Democracy and citizens: how to increase people’s engagement at the local level?

The challenges facing the world in recent years are bringing about a recession of democracy and increasingly contributing to the polarisation of society. It is local governments that are proving to be more credible than national governments, because they have the ability to actively involve citizens and to respond both flexibly and innovatively to urgent issues such as humanitarian aid or economic crises.

Monika Chabrior, Vice-Mayor of Gdansk, Lenka Antalová Plavuchová, Vice-Mayor of Bratislava, Gábor Kerpel Fronius, Vice-Mayor of Budapest, and Nicole Wright Patrick, Programme Manager at the National Democratic Institute, will discuss how local governments can increase the engagement of their citizens.

The discussion will take place in cooperation with the National Democratic Institute, which focuses on local government leadership and implements the long-term programme Central European Initiative for Democracy in the Visegrad countries.

11:45 – 12:30 Democracy and Innovations in the Environment of Central European Local Governments (Monika Chabior, Lenka Plavuchová AntalováGábor Kerpel Fronius; hosted by Nicole Wright Patrick)

New perspective at the role of public administration in promoting democracy

Udržanie a posilnenie demokracie, ktorá je pre všetkých, je vecou a zodpovednosťou nás všetkých. Nielen politikov, političiek, ale aj občianskej spoločnosti a ľudí pôsobiacich vo verejnej správe.

Na Impact Summite preto výstúpia riaditelia Multitudes Foundation, Sarah Durieux a Jeff Kwasi Klein. Hovoriť budú o inovatívnom pohľade na úlohu občianskej spoločnosti a štátu pri podpore demokracie.

14:20 – 14:50 New role of civil society and the state in promoting democracy

Lisa Witter, co-founder of the Apolitical Foundation, will present inspiring examples of leadership in public administration from Europe and outline why democracy can be a hot topic for philanthropy and impact investors.

14:00 – 14:20 Inspiring examples of leadership in public service from Europe

Political innovations: a necessity for democracy and a bogeyman for authoritarian leaders

Johanna Mair, a Stanford University professor, describes the new concept of political innovations in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It was developed in response to the recession of democracy, which has been accompanied by an increase in polarization, authoritarianism and social conflict.1 This concept emphasizes that innovation can be an effective means of addressing the political problems that constrain democracy.    

Democracy-strengthening activities are not new; nor is it new in Slovakia. Since the 1990s, initiatives to improve political culture or to advocate for greater transparency have been emerging in our country.

Since 2012, through the Fund for Transparent Slovakia, companies have supported watchdog and analytical organizations that contribute to monitoring compliance with laws or ethical standards and to reducing the space for corruption and state capture.

Civil society engagement

It is common for civil society initiatives to respond with solutions to socio-economic problems and to engage in policy-making in this regard. Only democracies with authoritarian features can be concerned about civil society’s involvement in improving democracy.

When do we talk about democracy-strengthening activities and when do we talk about political innovations?
Professor Johanna Mair introduced the concept of political innovations in an article in the Standford Social Innovation Review, Emerging Field of Political Innovation. She states that when we talk about political innovations, we are primarily referring to initiatives by civil society organizations that identify problems in the political system and work together to solve them.

Political innovations activities can target:  
– citizens – mobilizing those people who feel excluded in some way from the political system;   
– leaders – they involve identifying and educating young people who are already engaged in politics;   
– systemic change – seeking to reform democratic infrastructure and rules.2 

These days, the Public Leadership Academy program is closing applications. It helps to professionalize experts of state and public institutions, developing their leadership, management and implementation skills. Through these activities, the program builds a community of professionals whose goal is to improve the quality of life in Slovakia, and can be classified as a political innovation.

According to Johanna Mair, political innovation is meant to be a collective effort and to ensure that democracy remains an effective system for achieving social progress. In other words, maintaining and strengthening democracy that is for all is the business and responsibility of all of us, not just politicians.

The role of social innovation in the recovery of democracy

Innovation is instrumental in bringing about new solutions. Most often we encounter technological innovations.

But we can also respond innovatively to societal problems or challenges we face in governing countries – the rise of authoritarian leaders, the curtailment of free media, the weakening role of civil society, the lack of participation of excluded communities or minorities. These can all be barriers that we can address through social innovation by bringing new ideas, testing them and scaling them.

It is the use of social innovation tools that characterizes political innovation.

Impact Summit

Johanna Mair will talk more about policy innovation at the Impact Summit on 5 December.

Specific examples from Europe will be presented by Sarah Durieux and Jeff Kwasi Klein from the Multitudes Foundation, which supports political innovators.

Lisa Witter, Director of the Apolitical Foundation, will talk about the role of civil servants, and lessons from practice that can motivate leaders in public administration.

Last but not least, the importance of innovation in promoting democracy will be highlighted by our key note speaker, Ben Rhodes, advisor to Barack Obama.


(1) In 2022, for the first time in almost two decades, there are more autocratic states than democracies in the world. In its 2022 global findings report, the Bertelsmann Stiftung categorised 70 of 137 countries as autocracies and named another 11 as “highly defective democracies” that are prone towards autocracy.
In 2021, Freedom House reported a new peak in the 15-year global “democratic recession”. Populist movements continue to divide society and, according to the 2021 Democracy Index, even countries with “stable” democracies scored low on citizen participation. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, conducted in 28 countries, 42% of citizens worldwide distrust government leaders and 48% see government as a divisive force.

(2) Mair, J., Kindt, J., & Mena, S. (2023). The Emerging Field of Political Innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 21(2), 24–29. 

President Barack Obama’s advisor to speak at Impact Summit

Ben Rhodes will provide a global perspective on the recession of democracy, and we will also welcome an academic from Stanford University and public figures from Slovakia.

At the Impact Summit, we will connect people from business, government and civil society. The biggest societal challenge we are currently facing in the world and in Europe is the strengthening of democratic principles. We will therefore bring speakers who will name the causes of the crisis of democracy and describe a number of current trends from abroad that contribute to solving this problem. At the conference we will also present committed people from Slovakia and their activities changing our country for the better.

Main topics of the Impact Summit

When we were preparing the program at the beginning of the year, among several trends and themes, one was more prominent – the threat to some democracy principles. This is a global problem that threatens even advanced democracies, not only Slovakia. We have written about it in more detail in a previous article.

One of the key tools to address such societal challenges are social innovations that can introduce workable solutions to the identified problems. We will showcase them at the Summit. We also intend to connect the civic, public and private sectors, as only the collaboration of people from different spheres can deliver sustainable solutions.

At the Pontis Foundation, we believe that the relationship between democracy and social innovation is reciprocal. Strong democratic principles are the basis for further innovation in all areas. Conversely, innovation enables the strengthening of a modern democracy that can take care of the needs of all citizens.

The global and local context of the crisis of democracy

At the Impact Summit we will talk about the reasons for the recession of democracy. Benjamin J. Rhodes, American author, political commentator, former National Security Advisor and Strategic Communications Advisor to President Barack Obama, will be the keynote speaker. Ben will present the reasons for the rise of authoritarian leaders in Europe, he will also talk about the “orbanization” of Central Europe. He will show the context of political and social developments, naming the role of Central Europe and Slovakia in the context of the decline of democracy, the war in Ukraine, and the challenging socio-economic situation of the population. He will highlight the role of civil society and social innovation as a product of civil society organizations.

A psychologist, journalist and sociologist will meet. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but at the Impact Summit they will talk about serious issues. Psychologist, senior trainer, consultant at PDCS Dušan Ondrušek, editor-in-chief of SME daily Beata Balogová, sociologist, director of Focus research agency Martin Slosiarik will talk about the current state of democracy in Slovakia and possible solutions to strengthen it.

Cooperation and social innovation

We consider cooperation between people from different spheres to be crucial for the success of social innovations. In particular, Michaela Kršková, the first Chief Innovation Officer of the Slovak government, Michal Hladký, Director of Creative Industry Košice, a representative of the Slovak Savings Bank (TBA) and a representative of the public administration (TBA) will talk about cooperation between the public, corporate and civil sectors together in a panel discussion. They will analyze the role of public administration in supporting social innovation, including challenges and successes. We will also inquire the vision and idea of cross-sector collaboration. Topics will also include an update on the current status of the Research and Innovation Strategy and the role of all sectors in delivering the strategy.

Political inovations

We are very pleased that Johanna Mair, Professor at the Hertie School in Berlin, has accepted the invitation to the Impact Summit. She is also a visiting professor at Stanford University and editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, a peer-reviewed journal that is an authority on social innovation. In this interview, she introduces the concept of policy innovation. Behind this concept lies social innovation aimed at strengthening democracy – reducing the gap between civil society actors and politicians, increasing trust, and collaboration between politicians, civil society and the business sector. Johanna will explain how to involve under-represented groups in politics. She will also talk about the role of philanthropy in policy innovation.

A concrete idea of political innovation will be presented by the directors of the Multitudes FoundationSarah Durieux and Jeff Kwasi Klein. From their presentation, we can anticipate a disruption (in a positive sense) of the current perception of the role of civil society and the state in promoting democracy. Sarah and Jeff will also bring a number of examples from the recent Europe-wide call for political innovation.

Examples from Slovakia

Interspersed throughout the Impact Summit will be short presentations by CSOs involved in the Impact Lab Incubator and Impact Lab Accelerator. Representatives of the organizations will show concrete examples from Slovakia through which they contribute to reducing threats to democracy, for example through education, support for critical thinking, training of leaders in public administration, etc. as follows Martina Bolibruchová (Zmudri), Martin Kováč (Old Catholics in Slovakia), Jakub Hrbáň (Climate Needs You), Michal Horský (Demdis), Michala Hrdinová (Public Leadership Academy), Ľuboš Kostelanský (Transparency International Slovakia).

Social innovations and democracy will be the main themes of the Impact Summit

The conference will bring together people from business, civil society and government. Together they will seek solutions to key challenges facing society.

Democracy and its principles are under great pressure in countries around the world. It is being weakened by hybrid war, relativization of facts and looking up to authoritarian types of leaders. Undermining and questioning the role of civil society does not help it as well. Together, this leads to an increase in political polarities and social conflicts. As early as 2021, Freedom House has spoken of a ‘democratic recession’ in the world and a rising number of authoritarian regimes.

Data from the Prosperity Index, recently prepared by Slovenská sporiteľňa, show that Slovakia is at the tail end of some democratic principles among the 27 European countries.

In response to this, Pontis Foundation is organizing an Impact Summit. It will bring together the civil, public and corporate sectors. “People from these sectors should have conversations on the important social issues, share experiences in finding solutions and work together,” says Martina Kolesárová, Executive Director of Pontis Foundation, adding that the main topics of the first edition of the Impact Summit will be social innovation and democracy. She adds that meaningful collaboration is a prerequisite for successful problem solving in society and has also stood out as a need from the innovation actors themselves.

Social innovation – solving societal problems

“For almost 25 years we have been working to bring about positive change in our country. Our vision is Slovakia where people want to live, work and learn,” explains Martina Kolesárová, who believes that our country faces several challenges.

Concrete examples of social innovations are an appropriate response to the challenges we face not only locally but also globally. They address a range of topics from the quality of education to economic and social inequalities to the climate crisis. In Slovakia, thanks to the collaboration between the civil sector and the Research and Innovation Authority (VAIA) at the Government Office, social innovation is for the first time included in a strategic document to support innovation and the innovation ecosystem.

Social innovation is one of the key priorities of the Pontis Foundation. Last year, for the second time, we implemented mapping of capable and smart people from the civic, public and business sectors. The result was the Social Innovators Map. We continue in pursuing our work. It is important that social innovators and their supporters connect.

In a few days we will be electing our representatives in the parliamentary elections in Slovakia.

Connecting people from all sectors, who are working to strengthen democracy, will be important for our society, regardless the outcome of the elections. And in case, that political forces that do not represent democratic values prevail, support for democratic principles will be more acute than we anticipated when planning the Impact Summit themes.

Inspiration from abroad and domestic social innovations

“Free elections are not the only part of a stable democracy. Elections, while they get a lot of attention, are only a smaller part of the democratic equation. A much bigger part belongs to creating the conditions in which citizens can have a stronger voice, actively participate in their communities, or be better off by reducing corruption. These are the areas that the social innovators work and their achievements will be presented at the event,” explains Martina Kolesárová.

Exclusive guests from the USA and Europe will talk about their perception of democracy in Central Europe, as well as how social innovation can contribute to its strengthening and about a more trustworthy public administration. We will show examples of how modern philanthropy can support democracy. A sociologist, a journalist and a psychologist will reflect on the development and current state of democracy in our country. We will present Slovak initiatives supporting democratic principles and through discussions between experts, intellectuals, journalists and activists, we will suggest the way how to cooperate on their successful implementation.

Participation in the event is by invitation only, Impact Summit will be free of charge for those registered.

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