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.
The research began in May 2016 and is about to end by January 2017.
The project consists in analysing several cases of ICT mediated citizen engagement in the world, led by governments with the aim to increase participation in policy affairs.
This subproject deals with the case of decidim.Barcelona, an ambitious project by the City Council of Barcelona (Spain) to increase engagement in the design, monitoring and assessment of its strategic plan for 2016-2019.
These specific pages focus on the socio-political environment where this subproject takes place, specifically speaking Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain, for the geographical coordinates, and for the temporal coordinates the beginnings of the XXIst century and most especially the aftermath of the May 15, 2011 Spanish Indignados Movement or 15M – with some needed flashbacks to the restauration of Democracy in 1975-1978.
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.