What is democracy today? Is democracy always about being represented and some third parties making decisions in the name of the citizen? The concept of democracy has certainly shifted towards representative democracy. This specific understanding of democracy has been accompanied by laws that strengthen the idea of representative democracy and the emergence of a number of institutions to accommodate this way of working.
Initially there were three main actors — citizens, representatives and institutions — plus political parties to articulate the relationship between citizens and representatives. With the evolution of political parties, specially towards the cartel model, parties have taken the place of representatives and even embedded themselves into institutions.
Political Representation today is a legal relationship, non-disposable by the citizen, low binding for the citizen, and mediated (and conditioned) by political parties.
How is the Internet challenging this status quo? There have been many initiatives of many kinds (Decidim Barcelona, Appgree, Quorum, Qué Hacen los diputados, etc.) that are challenging the idea of representation.
Pitkin lists five characteristics of political representation that are necessarily changing with the digital revolution and the reasons behind the emergence of social movements in the XXIst century, especially after the Arab Spring and, for the case of Spain, the 15M Indignados Movement:
e.g. autorization changes meaning when people can for instance vote in primaries, or perform some degree of direct democracy within an e-participation initiative.
The potential of these tools majorly depends on usage, especially how representatives use them or allow their use by citizens.
Sebastián Martín Martín: how are this shifts affecting the definition of the people, the demos? Are we just looking at citizens as individuals only and forgetting that, since Rousseau, the people is something else, is the individuals but also the collective?
Sebastián Martín Martín: what if representative democracy is no more what it used to be, and embedding technopolitics in it is not feasible just because the assumption that there is such a represented sovereignty is not true? What if sovereignty resides not in the people but elsewhere (e.g. the European Commission) and thus cannot be devolved?
Sebastián Martín Martín: what if digital agoras are not Habermasian agoras, but places of polarization, hate speech, misinformation, etc.? What has happened elsewhere (e.g. Iceland)?
Joaquim Brugué Torruella: can we generalize these initiatives? Isn’t it too early to propose a new comprehensive model for digital democracy?
Joaquim Brugué Torruella: are we talking about Internet? Or are we talking about a new trend towards direct democracy? Is it true that “there is no way back” because of the Internet, or are there other reasons for a dire change in democracy and society? Do we need to improve representation, or intermediation, with independence of the existence of the Internet?
Joaquim Brugué Torruella: is the Internet just a new aggregator of wills, or is it something else? Do we know how many people actually want to be represented? How many people are actually disenchanted by representation and why? Is it a crisis of inefficacy of politicians, or a crisis of inability to deliver of politics?
Joan Font Fabregas: is this a research on the impact of representation, or about the possibilities or potentials of the Internet to improve democracy? Is it the same thing?
Joan Font Fabregas: it is arguable that digital tools have a huge potential for transformation, but can we tell which ones work better than other ones? What are the drawbacks? Will all of them work in the same direction, or can they produce different (even opposing) conclusions?
It is true that the Internet will neither solve “everything” nor will the results be independent on the specific usage given to digital tools.
It is also true that it is difficult to make some statements about the potential of the Internet in politics. Will it deliver? Will it be revolutionary? We honestly do not know… yet. The research can only point at gates that seem to be opening and peek inside to see how a probable future would be like. But it seems obvious that if something as basic as communication has so deeply changed, it is to be expected that everything that is built upon commnication — as politics — will necessarily change and quite deeply.
Chairs: Raül Romeva, ministry of global affairs, institutional relationships and transparency, Government of Catalonia
Jaume López, Univesitat Pompeu Fabra
Jefferson said that the values of the past should align with the projects of the future: every generation should write their own constitution.
Representative democracy, deliberative/participatory democracy and direct democracy as three methodologies that complement each other. Democracy is about choosing the best tools to make decisions, but also to overcome the most dangerous hazards. Best results usually rely on best designs. That’s why the importance of the democratic design. Participation is a good tool to open constitutional processes to the citizenry.
What is to be expected in a constitutional process?
A constitutional text of the maximum quality, representing an actual understanding of democracy, acknowledged by most.
An exercise of citizen of empowerment and emancipation, that legitimates the new political system, combining the virtues of direct, deliberative and representative democracy. Deliberation has to be of the most quality and widely participated by everyone.
The probability of success depends on the acknowledged need for a change and the coincidence in the methodology to perform that change.
There is a global trend that democracy is becoming more direct and participated. And there hardly is a chance for turning back to strictly representative politics. The results, though, vary: participation does not necessarily lead to quality. Design matters.
Six examples in the world: Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile.
Ireland used a mixed commission on constitutional reforms: citizens chosen at random and some politicians.
The process of deliberation delivered great outputs. It smoothed the opposing points of view and contributed to the creation of a consensus on complicated issues. The combination of proposals of constitutional reforms plus a confirming referendum proved to be a good design.
There was a constitutional assembly but, before that, there was a pre-constitutional referendum that was binding for the constitutional assembly plus a post-constitutional referendum. The latter was on purpose so that the issue at stake did not block the rest of the reforms, arguably easier to debate and vote.
The assembly had to decide not only content, but also methodology, and it ended up being blocked. It would have been a good idea that the methodology had already been set for the assembly to use it for deliberation on content.
Of course, the existence of the assembly and the parliament presented a major problem of legitimacy.
The need that both chambers of the parliament had to approve the final text implied negotiations between the party in office and the opposition, and somewhat denaturalized the whole “citizen” process, which became much less participated.
A little bit more than 1% of the total population contributed with proposals to the constitutional reform. And this happened without a precise participatory methodology, which made it difficult to advance in the process. This fact was used by the presidency to have a major role in the whole process, again denaturalizing the constitutional participatory process.
There was a national citizen forum, chosen by lot, and there was a reporting commission chosen at the elections. But if only citizens, as individuals, write the constitutions, the resulting text is weak and lacks legitimacy. Now the text is seen as a reference document, but cannot be directly put into practice and has thus been set aside.
The government appointed a Monitoring Citizen Council. The Self-Scheduled Local Meetings were a decentralitzed way to contribute to the constitutional process, to which 1% of the population participated with their deliberations and debates in up to 8,000 meetings.
The resulting proposals were sent to the presidency as the Citizen Basis for the New Constitution.
The participative process still has no clear definition on the later stages. So, the process has been initiated without knowing how it will end.
Most of the deliberation went around democracy itself.
There was no constitutional process, because it was due after the referendum of independence and in case Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom. But there was a document written by the Scottish government defining a constitutional convention with a participatory and inclusive citizen process.
It is good that a constitutional process has different stages and each one has different designs/logic. Each stage underlines a specific aspect of democracy.
The connection between stages is very important. The outputs of a given stage have to feed the following one. There cannot be steps backward in terms of rights or of things learned or even in decisions made.
Initial participation somehow sets the pace and scope of the whole process. It will be different to begin with a small set of “experts” rather that with a massive grassroots participation.
Choosing members of commissions at random is generally a good thing for the sake of plurality.
Commissions can be mixed (citizens and politicians) or not (only citizens, only politicians). In any case, plurality within the commission is a must. Among other things, it contributes to establish links between stages.
There is no need to begin with the draft of a constitution. It can be done thus, but there is no need. Supporting documents (reports, etc.) can be handy.
Not even constitutional elections themselves are needed. There is not even the need to stop all legislative activity during the constitutional process. But the final text of the constitution is usually written at the parliament, in an official commission/assembly (although it can be made up by citizens too or even only citizens).
Jordi Rich: can citizens not only participate, but lead the constitutional process? Can citizens have a say in what topics are to be debated in constitutional processes? How to guarantee that the results are binding?
Teresa Forcades: how can constitutional processes be initiated when the momentum for change is unclear? What happens when there is no consensus on the need for a constitutional reform?
In September 2015, Madrid — the capital of Spain — initiated a participatory democracy project, Decide Madrid (Madrid decides), to enable participatory strategic planning for the municipality. Less than half a year after, in February 2016, Barcelona — the second largest city in Spain and capital of Catalonia — issued their own participatory democracy project: decidim.barcelona (Barcelona we decide). Both cities use the same free software platform as a base, and are guided by the same political vision.
The success of the initiatives and the strong political vision behind them have caused an outburst of other initiatives around the whole state – and most especially in Catalonia – that are working to emulate the two big cities. They are sharing their free-software-based technology, their procedures and protocols, their reflections both on open events as in formal official meetings. What began as seemingly a one-time project, has spread both in length and width. In length, because it will not only stay but grow over time. In width, because there are serious plans to expand its adoption both at the regional level, led by the Barcelona County Council, and at the Spanish State level, being replicated by other municipalities.
Of course, the big question is whether this has had any positive impact in the quality of democracy, the very intention behind the participatory initiative in Barcelona.
Available open documentation suggests that decidim.barcelona has increased the information access of the citizens, has gathered more citizens around key issues. There has been an increase of participation, with citizen created proposals that have been widely supported and legitimated and finally accepted to be part of the municipality strategic plan. As pluralism has been enhanced without damaging the existing social capital, we can only think that the increase of participation has led to an improvement of democratic processes, especially in bolstering legitimacy around decision making.
This can be summarized in four key points:
Deliberation becomes the new democracy standard.
Openness as the pre-requisite for deliberation.
Accountability and legislative footprint as an important by-product to achieve legitimacy.
Participation leads to more pluralism and stronger social capital, which fosters deliberation, thus closing the (virtuous) circle of deliberative democracy.
Although the scheme may be simple, we believe that it already features most of the components of a new democratic participation in the digital age. What remains to be measured and analyzed is the strength and stability of the new relationships of power and how exactly these will challenge the preceding systemic structures and lead to newer ones.
Although some aspects have been identified in what relates to new relationships between citizens and organizations and institutions, and in what relates to the creation of new tacit communities, para-organizations relational spaces, the real trend and hypothetical final scenario will only become clear after several iterations of the same project evolve in a continuum of participation, radically different from existing, discrete participatory structures.
What has already been measured is the impact both at the quantitative level and on the culture of the organization of the City Council.
The culture of participation was scarce and mainly dealt with managing the support of the citizen in top-down type initiatives. Changing the mindset implied turning upside-down, many of the departments and processes of the City Council: new coordination structures, new balances between the central administration and the districts’, need to speed up the slow tempos of the Administration, manage public-private partnerships (that had to be coordinated too), enable private-private coordination and, in general, increase the workload.
Although the platform and the project in general changed the way of working, and changed it for good by contributing to visualize the work of the public servants, one of the main conclusions reinforces the old saying — democracy is not cheap.
Silvia Luque, Fundació Ferrer i Guardia The participatory experience of the Municipality Action Plan through the decidim.barcelona platform
One of the biggest challenges in a hybrid online-offline participatory process is, precisely, how to balance participation in both spaces, virtual and face-to-face.
The oneline platform has been the amplifier of what was going on in the offline arena. It also gathered all the information and contributed to trace the participation footprint.
Of course, the digital platform itself held lots of debates and collected proposals directly online.
Mobile points — ad-hoc kiosks on the streets — provided offline feedback from what was happening online.
The online platform was both a participatory platform and a work platform: everyone worked within the platform. Both citizens and managers used the platform for all the tasks and procedures related to the participatory process.
There was a good balance between online and offline participation, though in the online platform there was slightly more participation. The platform, though, affected the topic: in wellbeing, there were more proposals offline, while in the topic of environment more proposals came online. This sure has to do with the profile of people that participate online or offline. On the other hand, face-to-face events were mostly organized by the city council, who did not organize the same amount of events for each and every topic of the Municipality Action Plan. Participation and proposals, also, not necessarily go hand in hand: one can find topics highly participated that produced relatively few proposals, and lowly participated topics that notwithstanding produced lots of proposals. The topic and the nature of the participation sure explain the differences.
The nature of participation was also diverse: make proposals, comment on the proposals, support others’ proposals, vote proposals, attend events, interact with a mobile point, comments on online debates.
New tools require new literacies and new working logics. And also taking into account the possibility that there is a digital divide. As online and offline behaved differently, the most promising approach is a hybrid one that enables both logics of participation.
Robert Bjarnason, citizens.is Digital tools for the democratic revolution in Iceland and beyond
Citizens must have a strong voice in policymaking with formal and persistent participation in the political process.
The Citizens Foundation created three open source tools:
Your Priorities, an idea and debate platform, on crowdsourcing. Your Priorities is about building trust between citizens and government.
Open Active Voting, on budget voting, but very pedagogical on how budgets work. Participatory budgets are not only about having a direct influence on expenditure, but also on knowing how much things cost and what it means to have a budget. After that, trust is built and better decisions are made in collaboration with citizens.
Active Citizen: improved participation with artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Artificial intelligence helps in participation with little time spent, helping to overcome bubbles and biases; virtual reality for data visualization and online meetings.
Participation must be fun, informative and educational. Yes, it has to be democratic, and rigorous. But also engaging, something you enjoy doing. Gamifying participation is a good approach for a successful participatory initiative.
Participation tools have to meet people where they are. Tools have to have a “mobile first” design in mind.
But the key for participation to succeed is that it has an impact. Decision-makers do have to listen and take into account what citizens say. If citizens feel they are participating for nothing, they will quickly move away from all other participatory processes.
Participation is also about communication and marketing: people do have to know to be able to participate. It’s not propaganda, but informing the citizen.
My colleague Mirela Fiori is redesigning the Master in City and Urbanism which she is directing. In the updated version that she is planning she wants to include a subject on how technology and civic action have a role in the shaping of the city.
Thus, it does look very relevant to me that there is a little time or space to think about the city not as a mere receptacle of people doing things, but as an actor that is both affected and affecting the uptake of technology and its use for citizen action and, thus, being part of the (new) definition of citizenship.
The goal of the master’s new subject Technopolitics, networks and citizenship is to provide this vision of the city as an institution, a player that requires a renewed strategy and a renewed vision on its role in a complex ecosystem.
My preliminary syllabus (it does not even deserve that name yet) would include the following topics — comments welcome:
Digital revolution and globalization
How dire are the changes we are witnessing in the global economy? How are connected the new trends in the business and financial spheres with the democratic and governance spheres? Are Information and Communication Technologies instruments for improvement or for transformation? Is this a revolution? Why are some things happening? Why would they last — if they do?
Limits of the institutions of the industrial age
Is there a crisis in industrial age institutions (schools & universities, political parties and parliaments, firms and work, media and journalism, etc.)? What is their role in society? Is their role still needed? Can we separate the continent (institutions) from their content (role, tasks)? If yes, who will take up with these roles? How? Why? Why not?
Hacker ethics, commons and gift economy
Is there a new way to design collective initiatives? Is decision-making over as we knew it? Are hierarchies a thing of the past? Is information still power? Can we shift power balances? How different is information from knowledge? How different is controlling information from controlling knowledge? How will the control of knowledge transform our daily practices? And our institutions?
Social innovation, open innovation and open social innovation
What used to be innovation? What is innovation today? What is the relationship between innovation, knowledge and power? Can innovation be distributed? Can innovation be socialized? Can power be socialized? Can innovation lead to better governance? Can better governance lead to innovation? Should we act in either or another way to affect the final result? Can we?
Technopolitics, cooperation platforms and network-organizations
How is technology (ICTs) changing human behaviour? How is technology (ICTs) changing human collective behaviour? What are the main trends? How will they evolve? Why? What new organizations will come enabled (and fostered) by technology? How will this change the map of actors and institutions in society? How will they interact? How will this change the city landscape?
Yes, these are questions and not answers. Because there are not many answers — yet. And the ones being are constantly changing and evolving. But the questions will remain for much longer. These are days for good questions and for flexible answers. Dogmatic answers for feeble questions will rarely help us to map the new territories that need being explored.
I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia,
and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university.
I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.