Invigorating Israeli Democracy
Ronen Goffer and KOL-Active: Israeli Center for Engaging Citizens in Governance
Chief among the challenges inherent in Mandel Leadership Institute's mission to contribute to a thriving Jewish and democratic State of Israel is that of tracking the impact of graduates once they complete their fellowships and take up their professional callings. How do graduates translate their educational and social visions into reality – even when confronted with seemingly daunting challenges? Ronen Goffer (MSEL Cohort 3) provides an example of the Mandel approach to innovation.
Tell us something about how your Mandel background helped lead to your present project.
Upon completing my fellowship at Mandel School of Educational Leadership, I joined the Haim Zippori Community Education Center here in Jerusalem in order to put my MSEL project into action. I founded and directed the Division for Participatory Democracy, and began developing techniques that engaged citizens in deliberative and participatory democratic processes. My experience was valuable and rewarding, and it also inspired me to further develop methods of involving citizens in the civic and democratic system.
Could you describe the need for civic participation in governance in Israeli society?
Israeli democracy, like any other democracy, faces many challenges. Over the years, citizens have expressed a decreasing level of trust in their elected representatives and in the democratic system as a whole. One disturbing indication of this sense of frustration and alienation is the declining rate of Israelis who go to the polls, as evidenced in the recent elections to the Knesset.
The main danger this situation brings about is a declining sense of government legitimacy. The main challenge is therefore in finding ways for an invigoration of the democratic system. One promising approach for achieving this is through effective civil participation in governance which will lead to defusing this frustration, but also to more effective decision-making processes. My proposed center, KOL-Active: Israeli Center for Engaging Citizens in Governance, aims to provide frameworks and tools for facilitating such participation in Israel to lead to invigoration and renewal of democracy. It will develop civil infrastructure at the local and national levels, working in tandem with the state's institutions in order to facilitate a continuous knowledge-based dialogue between citizens and decision-makers. This deliberative approach will serve as the basis for all participatory processes where three-way exchanges will flow between citizens, experts and decision-makers for the resolution of worthy courses of action in relevant issues that effect citizen's lives.
How did your experience at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership (MSEL) and since prepare you for this initiative to engage civic participation in governance?
I attribute my perspective, inquiry process, my analytical and practical skills and methodology to the world of knowledge I encountered as an MSEL fellow. My subsequent experiences reflect further processing of what I gained from Mandel. It is also with the help of Mandel Leadership Institute and the MLI Graduates Unit that I am able to take this vision to its next level of development. This past year, MLI has served as an incubator for my civic governance start-up. This support has been invaluable in enabling me to complete the conceptualizations, planning and start-up phases for the Center.
What have you learned in the process of planning for the Center?
I have looked for models in programs both in Israel and abroad, looking closely at civic governance initiatives in other democracies. In November, I met with the leadership of AmericaSpeaks, an organization widely known for its 21st century revival of the Town Meeting, actively acknowledging the need for civic engagement in governance and decision making. Recognition of this need is evident elsewhere as well, with Citizen Juries and Deliberative Polls active in locations all over the world. In Porto Alegre, Brazil, the municipal budget represents the involvement of some 50,000 citizens, and the model is being applied in European cities. Denmark has instituted a Citizen-Based Consensus Conference, adopted by 15 other countries, and recognized by the European Union. Recently, a citizen-assembly was formed in British Colombia, Canada, to reach a consensus about reforming the electoral system and put it to vote in a referendum.
Here in Israel, initiatives such as Project Renewal of distressed neighborhoods and the Community Authorities in Jerusalem provide examples of local attempts to promote civic governance. Their work has helped me understand the local organizational infrastructures being used for bringing citizens into democratic action, and the terminology with which the concept has begun to penetrate Israeli society.
How will this familiarity with deliberative and participatory democracy be applied in the Center?
My immediate plans for the Israeli Center for Engaging Citizens in Governance embrace three major initiatives:
1. Practical demonstration of civic participation in decision making – KOL-Active will promote institutions and other frameworks to encourage citizens’ participation in decision making within society, and showcasing successful models. The first initiative here is to conduct an AmericaSpeaks type “21st Century Town Meeting” event, at national or local levels, scheduled for late 2007, to involve 1,000-3,000 participants, experts and decision makers, and produce a detailed position paper with priority-setting recommendations.
2. Training "change agents" to promote democracy through civic involvement in deliberation. A "Democracy Fellows" program will train lay leadership and change agents, with 10 participants selected annually. Structurally, this draws on the Mandel Fellows model.
3. eDemocracy – a virtual platform for exchange between citizens, experts and decision makers. With R&D required for creating the digital strategy, this project should be launched by 2008.
Thanks to funding secured from the Goldman Fund, with efforts in progress with other sources as well, prospects for putting these programs into action look positive.
In developing all of these elements of KOL-Active at this critical juncture of its development, I owe a tremendous amount to the support and input from Mandel Leadership Institute and the MLI Graduates Unit. The period this year has allowed me the ability to articulate plans and to build upon the incredible resource of ideas and connections at my disposal through the Mandel network. My dream is that as the success of the Center impacts upon Israeli democracy, it will provide an additional reflection of the ongoing and extensive ripple effect of the Mandel vision on Israeli society.