul’s ‘Energy Self-Reliant Villages’ program integrates community-building and citizen leadership into sustainable-energy goals. Every year, as part of the ‘One Less Nuclear Power Plant’ campaign, the Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) puts out a call for applications to create supported, energy self-reliant villages. At least three people need to join together to apply; these organizers will develop a village strategy for reducing energy consumption or generating more energy from renewable sources, and they will be responsible for recruiting participants. In the first year of a new energy self-reliant village, external experts provide civic education on energy efficiency, and guidance to resident organizers, including on community-organizing skills. In the second and third years, SMG supports additional capacity-building for the village as appropriate. In 12 villages, organizers have created formal NGOs or energy cooperatives, which then provide a platform for initiating additional improvements to the community or participating in other city programs.

Building Capable Partners: The Local Community Division

The Local Community Division is one of six divisions of the Seoul Innovation Bureau. The Division is led by Ms. Choi, a former grassroots social activist who was hired directly into government as part of the Bureau’s mandate to incorporate citizen views into policy. (And made possible through the Bureau’s waiver from the standard civil-service hiring process.)

The Division’s two-fold mission seeks to strengthen engagement capacity outside of and within government: 

1. Supporting relevant citizen groups so they can participate in cooperative governance. The Local Community Division funnels its support to citizen groups through existing administrative structures in 25 districts throughout Seoul. These existing structures include Seoul Village Centers (neighborhood community centers,) and the district offices themselves. If three citizens come together with an idea for a project, they can approach the Village Center or district office. Local officials then work with the metro-level Division staff to advise the group on developing a proposal, evaluate the proposal, distribute funding, and advise on project implementation and reporting.

Choi gave an example, of mothers seeking to use a public facility for cooperative child care. “From an administrative point of view, the mothers can be active with a small amount of support,” Choi said. “Administrators cannot take care of all busy mothers, so we give authority and power to these residents.” They use a sort of venture-capital model--in the first stage the group would be eligible for seed funding, allocated by the metro-level Local Community Division, perhaps in the $1,000 USD range. They might use that money to rent space, hold a training session and conduct a field trip. If they demonstrate success in the first year, they could be eligible for additional rounds of funding in years two and three (of up to USD$9,000) to support growth and sustainability. The Division would also work with local authorities to assess whether successful projects should be converted into city-run services available on a broader scale.

2. Pushing civil servants to incorporate civic engagement into their processes. “We have to work with citizens,” Choi said. “It’s a longer process, but will have a better result.” This means pushing and enabling civil servants at the local, district level to work in more collaborative ways. (The Civil Governance Division is charged with similar work for the metro-level civil service.) This means providing support to district offices so that they can integrate public engagement into their decision-making, often through citizens’ committees.

“Citizens want to participate,” Choi said. “Individual citizens just lack experience, it doesn’t mean they don’t have the capability … the mayor has strong confidence in citizens.”

This top-down message also includes respect for citizens’ time and an appreciation for their contributions.

“Many citizens have their own full-time job, but they make time to participate,” Choi said. “I tell my colleagues, you should support them … they are dedicating their time to make a contribution. So I emphasize they should not forget that. I encourage my colleagues to make time during their weekends to participate in civil activities and participate in community activities. Only by doing so can you understand what citizens are doing.” 

How Is It Going?

Growth. During the first phase of the Local Community program, from 2013 to 2017, over 300 community spaces were established and 130,000 citizens participated in village projects. “Citizens want to make the spaces their assets as the community level,” Choi said. “So now citizens are interested in ownership of these newly created spaces.” As of 2018, 26 villages had autonomous citizens’ groups, and the metro government wants to expand to all 424 villages by 2021. Seoul has announced plans to double the number of autonomous citizens’ groups being supported, and to support at least two projects per village so that the number of participants can reach 300,000. Also in 2018, Seoul reached 100 Energy Self-Reliant Villages and held a town hall so that organizers could meet with Mayor Park. 

Tolerating and learning from failure. There are no standard evaluation metrics for the success of community projects. They are start-ups, so groups can (and do) take a break and return when the timing is better, make major changes, or disband altogether. The failure rate is significant, with about 30 percent of the community projects producing no results. The Division’s basic attitude is one of tolerance, but officials are also cognizant that the Seoul Metropolitan Council will be exercising budget scrutiny over the level of spending and the results achieved. Choi said that 70 percent of projects perform well. And there is learning in failure. Many projects end because the community groups break apart over internal conflicts, so city officials are constantly gathering opinions and experiences on how to resolve different issues and tensions. 

“We spend so much energy to make institutions, but we have to practice democracy in our daily lives--at school, at work,” Choi said. “How to communicate, how to work together, how to resolve conflicts. We don’t know much about that. This is our challenge for the Seoul Innovation Bureau and for our Division --how to practice democracy in our daily lives. How to make democracy a part of daily life.”


Inspiring civil servants. “I have worked with public officials for a long time, so what I can say confidently is public servants work in the traditional framework,” Local Community Division Director Choi said. “It was not that fun or inspirational. That’s why they were focused on performance--that was the only thing measured. So they didn’t want to deal with citizens, because they would just get complaints. [Our work] requires meeting many, many citizens, and this is a whole new experience for public servants, that is quite inspirational and motivating.”

Job training. The Local Community Division has found that a significant minority of program participants (approximately 30 percent) get involved because they are interested in a new career. So a new phase will be helping community groups translate their energy and experience into formal jobs. Similarly, the Energy and Environment Department is exploring how to maximize job creation in self-reliant villages through the energy cooperatives.

Innovation Point of Contact

Ms. Choi Soon-Ok
SMG Seoul Innovation Bureau / Local Community Division

Who Else Is Trying This

Various, United States

Many local governments throughout the United States, such as Kansas City, Missouri and Arlington County, Virginia, have organized civic-engagement courses—sometimes called ‘Citizen Academies,’ ‘City/County 101,’ or ‘Neighborhood College.’ Typically these are 7-8 week programs in which 20-25 local citizens participate in meetings with local government officials as well as their local elected officials. The goal is for citizens to become more familiar with the structure and processes of their local government, so that they can ultimately become more involved in decision-making. Citizens get a hands-on look at how services are provided and better understand the resources and technical capacities required to run local authorities. Meanwhile, local government officials can hear from constituents directly about programs and operations. In many cases, citizen-alumni of these programs go on to serve on local neighborhood advisory boards or elected office. Read more

Los Angeles, California, United States

The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (EmpowerLA) supports a network of 97 neighborhood councils. After budget cutbacks reduced the Department’s staff from 45 to 17, they had to abandon a command-and-control model and focus on supporting neighborhood leaders by providing information, streamlining government processes, and facilitating coordination. Read more

Tecamac, Mexico

SAPTEMAC, the community-owned water system of Tecamac, feels threatened by a national push for water privatization and so it partnered with a national advocacy organization to begin offering a ‘Water School’ in multiple locations. Volunteer professionals run training sessions for local residents about the administrative and technical aspects of running a water utility. The second iteration incorporated additional theoretical and political material to strengthen communities’ ability to advocate for water policy. Read more