Impact Story

“Big Changes Theory”: Building a Civic Culture

July 21, 2023
Soviet narratives and the continued influence of Russia in independent Ukraine instilled certain paradigms of civic life in the minds of Ukrainians, causing significant damage to the nation’s political culture. In the summer of 2022, two experts from the Institute of Analytics and Advocacy initiated the “Big Changes Theory” program with the aim of teaching citizens to apply critical thinking to political candidates’ platforms.

Soviet narratives and the continued influence of Russia in independent Ukraine instilled certain paradigms of civic life in the minds of Ukrainians, causing significant damage to the nation’s political culture. Voter turnout during local elections has been low, and candidates regularly manipulate and deceive in their election campaigning. Often, candidates distribute food packages in an effort to “buy” votes in the elections. Some make clearly false claims, promising to implement changes that in fact are beyond the remit of the position for which they are running. From one election to another, the percentage of voting-age citizens who actually cast their votes steadily decreases.

In Poltava, for example, voter turnout in the last election was 37%. In the run-up to the election, people continued to complain about high tariffs, the poor quality of public transportation, the neglect of historical buildings, and the illegal enrichment schemes of many officials. It seems that Ukrainians do not make the logical connection between the individuals they elect to positions of power and the implementation of policies in the city. They seem not to understand that broken-down public buses result from previous election votes.

In the summer of 2022, Dr. Olena Dmytrenko and Ms. Iryna Domnenko, experts from the Institute of Analytics and Advocacy, began to think about how to change the situation in their city, Poltava. While the voting public had already demonstrated its desire to replace corrupt government officials when it brought Volodymyr Zelenskyy to power in 2019, the full-scale war in Ukraine has deepened that commitment. Ukrainians have shown that they are ready to work to reform their country and to actively participate in problem-solving and decision-making—that is, to take responsibility for the transformation. At the same time, it was evident that many Ukrainians lacked basic knowledge of how the state and its institutions worked, and how they should work. In other words, tremendous interest and desire collided with the barrier of insufficient understanding of the processes involved in governance. People wanting to help sometimes made the situation worse. For example, some aimed petitions at officials who had no influence over the issues in question. Others demanded changes to the Constitution of Ukraine, though such changes cannot be taken up during a state of war. Many have taken fakes and disinformation at face value, not understanding that is essential to verify the reliability of the information.

Thus, in July 2022, the “Big Changes Theory” course was born. The idea behind it was that in local elections held after Ukraine’s victory, it will be crucial for voters to understand what they are doing and the consequences voting will have. The first elections following the victory will set the course for the entire postwar recovery. The course developers paid particular attention to first-time voters, as these are the ones who must break the old Soviet-influenced Ukrainian paradigm of decision-making and adopt a better approach: Ordinary citizens must read and apply critical thinking to candidates’ programs, participate in public life, and understand their rights and responsibilities.

Dmytrenko and Domnenko set out to design and implement a course on the fundamentals of civic institutions and behavior that would help fill the knowledge gaps for young people and shape new leaders with a proactive mindset. The mission of the Institute of Analytics and Advocacy is to create tools and approaches that assist citizens in making rational decisions. IAA believes that thorough analysis should precede decision-making. However, for officials to value analytics and be able to use them in their work, we need to ensure that the people we put in power are highly competent.

That is why the “Big Changes Theory” course is designed for the long term. Pilot program participants will not become ministers overnight, but they will return to their communities and their social circles to become ambassadors of progressive conceptions of civil society. The second and third waves of the course will expand its target audience and its geographical reach. Gradually, more people will be prepared to participate actively in socio-political life. They will no longer be satisfied with a food package in exchange for a vote; they will be interested in candidates’ programs and promises. They will ask questions. They will be ready to make conscious choices with an understanding of the consequences. Some will become the leaders responsible for completing Ukraine’s integration into the European Union.

The researchers from the IAA combined their competencies to create the Big Changes Theory course as a unique product. Dmytrenko holds a doctorate in political science, and Domnenko is a trainer and facilitator specializing in adult education. They wrapped the theoretical material in practical tasks, moved away from a lecture-based approach, and focused on discussions and group work. The tasks build up communication skills, the ability to conduct reasoned discussions, and the skill of questioning and reaching agreements. All of this fosters critical thinking and develops “healthy“ decision-making. The first five modules and their pilot programs have shown excellent results, with participants demonstrating a 30% increase in their level of knowledge.

Daryna Ivanko, a participant in the pilot course, shared her experience:

When I enrolled in the course, I thought it would be just regular lectures that I could listen to for general knowledge. But I was surprised to see complex concepts being explained in simple terms. I learned a lot about Constitutional Law, stereotyping, and equality. Analyzing the political spectrum and understanding the tax system was precious. The homework assignments were unconventional. I have already been able to apply the knowledge in my work with the Youth Council.... The course directed me to further explore these concepts, improve my understanding, and try to communicate my knowledge to others in an accessible way.

The designers of the “Big Changes Theory” courses know that overcoming legacies of the past is a long-term game. Yet they have no doubt that young people like Daryna will significantly improve Ukraine’s civic culture in just a few years.