The government is planning to approve a national strategy of integration and cohesion entitled Lõimuv Eesti 2020 by the end of this year. The Praxis think tank and Institute of Baltic Studies organised six discussion groups in spring in order to gather input for the strategy from one of its significant target groups – people living in Estonia who do not have Estonian or EU citizenship, incl. Russian citizens and people with unspecified nationality. This week we will publish reports on the proposals of these people. We have heard many opinions around us and in public debates along the lines of “integration policy has failed because nothing has changed”. I am sure that the integration policy, development and action plans in this area will be all the more effective when the opinions of the target groups in these matters are listened to.

Paying attention to involvement methods

In the last two years, the public has discussed the options open to interest groups and the public to participate in policymaking processes. Remember letters of NGOs to the Constitutional Committee of the Riigikogu giving feedback on the establishment and financing of democratic development foundations (DASA), or an online platform for crowd-sourcing ideas and proposals to amend electoral laws in the People’s Assembly (Rahvakogu), or the Arvamusfestival in Paide, which emphasized the values of friendly and open discussions. There are various ways of involving people and it is an integral part of policymaking today. Luckily, it is becoming more popular and comprehensive in Estonia, too.

However, at present there are many people in Estonia who are out of reach of the chance to participate in public debates. Therefore we still need to pay attention to how we talk to one another and what kind of engagement methods we can use to bring more people into open discussions. The method is always in the service of the purpose and it helps create high-quality content.

I will highlight an initiative that grew out of cooperation between think tank Praxis and the Institute of Baltic Studies this spring. Our purpose was to involve people living in Estonia who are citizens of other countries and people with unspecified nationality in the preparation of the new integration strategy to be completed this year. This turned out to be an exciting project which also encourages involving those population groups who have been left out of discussions so far. This experience showed how important it is to deal with finding the right method for meaningful discussion that leads to constructive proposals.

Involving minorities is considered complicated

While the latest examples of inclusion which have caught the public’s attention have dealt with the question of how to garner the opinions of all of the inhabitants of Estonia, our initial task was the opposite: to reach a very specific group. In the bureaucratic language they are called ‘third-country nationals in Europe’ who have so far been a very important target group in integration policy. We are talking about 15% of the Estonian population.

90% of third-country nationals have a long-term residence permit which gives them the right to stand and vote in local government elections. The rest (10%) – people with temporary residence permits – have no formal right to participate in policy development in Estonia. Also, people with unspecified nationality who live in Estonia include the smallest proportion of those who think that the course of developments in our country depends on the people, who think they can influence society and feel competent in politics. Amongst Russian nationals living in Estonia, there are three times more people who are critical towards local civil society and their participation rate in civic initiatives is very low. Even irrespective of nationality and citizenship, people with such attitudes are difficult to involve in the development process of integration politics and credibly declare to them that the ‘state’ is interested in their opinion.

Almost 170 people participated in the Open Forums “Shared Future” which were held this spring all over Estonia. Citizens from 25 countries in the 22-76 age brackets were represented. The number of Russian participants was highest, whereas the percentage of US citizens was bigger and that of people with unspecified nationality smaller than in the whole population. For example, an investment entrepreneur who had been living in Estonia for a long time and a supermarket cashier happened to sit at the same table and share common concerns. So Open Forums gave a chance for people who would have otherwise never met to work out solutions by complementing one another. This result was possible thanks to a systematic method of involvement called the citizen’s panels.

Focus on working out solutions

Citizen’s panels are one method of involving people, developed to shape informed opinion about how decision-makers could proceed with a policy subject and how to handle complex problems that are influenced by and tightly connected to one another. Participants of Open Forums could choose two out of the four suggested topics for each discussion. In the end, seven topics were discussed: labour market; education; teaching of Estonian and its quality; public services and access to information; the regional peculiarities and needs of Ida-Viru County; participation in decision-making processes and community activities; and cultural diversity. People showed so much interest in these subjects that the discussions which started at the sessions moved on to Facebook groups afterwards.

In the process of policy development, we must always move forward from mapping problems to finding solutions. In this phase, however, the people who are influenced by future decisions are often not involved. The discussion groups confirmed our earlier experience that it is easier to talk about problems and more difficult to think about the activities and programmes that are needed to solve them and which institutions or people should implement the solutions. Finding solutions and getting proposals turned out to be easier thanks to thorough preliminary work based on the specific method of the citizen’s panel. For example, prior to events, participants were sent information materials explaining each topic, there were experts on all of the subjects discussed at the sessions, most of the time during the discussions was spent formulating proposals; the suggestions of all groups were documented and sent to the participants for review.

Applying proposals improves effects of integration policy

Several proposals suggested at the discussion groups support the objectives of the draft version of the new strategy of integration and social cohesion in Estonia – “Lõimuv Eesti 2020”. However, people mainly recognised shortcomings in current integration policy, and in finding solutions other policy areas were touched on as well. Several proposals formulated do not presume legislative amendments or u-turns in development strategies, but rather refer to the acute need to make Estonian public services more user-friendly.

Our biggest surprise was that only a few participants knew what opportunities had been created for them in recent years to obtain information and educate themselves on living and participating in Estonian society. It is a problem, because foreigners and people with unspecified nationality living in Estonia struggle a lot with finding information and answers to their everyday needs. The budget of the new strategy would be wasted, however big or small it was, if it could not be guaranteed that the information regarding significant possibilities and support provided would reach those who could gain most from it.

The more there are such activities that correspond to the actual and specific needs of target groups and which they also believe in, the more visible the results of integration policy will be. The proposals made at the Open Forums by third-country nationals have been drawn together, published in three languages and sent to the decision-makers. As always with involving people into policy making processes, the main risk is not whether we are able to come up with relevant proposals and good quality – ultimate success depends on policy-makers and how seriously they consider using the suggested proposals in drawing up activity plans for upcoming years.

Organisation of the discussion groups was supported by the European Fund for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals, the Ministry of Culture and the ‘Our People’ Integration and Migration Foundation.

Source: New Impetus for Encouraging Integration, Postimees