A Lesson in Democracy. The Municipalities of Children and Young Adults at the Beginning of the 21st Century

Anu Gretschel and Tomi Kiilakoski (eds.)

(In Finnish: Demokratiaoppitunti. Lasten ja nuorten kunta 2010-luvun alussa)

This book examines the extent of the participation of children and young adults in municipal decision-making processes, as consumers of local services and as civic activists. Additionally, the book explores the subject of the position of children’s and young adults’ participation on a more general level. The book presents the scope of the ways in which participation can manifest itself in a variety of different forms; the work consists of the joint reflection of experts from 24 different fields of science. The majority of the data used in the book is collected from children and young adults themselves, using both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Promoting the participation of children and young adults has been one of the central themes of Finnish youth politics since the mid-1990s. The foundations of children’s and young adults’ participation in civic process are secured under Finnish law, however the book presents a number of ways in which municipal, education and early-learning laws could be developed even further. A number of permanent positions have been founded in order to support and foster continued participation. Nonetheless it would appear that the full potential of children’s and young adults’ participation remains unrealised despite the existence of sound legal structures. The strengthening of children’s and young adults’ position will require a shift in attitudes, the close scrutinising of young people’s operating culture in the local political sphere, further examination of groups and individuals as separate entities, and the deconstruction of certain power structures. Indeed, the book demonstrates that the participation of children and young adults is a matter beyond legal and political structures: it is about action and interaction between people.

The promotion and fostering of further participation is portrayed in the book as being inherently different on different levels. In political decision-making, increased participation can be advanced by strengthening the various forms of political action. For those using a service, participation is about the receipt of information, participating in a plan, in decision-making, assessment, and in putting plans into practice. Because of the inherent difficulties of shared power and responsibility, the slim possibilities for action, and the flow of information, the realisation of participation in different service situations often presents a number of challenges. In addition to municipal activities, there is still much to be improved with regard to the participation of organisations in civic society. In a broad sense, the central question is that of the boundaries and extent of young people’s agency. The goal of giving children and young people an equal and accepted position as a member of the local community can be achieved by giving them some amount of power and responsibility. We must also work actively to remove any factors that may impinge upon or stand in the way of such agency. In this respect, participation inhabits both the political and the social realm.

The book provides a cross-section of the state of Finnish municipalities at the beginning of the 21st century; it explores the models already in place for involving children and young adults in decision-making processes and asks what could be done to improve the situation. The book examines from a variety of perspectives the ways in which children’s and young adults’ participation is made possible. In comparison with the current debate on participation, the book highlights a number of fresh points of view. The involvement of children and young adults in local decision-making processes should take place on individual, group and collective levels, in relation both to our social and physical environments and in all democratic arenas (representative, direct, participatory, deliberative and counter-democracy). Participation is a very broad phenomenon, and the fostering of this phenomenon in Finnish society still requires input on a whole host of levels.