Some people use to believe of citizen participation as something that is at odds with policy-making. That is, that citizen participation complicates the execution of policies and delays results.
The reality is quite far from this —considering, of course, that one is committed with quality policy-making and actually aim at having an impact with the policies that one is pushing forward.
Although there is an increasing number of instruments that can be called citizen participation, most of them have the following scheme:
- The Administration has something in mind.
- Citizens are asked for an opinion.
- The Administration tells citizens what it did with their opinion.
These three apparently innocent steps are key to driving improvements —not delays— in policy-making.
First, the Administration just cannot “have something in mind”. If one is not telling anyone, any crazy idea might be passed along and put into practice. But if the information is going to be public, and made widely available for public scrutiny, planning becomes a must. Thorough diagnosis, analysis, planning and design are a requisite for any kind of citizen participation initiative. In this train of thought, citizen participation is a vaccine for incorrect diagnosis, lack of analysis, bad planning and low quality design.
Second, when the Administration provides the feedback it committed to do during the citizen participation initiative, it finds out that goals, indicators and evaluation are key for providing feedback and letting citizens know what happened with their opinions and proposals. Again, citizen participatino is a vaccine for trying to spend resources before setting up the pertinent goals, neglect of setting up the appropriate indicators and closing projects without its due impact assessment and evaluation.
There are, notwithstanding, two more important issues that citizen participation can bring into policy-making and that are related with the second point above: the fact that one has to identify and invite all the actors affected by or that can contribute to a given policy.
The first one is that by bringing people in policy-making, people usually do not remain outside of it. This is not as much a play of words but a sheer reality. By making citizens accomplices of the several steps of policy-making, it is more difficult that they are going to feel detached with the results, even if they might not share them. By diminishing detachment, one is actually preventing conflict. And conflict management and conflict resolution is, by far, one of the most resource-consuming activities in policy-making. Thus, citizen participation not only does not delay policy-making but has a strong potential on saving time and resources, all the policy-making cycle considered.
The second one, closely related with conflict prevention but also with impact assessment is that by bringing citizens into the policy-making cycle it is much more easier to internalize the externalities of public policies. All activities that happen openly in society are prone to have externalities, pollution or education being the most common examples. Public policies are very likely to have them too, both negative and positive. Internalizing externalities helps in measuring more accurately their impact, just because all factors were identified and made explicit in the whole process. Internalizing externalities, thus, contributes both to better allocate resources —because now it is easier to measure their return— and to prevent conflict, because there are not unexpected impacts on society that one can oversee.
- Relevant topics
- Latent topics
- Informal participation
- Trends, clusters
- Actor mapping
- Sentiment analysis
- Real time analysis
- Ubiquitous analysis
Current challenges of informal participation
When we ask ourselves “what can Blockchain do for” or “what can Artificial Intelligence do for”, it is easy to begin with the solution (Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence) and then see whether that solution fits onto the “problem”.
In Current challenges of online participation: a citizen e-participation journey I listed what were the main hypothetical steps that one should follow to participate online, and what were the expected barriers or problems to overcome. The tacit idea being how could (if ever) decentralized ledger technologies or Blockchain help all along the whole way.
In order to prepare a meeting on Artificial Intelligence at the Administration and, most specifically, Artificial Intelligence for citizen participation, I here plan to repeat the aforementioned exercise, now for knowledge management in citizen participation, and most especially in informal participation settings.
Informal participation begins on formal settings. There are lots of things happening around the formal discussion of a given issue. Thus, it is not always easy to tell the relevant topics from the irrelevant ones. And in two ways: relevant for the organization of the deliberative process, and especially relevant for the participant, which may find burdensome to go through all the information and proposals and comments that everyone else is doing — this is especially true on online participation platforms.
Being able to distill what information is relevant (a) in relationship with the topic at stake and (b) in relationship with one’s own interests is crucial for the smooth and effective evolution of the deliberation process. Scanning, analysing, tidying up, summing up, and presenting in a clear way is the first demand to do to any technology aiming at crunching information for good.
In the same train of thought of the previous point, but now in more positive or constructive terms, there is a lot of hidden information, or tacit or informal participation, within a formal setting. E.g. a debate on urban mobility can tell a lot about the participants: their wealth or income, the place they live and their commuting possibilities, their jobs, their educational level, etc. It can even tell us a lot about other latent variables or issues such as environmental awareness, concern on pollution, etc.
Beyond the explicit message that participants are sending, it is very valuable to be able to extract much more information either about the profile of the participants (without damaging their privacy, of course) and other topics that may be on the public agenda but that the Administration might be overseeing.
So, formal participation can bring forward topics that were not on the agenda, or even provide evidence on topics or general information on issues that, without being made explicit during, do lay in the background of the deliberation.
But of course lots of things happen outside formal settings. People do politics in their daily lives, constantly. Most of them will never get close to an institution; some of them will even circumvent institutions as much as possible. So, getting to know where do these daily politics happen is something that the Administration could use to approach citizens where they gather. This is not to be confused with chasing people to bother them. On the contrary, it deals about knowing the ideal settings, the adequate code, the relevant question at the relevant time.
In a face-to-face world, and most especially on smaller towns, this information quickly spreads word-of-mouth and is well known by everyone. In bigger communities, and in the most liquid ones of the digital space, either takes years of personal involvement in several communities, or an artificial intelligence can come handy in making time shrink.
Artificial intelligence does not only shrink time, but can help to make the (many time hidden) connections for you through trend analysis: finding communities, finding their interests, knowing where clusters generate due to increased interest in one topic and, finally and from a dynamic point of view, knowing when a threshold is reached and there is a critical mask ready to take action or prone to follow one.
Beyond knowing whether there is a (hidden) hot topic on the public agenda and how it is evolving, it is very interesting to know what are the people interested in the topic and why.
It is important to note that what is interesting is not the specific identity of the individuals following a given issue, but their profile. First of all, because it may help to identify correlations between topics and, much more relevant, how intersectional a given topic is and the multiplier effects that take place when several issues overlap one another. E.g. we know that being migrant has a different impact on one’s life depending on whether the migrant is a man or a woman.
Identifying actors contributes to the necessary actor mapping that everyone should perform, thus, to measure the potential people impacted by a political instrument and, in consequence, to be able to formally invite them to any sort of formal participation initiative that the Administration may consider to foster.
As we have already said, the increasingly complexity of topics, the proliferation of shifting virtual spaces, the possibility of be part of different communities and play in different arenas, make it increasingly difficult that these tasks can be carried on by human beings, not to speak about a single person or a very small group with little presence on the streets and civil society organizations.
If we want to find people —actually their profiles and characteristics— it is but natural to associate their thoughts with how they feel about them. Are they speaking positively or negatively about an issue? Assertively or full of fear?
Real time analysis
Last, but not least, we want to know it now.
This may be not as useful for the Administration —that can take its time to sit and analyse— than for citizens at large. They usually have much less time to deal with public issues than public servants or policy-makers. Basically because they have to earn a living, which usually is not related to policy- or decision-making. Being able to grasp at a glance the state of the debate —most relevant information, main positions or approaches, types of actors dealing with the issue, most important arguments made— saves time and efforts and contributes to drive the deliberation to the most fertile grounds.
A a well trained artificial intelligence sure can help in providing this analysis, inference and main insights in (almost) real time.
Last, but not least, the application of artificial intelligence to support and improve citizen participation should not be limited to the possibility to feed it with documents. Sometimes data can be already produced in a structured way, sometimes it will be the most unstructured and natural of languages. Most importantly, most of the times the sources of information will be a mix of structured and unstructured information, different types of support —including image, audio and video— or meta-data coming from the interaction between humans and other machines.
In a nutshell, artificial intelligence can help citizen participation to make visible everything that was not, everything that was happening outside of formal spaces, everything that was happening even outside of our own conscience.
Current challenges of online participation
We are in the middle of an interesting perfect storm. Firstly, citizen participation is clearly on the rise, with more citizens demanding being listened to, and more public (and also private) institutions responding to these demands. Secondly, a call for that citizen participation to be accessible, flexible and inclusive, which is boosting online citizen participation as a complement to traditional participation channels and methodologies, thus enabling not only other means different than face-to-face, but also disclosing informal spaces for participation. Thirdly, the appearance or improvement of different kinds of technologies that come to enable or strengthen online communication (P2P networks, distributed ID systems, decentralized ledger technologies, etc.).
In this perfect storm, notwithstanding, we still often see “solutions looking for a problem”. That is, technologies that appear to fill a demand for more participation and more online participation, but that sometimes do not seem to fix the real problems that the online participation arena is having.
On a recent talk about the possibilities of Blockchain I came up not with what could Blockchain do for participation, but what were the main challenges that citizen participation in general, and online participation in particular was facing. And then ask whether technologies could be of any help in the list of challenges.
I here present these challenges by following what in marketing is called a customer journey. I draw an imaginary complete cycle of citizen participation, along which I present the different challenges that this citizen or the whole process finds in its way.
A citizen wants to have their say on a given issue. But, who are they? A clear identity of this citizen may be necessary to know whether they belong to a given demos. It is true that some participation processes, especially those based on deliberation —provide as much insights as we can, regardless of representativeness—, may not require identity. But we can also look at identity from the other point of view: not as in “who am I” but no “where do I belong to”, “where do my rights lay” or “who grants me citizen rights”. Identity, thus, is not about voting or paying taxes (only) but about knowing whether I am a citizen with full citizenship.
With some interests
A citizen does not necessary need to be interested in absolutely everything. It may just seem right not to invite him to participate in absolutely everything —some decisions we may think are of their interest despite their own preferences or tastes, like electing representatives: voting is even compulsory in some places—.
Knowing what are someone’s interests, and linking them to their identity may be useful either to explicitly invite a given collective to speak out their opinion, or for a given citizen to filter out what are the options available to speak out.
Individual or Collective
This citizen with some interests, is acting as an individual or as a collective? Is she a single person, or is it an organization? This question is not related with whether a citizen represents someone, but about what different legal frameworks allow to do to e.g. natural persons or to legal persons.
Knowing this difference —not a trivial issue— may be crucial to be able to participate in a given process. People may participate personally within an association, but most of the times only legal persons may be able to participate in a federation of associations.
But, of course, legal persons cannot perform actions, physically speaking: someone, a flesh and bones individual has to perform for them: has to represent them.
And sometimes different people can perform different actions in representation of a collective. That is, the collective can grant different powers to different people. For instance, many can give an opinion, but only one of them can cast a vote or make a binding decision.
So, knowing one’s identity is not enough: we may need to know whether they are representing a collective and, if they are, what can they do on its behalf.
In relationship with someone
This citizen, now that we can tell whether they are an individual or a collective, and which are their interests, it may be useful to know what are their relationships with other citizens.
A first approach to this is whether they are affiliated, formally or informally, to some other collectives, and what of affiliation or relationship they have with them. Besides the aforementioned issue of representation, the degree or intensity of relationships may be interesting to tell whether a citizen is a leader in their respective sector, and thus consider their participation in a different way.
A second approach, and most relevant here, is whether this relationship is with the Administration: that is, we want to record what kind of exchanges or transactions a given citizen has had with public bodies. This is important at many levels, among them treating the citizen consistently, recording their potential impact on public policies, identify valid interlocutors, publicise these relationships, etc.
Says or does something
Now that we know who the citizen is, what are their interests, whether they are a person or a collective, what kind of powers to represent this collective they have and what have been their relationships with other collectives (especially the Administration), now citizens want to say or do something.
In face-to-face participation — and most especially in formal meetings— minutes are taken or there are at least records of what is being said or done. Same should happen online. This is nevertheless much more complex in the online world: not only, as we have been saying, identity, etc. is more blurry and/or fluid, but there are also different degrees of formality and informality, usually a high diversity of channels which have to be coordinated or at least be made coherent and consistent and provide a comprehensive explanation of what is going on.
What is being said and done online has to be accompanied by the context in which it is being said and done, in the same way as in formal channels, where conversations and performances already follow a given protocol. This means not, of course, having to approve a formal protocol for everything happening online: hence the difficulty of this issue.
Delegates or is endorsed
When saying or doing these things, are citizens acting on their own? Or are they being endorsed by someone? Are they being delegated some other’s opinions or votes? How should we be taking into account this acting individually or collectivelly? Mind that this is a little bit different to representing someone or having been granted some powers. Representation and powers is more about the legal aspects of being empowered to do something. That is: who are you and what can you do on the behalf of someone else. By delegation or endorsement we look at the phenomenon from the other end: how should I, Administration, take into account this acting on behalf of someone? e.g. Representation is how you choose your elected representatives; delegation is how you will take into account their votes at the Parliament. It is a slight difference, but and important one.
But, beyond how you take it into account, we want to know whether this representation is permanent or temporary. Liquid democracy or proxy voting, changes in representation are much more easy in the online world but need being cleverly articulated. There is an increasing way to solve this technologically, but we are far from the best system —if there is such a thing.
Delegating one’s vote will involve identity, what powers am I granting and to say or do what.
In multiple instances and levels
Things that citizens can or want to do or say things. And they want to do or say things to the Administration (or to any other kind of collective), so that they are taken into account and public policies are put to work.
But quite often —and this is especially true with Public Administrations— collectives of people follow a hierarchy: e.g. your municipality’s health system depends on your region’s health system that depends on your state’s health system.
Or, depending on your interests (e.g. the environment and Global Warming), you may want to do or say things on Global Warming to your city council, to your regional government and to your national government. Different things, at different levels, but on a similar issue.
Or. As a public body, you may want to infer the macro policy from the micro policies put at work or suggested at lower Administration levels. For instance, the local strategy on urban mobility will necessarily shape —or will be determined— by the national strategy on mobility.
Can we, by means of technology, make easy the granularization of macro-level policies into micro-level ones? Can we, by means of technology, make easy the inference of micro-level policies into macro-level ones?
This will, in part, depend on who you are and what can you do (powers) at different Administration levels. That is, what are your citizen rights depending on your citizenship considering different demos belong to or different governments that rule your life.
With different weights
We have considered, so far, “one individual, one vote”. But in many cases there this rule could be changed and, instead, grant the citizen with more “votes”, that is, that their voice or decisions or actions have more influence, more weight than de voices or decisions or actions than other citizens’.
The evident application of this differential weighting is, of course, representation and delegation. It may be just common sense that someone representing a organization can have an influence proportional to the people that they are representing, that is, the people that delegated their voice or vote to their representative. Thus, two people representing a huge and a tiny collective, respectively, would have a higher or lesser influence when they participate e.g. in a public consultation.
But we can go one step further. We may want to grant different power of influence to different actors. Some people are directly affected by public decisions while others are only indirectly or partially affected, or even not affected at all. E.g. when considering issuing a new regulation on diabetes, citizens with diabetes will surely be more affected than citizens with no diabetes: weighting their decisions might be taken into consideration.
Or we might even want to weight citizens’ opinions depending on their position in society (e.g. a renowned scholar in the field), what they have done and said before, what people have thought of what they have done or said before, etc. Technologies can not only be helpful in the mere weighting, but in calculating the most appropriate weights.
Revisits or checks actions
So, citizens do or say things, depending on many factors, etc. Once it is done or said, and time goes by, can people, citizens or Administrations, go back and see who said what and why? Can they trace and see the relationships between all the transactions (interactions, exchanges, etc.) done in the past?
Being able to follow the steps being taken is crucial for assessment and evaluation. Policy footprints are important, but they become essential, when complexity increases. And we are not talking here about the complexity of the issue, but about the complexity of the solution and, more specifically, the complexity with which the policy instrument was designed —in our case, with a plurality and diversity of actors, contributions and channels.
And checks how it fits within the overall plan
Even more, can this traceability be put in context and see what was the impact (not the mere aggregated result) of one single contribution? Can one make this inference from the micro to the macro level?
This aspect is, in my opinion, much more than —I insist— a mere aggregation of individual wills and says.
Checking how each and every piece of opinion, issued in formal or informal ways, scattered across a great diversity of channels and formats, is about finding where are the critical masses what, what are the behavioural patterns are which are the main trends. Which is not a minor thing.
By identifying critical masses, behavioural patterns and main trends we are able to both focus and forecast. By focusing and forecasting, we can become more effective and become more efficient.
Checks for accountability
Beyond fitness in the overall plan, we want to know: what happens afterwards? Can citizens and Administrations follow-up and monitor what use is being made by the ones taking into account (or not) their acts and voices? Can one see the evolution of the progressive triage, acceptance or rejection of proposals, adoption, transformation or improvement, etc. that end up in a final decision or policy? Who ended up doing what? Who took responsibilities?
Accountability brings us back to assessment and evaluation. In this case, not only about how the policy instrument was designed, but how was implemented and put into practice. And, most important, what results did it have and which were the impacts of such results.
Accountability closes the cycle of policy-making, and we can begin again with the diagnosis of the issue or the situation, which brings us back to the who, and back to identity, here taken as a target: who did we impact with our policy and how.
Summing up: current challenges of online citizen participation
As it can be seen, all these issues are very deeply related among them. In my believe, one should not address a single issue (e.g. identity) without addressing the whole journey of a citizen participation process. Identity is defined, also, by representation or delegation, and representation implies taking into consideration weighting or accuntability. An so on.
Thus, the question
Will [fill with the name of a technology] contribute or solve the problem of citizen participation? may not be the correct approach. It may be more useful to ask what specific issues of the process can it contribute to improve and within what mix of other tecnologies. And how will they be merged and inter-operate among them. Which may be the question.