Citizen Reporting on the future of DerryLondonderry

North West Civic Leadership Project

The Building Change Trust’s Civic Activism Programme aimed to bring decision-making closer to the citizens of Northern Ireland, through the use of innovative and creative engagement methods. 

The Civic Innovation Toolkit documents 29 such methods that had never or very rarely been used in Northern Ireland before. Eight awards were then made to VCSE organisations for the purposes of experimenting with one or more of these methods in relation to a named social or environmental issue. 

This series of Learning Resources documents the successes and challenges of each of the eight projects and provides practical information for those who would like to adopt these methods in their own work. 




This case study focuses on five engagement methods, or tools, used by Holywell Trust to explore people’s thoughts on improving Derry/Londonderry. We hope this short guide will give you some inspiration to try some new engagement methods yourself.

How do you engage with people across an entire city? Holywell Trust took on this ambitious task – they wanted to have a public conversation about how to improve the city of Derry/Londonderry. To hold and facilitate this conversation, they needed to use a variety of public engagement methods to find out different views and opinions from people across the city. This project is still ongoing: find out more below. 

The Project

The North West Civic Leadership project aims to hold public conversations about the future of the city of Derry/Londonderry. This engagement is focusing on four key issues:

  • Innovation and investment 
  • A shared and thriving city centre 
  • Youth aspirations and employment 
  • Breaking the cycle of debt and poverty 

Everything collated from the four themed discussions will be used to help influence positive outcomes for the future of the city. The project engages with key groups such as community activists, young people, the business sector, social enterprise sector, and elected officials.

Holywell Trust used four engagement tools to support their project: 

  • Study groupsParticipants from a range of backgrounds are invited to participate in a group discussion (5-20 people) totackle a theme or issue of particular interest. This is a collaborative and democratic approach to addressing important public issues. Holywell Trust gathered study groups to discuss each of the four themes (as above).They spoke to a broad range of people who had a lot of ideas about how to do things differently, with a wide range of perspectives heard from the various conversations. One challenge of the study group approach was that it took a long time to process the evidence that was gathered. This underestimation of time had a knock-on effect to other parts of the project.
  • Pop-up democracy Gives people the opportunity to participate by going to people where they are for a temporary period of time (e.g. stalls/talking to people in shops or on streets). Holywell Trust piloted tested this engagement method and found that it was not hard to get people to talk about what they want to see changed, but getting other more detailed information about specific things that could be done was more difficult. They needed to test potential questions to ensure that they were asking useful and appropriate questions that would contribute to the overall engagement process. They also needed to prepare eye-catching materials and branding for the pop-up events. They had planned to get a visible and accessible shopfront for an honesty café, giving people a place to come and get involved over a cup of tea or coffee. Unfortunately, this wasn’t possible within the lifetime of the project and there was also a lack of suitable alternative space due to budget restrictions. However project staff had a pop-up cartoon designed to illustrate the whole idea of pop-up discussions and a large event/pop-up discussion stand was produced.  This has proved to be very useful when they were out and about talking to the public.
  • Citizen reportingReal time reporting by people at events or on current affairs, usually through social media. Holywell revived an old community magazine and turned it into a website as the main repository for the project activity and communication. The ‘Fingerpost’ website has some name recognition and follows the same format as the old print magazine, except also includes video, audio and links with social media. Outputs from different strands of engagement work (such as the study groups above) are posted online on the community website and citizen contributions are encouraged. There haven’t been as many contributions as Holywell Trust had hoped for, but they are keen to continue with the website and inform people about the work they are doing. There is also an opportunity to compare the writings of the old Fingerpost magazine to the citizen reports on the four project themes - many of the issues remain the same!
  • Citizen juriesA participatory process used to consider relevant issues with the ‘jury’ made up of members of the public hearing from expert ‘witnesses’, before agreeing a solution or recommendation to be passed on to the relevant decision-makers. Holywell Trust are running a citizen jury on each of the four themes, where they will present the findings from the previous three engagement approaches above. They hope to have decision-makers in the room as observers to hear the outcomes and concerns of local people. Holywell Trust had run some citizen juries several years ago and wanted to use this tool again. They wanted to recruit participants through the Electoral Roll, but were unable to because of data protection issues, so had to ask participants to volunteer through a process of self-selection. They had also hoped to use the local courthouse as a venue, but were unable to do this due to cost. Some advice they would pass on is that managing the process is key as it’s important it becomes a productive conversation and doesn’t turn into a debate. They also advised that the selection of witnesses requires careful consideration, and ensure the witnesses and jury are fully prepared in advance of the event. 

What Worked Well

The study groups were a very productive environment for research because they heard many diverse opinions. One of the reasons for success was using existing networks and contacts to gather participants; it was beneficial that Holywell Trust knew who the right people in the community were with contacts to the relevant groups to bring people together. This worked particularly well within the theme on youth, through contacting various youth groups across the city. 

The process of using these new approaches seem to be well received by the community – no one has yet resisted or rejected the process and there seems to be an acceptance of the tools. This process itself has been innovative because they tried lots of different tools and ways of engaging with people, instead of having all their stakeholders gathered round a table for example. They experimented with a variety of methods, held different conversations with different groups and engaged with new people, e.g. the pop-up democracy pilot enabled them to meet new people.

What Lessons Can Be Learned

Carrying out public engagement exercises over the summer has been challenging, as people are away on holidays, resulting in varying levels of engagement. 

Reaching the wider community who might not necessarily know who Holywell Trust are or about the work they do has been a challenge. There are some in the community who know them well and see them as a trusted institution. However, they had previously not actively promoted their work, which has been largely about peace building and community relations. There is a concern that they are not reaching people beyond their existing contacts, due to people not knowing who they are nor seeing them as a credible organisation. 

Holywell Trust are keeping track of how government and society responds to the outcomes of the discussions by reporting the citizen juries’ outcomes. The main task is getting policymakers in the room as observers, then keeping pressure up as a campaign for the recommendations to be taken on board. There is a further challenge because the community plan is seen as the be-all and end-all and unless actions are included in the plan, the needs of people in Derry/Londonderry may not be fully recognised and met. Holywell Trust are concerned that the citizen juries’ output may miss the window in terms of making it into the community plan, but they expect there to be some overlap in terms of actions and themes. 

Holywell Trust want to mainstream citizen juries and keep the Fingerpost citizen-reporting website going. They also want to re-invigorate the ‘We Are Legenderry’ campaign from the City of Culture Year 2013.  Project staff have raised this during pop-up discussions and there is a lot of support from the public for the campaign.  

Measuring and showing impact from the work done so far (study groups and one citizen jury) is difficult, but they expect to be able to demonstrate more impact towards the end of the project when the outputs from the citizen jury and pop-up discussions have been collated. Holywell Trust believe there is lots of potential for the impact of the public debate and campaign to improve the city. Watch this space!

More Information

All projects in the Civic Activism Programme were supported by The Democratic Society and Involve, who provided mentorship, guidance, international experience and access to a range of Learning Partners.

The Building Change Trust was established in 2008 by the Big Lottery Fund (now The National Lottery Community Fund) with a National Lottery grant of £10 million, as an investment for community capacity building and promotion of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland. This funding was both invested and spent in full by the end of 2018 when the Trust closed.

The Holywell Trust has been working on community development, peace building since 1988 and now works more widely in facilitating understanding and healing. 

For more information about the organisations and the project: 


Twitter: @HolywellT @Fingerpost_ie