In the search of Tavarandu*: what we did and learned about participatory governance

Findings of our Participatory Governance Learning Cycle*

18 de Septiembre de 2023

Citizen participation is the cornerstone of any open and democratic society. Civic spaces and processes that facilitate this participation enable citizens from all sectors of society to engage more directly in the discussion and resolution of political, economic and social challenges, increasing levels of trust between people and institutions, improving the resilience of communities and generating a greater sense of ownership and empowerment over decisions and actions that affect the resources we all share. How do we strengthen this pillar in our communities? How do we improve our capacities to participate and to facilitate more participation? How do we connect participation and sustainable development at the local level?   

Hoping to answer some of these questions, we launched Tavarandu, an initiative to strengthen capacities for innovation and participatory governance in local governments and communities, through the co-design of training, promotion and facilitation programs for citizen participation adapted to the processes that are articulated at the local level. The program is the result of a learning cycle that began when we studied the dynamics of social capital and trust during the pandemic, and gradually evolved towards experimenting with participatory governance as a strategic enabler of sustainable development. 

What we did to learn about Participatory Governance in Paraguay? 

Learning about participation requires listening to and observing one's own experience of participating and hosting participation. Our learning journey started four years ago and included: 

  1. The social capital and trust learning cycle, in which we first used secondary data to explore the concept by constructing social capital indexes, and then measured it directly through the social capital, economic vulnerability and collective action survey.  

  2. The design and facilitation of participatory spaces and processes, such as the Scientific Dialogues and the Territorial Forum on Challenges for Family Agriculture, or the participatory action research activities that were part of our research, design, development and innovation services. In all these activities, the Accelerator Lab has sometimes been a participant, sometimes a host and facilitator.     

  3. The mapping of institutions and cases of participatory governance in Paraguay, which documented concrete spaces of participation that are part of the Paraguayan normative framework.   

  4. The design and implementation of the Tavarandu program, based on the lessons and signals from the previous activities. In its first edition, Tavarandu opened spaces for training, practice and collaboration for civil servants and citizens of the Department of Itapúa, focused on the effective application of research, development and innovation methodologies and tools for the participatory identification of local sustainable development challenges and the co-design of solutions to these challenges, giving rise to a portfolio of interventions with 3 lines of action:

  • A comprehensive training program on participatory governance and innovation. 

  • A Citizen Laboratory that facilitates collaboration between diverse social actors in the democratic and participatory co-design of solutions to local sustainable development challenges.   

  • A Civic Technologies Bootcamp and Hackathon to explore the potential of technologies for citizen participation processes.   

What we learned about Participatory Governance? 

Learnings from our discovery and exploration: 

  • By observing, measuring and analyzing the dynamics of social capital and vulnerability, we learned about the relationship between collective action and the reduction of vulnerabilities. We found a significant relationship between participation in collective community asset management and reduced economic vulnerability.  

  • From our experiences hosting participatory processes, we have learned that participatory governance is nurtured by the same innovation capacities that function as strategic enablers of better participatory processes and spaces, and a more effective governance in general.   

  • The principles, skills, tools, methods and methodologies of our learning cycles, and of participatory action research and people-centered design methodologies in general, are, if appropriately transferred and adapted to the context, a first set of strategic enablers for participatory governance.   

  • From mapping and exploring cases of participatory governance, we have learned that although there are institutionalized spaces for citizen participation, the protagonist and binding character of these spaces, for them to have influence and reach levels of empowerment, is still very limited and vulnerable to the dynamics of political patronage or leadership's lack of will.  

  • In addition, it is a challenge to design innovative institutional mechanisms for participation and participatory governance processes in order to achieve efficiency in the processes and provide confidence to citizens.   

Learning from experimentation through Tavarandu: 

From the capacity building experience, we learned:  

  • The training has provided a platform for networking and peer learning.   

  • The program was effective in generating learning on participatory governance and social innovation. 80% of the participants who completed the evaluation process incorporated the knowledge of participatory governance and social innovation.   

  • The instrument most mentioned by participants was the Municipal Development Council, which represents a strategic opportunity: There is a real opportunity for participatory governance in territorial planning processes, within the current regulatory framework coordinated by central government institutions.   

  • Face-to-face learning remains key to learning these skills. The face-to-face workshops were the ones that best established the knowledge and generated the greatest involvement, especially in their playful components that allowed for dynamic learning through play.   

  • Based on the experience of the course, a successful case is the municipality of Fram, which has managed to incorporate citizen participation bodies such as the Municipal Development Council, and others of a more consultative nature, to diagnose problems and redirect actions.   

  • Citizen participation is a concept that is well regarded and valued but is sometimes understood in a very generic way. The challenge is to strengthen a more precise and actionable understanding of participation.    

  • An organisational and cultural verticality persists that places the will of the institutional political leadership, the mayor, as the determining factor that enables or disables democratic innovation initiatives.   

  • The low political will to create binding spaces for participation is evident in the fact that the most used instances are still those of consultation and accountability, rather than those of effective co-construction of processes, such as, for example, the elaboration of participatory budgets.   

From the implementation of these capacities through the Hechackuaa Citizen Lab, we learned: 

  • Hechakuaa, as a citizen laboratory, represents an innovative and flexible participatory design, which contextualises and combines design thinking principles to bring as many voices as possible into a process of co-creation and implementation of community solutions to sustainable development challenges.  

  • As with training, face-to-face attendance remains key.  

  • Sustainable development objectives, localized at the city level, and driven by local community members, offer a collaborative mission framework that makes it possible to synthesize different interests in the general interest.  

  • The constitution of a driving team with community organizations is a determining factor that provides sustainability to the process.   

  • On a small scale, we were able to observe that the articulation of plans and projects between the community and the government led to concrete and solvent actions.   

  • Finally, we observed that citizen participation is mobilized around the real possibilities of changing their reality. The possibility of implementing community-based solutions to development problems co-created by the community itself encourages participation and commitment in the process.   

And finally, from the bootcamp and hackathon to develop civic technology, we learned:  

  • The adoption of digital platforms for citizen participation in Paraguay faces numerous barriers that condition its potential as a tool to democratize and broaden the scope of participatory governance:   

               - the difficult task of building multidisciplinary teams that effectively integrate people from technology, design and activism to solve the complexity of structural barriers to citizen participation,   

             - the lack of political will and promotion by the state for civic technology projects that go beyond informational or consultative initiatives,   

                - connectivity barriers and the steep learning curve associated with existing open-source platforms for digital participation, which also generally offer little documentation in Spanish, and   

                   - the permanent digital divide is also expressed in the limited skills and experience in using technologies, It is difficult for them, to find the motivation and confidence to dedicate their time to actively participate in the governance of their territories and communities.  

  • Despite the barriers, our experimentation with developing civic technologies also allowed us to identify opportunities:   

                 - latent problems and needs at local and community levels generate a strong level of engagement and interest in young people who are beginning to learn about technology, which is an opportunity for creativity and innovation in using digital tools for future participation,    

               - the dissemination and diversity of citizen participation platforms already developed, open, available, adaptable and usable, with their communities of practice and development,   

             - the potential of university outreach and university partnerships to give birth and sustainability to communities of practice focused on civic technology.   

This wealth of learning and findings presents us with an opportunity to continue contributing to the development of a democracy that is increasingly open and participatory, across all levels and sectors of our society. Let’s all join to continue this learning journey together.

(*) About the title: Tavarandu is a Guaraní word that results from combining two different words: Tava, meaning people, and arandu, meaning wisdom. Tavarandu is the "wisdom of the people", the collective intelligence that emerges when all members of a community are democratically brought together. 

(*) They also contributed to the learnings of this cycle: Gustavo Setrini, Olga Caballero, Fernando Maidana, Alma Figueredo, Romilio González, Violeta Prieto, Marta Canese, Vanessa Cañete, Edda Alcaraz, Génesis Reyes, Ángeles Pérez, Denise Genit y Sady Sarquis.