Current challenges of informal participation: what can an Artificial Intelligence do for citizen participation

  • Relevant topics
  • Latent topics
  • Informal participation
  • Reputation
  • 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.

Relevant topics

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.

Latent topics

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.

Informal participation

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.

Trends, clusters

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.

Actor mapping

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.

Sentiment analysis

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.

Ubiquitous analysis

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.

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Current challenges of online participation: a citizen e-participation journey

  • Identity
  • Interests
  • Powers
  • Reputation
  • Representation
  • Transactions
  • Traceability
  • Transparency

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

  • Identity

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

  • Identity
  • 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

  • Identity
  • Powers
  • Representation

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

  • Identity
  • Representation
  • Transactions

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

  • Powers
  • Transactions

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

  • Identity
  • Powers
  • Representation
  • Transactions

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

  • Identity
  • Powers

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

  • Identity
  • Powers
  • Reputation
  • Representation

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

  • Transactions
  • Traceability
  • Transparency

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

  • Interests
  • Powers
  • Transactions
  • Traceability
  • Transparency

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

  • Transactions
  • Traceability
  • Transparency

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.

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A Theory of Change of citizen participation: an update

In June 2018 I was appointed Director General of Citizen Participation and Electoral Processes at the Catalan Government. The directorate general had been just created. There had been a previous Directorate General of Citizen Participation which had lasted from 2003 to 2010, when it was reduced to a subsidiary internal service lacking all kind of political attributions. The work done in those years had been formidable, but too many things had passed since, especially the 15M Spanish Indignados Movement, the raise of technopolitics… and the raise of populism and fascism all across Europe.

We urgently needed a theoretical framework in which to substantiate our political strategy, so I came up with a Theory of Change of citizen participation which defined four expected impacts of our political action:

  1. Efficiency, efficacy and legitimacy of public decisions improves.
  2. Populism has decreased in institutions and the public sphere.
  3. Citizens understand the complexity of public decision-making.
  4. Citizen participation and political engagement clearly shifts towards a technopolitical paradigm.

These impacts were expected to be achieved after some outcomes resulting from some outputs grouped in five programmes:

  1. Programme of citizen participation.
  2. Programme of internal participation.
  3. Programme of collaboration.
  4. Programme of intermediaries, facilitators and infomediaries.
  5. Programme of e-participation, e-voting and technopolitics.

20 months after, the Theory of Change of Citizen Participation has worked quite well. But it does have some limitations, especially at the operational level —which is what the whole thing was about, to help in putting some order in our daily work.

  • The first limitation deals with the fact that Electoral Processes / Representative Democracy was left outside, as it was always thought as an only “logistic” matter. It is not. Even if at the Directorate General there are two different sub-directorates —Citizen Participation, and Electoral Processes— and they are really different on the way both units work and the kind of service they have to provide, there also are some similarities and even synergies. This becomes very relevant in the field of awareness raising, dissemination and, in general, in helping people understand democracy at large. So, we should think in democratic institutions as a whole, no matter how different they may seem or work.
  • Another limitation was thinking that we can transpose citizen participation instruments into the Administration just like this. We called that “Internal participation”. It simply does not work. If we want to transform internal practices, we have to (1) adapt to how the Administration works and, more important, (2) be utterly explicit about our purposes: we want to transform the Administration, not just encourage internal participation.
  • The idea to approach new intermediaries is still valid. But if we address it as something in itself, it becomes detached with the rest of policies… and one ends up failing to draw a specific approach for new intermediaries, facilitators and infomediaries. It took me a full year to define what are these new intermediaries in citizen engagement, and we’ve yet to define a specific policy for them. Hence, we need to consider the whole set of actors, and address them as a collective while keeping their individual/categorical specificities.

  • Same applies to e-participation, e-voting and technopolitics. Although it worked to identify some priority areas, it was also sometimes difficult not to acknowledge that everything is connected, that it all conforms a citizen participation ecosystem where all infrastructures are connected.

So, we came up with a reviewed Theory of Change of Citizen Participation (v4.2):

The main changes between v1.0 and v4.2 (yes, there were some attempts in between) can be inferred from the limitations that we listed above:

  • First thing, include Electoral Participation in the theory of change. We kept it separate from other citizen participation processes (direct democracy, deliberative processes, government crowdsourcing, citizen assemblies, etc.) mainly for organizational reasons (which is a good reason, by the way), but being now within the same scheme makes some things more clear, especially the link between e-voting and e-participation, or everything related with awareness raising and understanding democratic institutions.
  • The second big change is that Transformation of the Administration is now a core issue, and a very much explicit one. This has been crucial for improving the focus on knowledge management, quality issues and assessment, better alignment of training with programming, etc.
  • The third and last big change is considering everything else —that is, everything but citizens and the national Administration— as an ecosystem where everything is related: municipalities, the professional sector, the informal side of citizen participation, instruments, methodologies, technologies, spaces (physical and virtual), etc. Some big, strategic programmes fit now much better and have been much better defined with this idea of ecosystem.

Briefly put, we now focus on three areas which are very well defined:

  • encourage citizens participate and help them to understand;
  • encourage the Administration to let itself be participated and hence transform its own organization;
  • look after the ecosystem that enables citizens participation by progressively transforming the role of the Administration in it.

We believe the new scheme is easier to understand and, more important, makes it easier to work in a very focused way.

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Draft Opinion. Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens

Cover of the draft opinion "Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens"
Draft Opinion “Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens”

On 9 December 2019, the Catalan Government presented a working document at the 26th CIVEX commission meeting of the European Committee of the Regions.

The aim of the working document was to spark a debate for an upcoming Opinion on the “Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens”. The working document had the following scheme:

  1. Bridging the gap between what leaders see vs. what citizens see
  2. Lack of identification of EU issues with daily-life issues
  3. An ecosystem of infrastructures of participation
  4. Engaged citizens in a technopolitical paradigm
  5. Transforming the administration(s)

Now, a draft for that opinion has just been published for its discussion during the 2nd CIVEX commission meeting. As it happened with the working document, my colleague Mireia Borrell, Secretary for External Action and the European Union of the Government of Catalonia, acts as a rapporteur, while I am appointed as an expert to draft the opinion.

A preliminary abstract of that opinion is as follow:

  • Proposes the setting-up of a Network of Open Participatory Governments, made up by regions and cities, with the purpose to translate upwards and downwards diagnoses, perceptions and proposals on European issues and decision-making;
  • Proposes that the Committee of the Regions designs, implements and coordinates such a network in collaboration with all other European institutions;
  • Expects that the Network of Open Participatory Governments can succeed in granularizing European policies and principles and breaking them into smaller, more understandable bits, thus contributing to bring them closer to the citizen, so that they can better draw the line that weaves macro-, meso- and micro-levels of policies;
  • Suggests that the Network of Open Participatory Governments is piloted during the Conference on the Future of Europe to enlarge, extend, intensify and enhance the dialogue between European institutions and citizens through local and regional authorities, contributing to translate upwards and downwards the deliberations taking place at different levels;
  • Wants to raise awareness on the fact that more and more citizens are moving towards a new paradigm of political engagement – technopolitics – which is characterized by horizontal relationships, distributed power and networks of collaboration, enabled and enhanced by digital technologies and open data, taking place in informal spaces and out of institutional circuits;
  • Believes that there are new ways of listening to citizens, new ways of enabling citizens to engage and participate in policy-making, and that a new ecosystem to coordinate the proposals of citizens and the responses of a multi-level administration undoubtedly require a thorough transformation of the culture of administration(s).

Our proposal of the functioning of the Network of Open Participatory Governments is summarized in the following figure:

The full text that will be discussed in the next CIVEX commission can be downloaded below:

logo of DOCX file
Working document:
Peña-López, I. (2020). Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens. Draft Opinion. Brussels: European Committee of the Regions.

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Opinion Factsheet. Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens

Cover of the opinion factsheet "Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens"
Opinion Factsheet “Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens”

The European Union is entering a sort of constitutional process. The Conference on the Future of Europe will be a two-year time span devoted to reflect what the EU should be like in many issues, and aiming at institutionalizing this reflection in the form of formal agreements, maybe a new treaty, maybe even a/the constitution.

There is —amongst many others— a big fear driving the conference: the huge disconnection between European institutions and citizens’ daily lives, that increasingly leads citizens to take shortcuts in the forms of populism. A populism that increasingly turns to be sheer fascism. This fear, though, can be turned into an opportunity to engage citizens more and better in public decision-making at the European level. This is the take of the European Committee of the Regions, that believes that European institutions may reconnect with their citizens by reestablishing the transmission chain between them by means of municipalities and regional governments.

This summer, the European Committee of the Regions commissioned my colleague Mireia Borrell, Secretary for External Action and the European Union of the Government of Catalonia, to be the rapporteur of an upcoming opinion on Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens. I was appointed to support her as the technical “expert” to draft the opinion.

On 9 December 2019 we presented a working document/factsheet at the 26th CIVEX commission meeting.

The document is structured as a set of strategic questions that can lead a debate on the problems causing the disconnect between political institutions and citizens, and how a structural ecosystem of citizen participation could bridge this growing chasm between representatives and people. Questions — and tentative proposals for each sub-set of questions — are grouped in the following topics:

  1. Bridging the gap between what leaders see vs. what citizens see
  2. Lack of identification of EU issues with daily-life issues
  3. An ecosystem of infrastructures of participation
  4. Engaged citizens in a technopolitical paradigm
  5. Transforming the administration(s)

The document is publicly available and can be downloaded below. First, in its original language (English), then in the different official languages of the European Committee of the Regions.

Full text downloads:

logo of DOCX file
Working document:
Peña-López, I. (2019). Local and Regional Authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens. Working Document. Brussels: European Committee of the Regions.

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Conference on Democratic Innovation (IV). Regional planning and collaboration

Notes from the conference Conference on Democratic Innovation. Open territories. Rethinking the physical space with the citizens, organized by the Secretary of Transparency and Open Government of the Government of Catalonia, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on 19 November 2019. More notes on this event: territorisoberts2019

Regional planning and collaboration
Chairs: Cristina Palés. Cap del Servei d’Educació Ambiental de la Generalitat de Catalunya

Network for the Conservation of Nature
Marc Vilahur, President

Participation cannot take place at the end of a public policy decision, but has to be intrinsic to the whole project. Participation has to impact not only the key actors, but the whole of the citizenry and the whole of the Administration.

When participation takes place at the beginning of a policy-making process, people tend to turn complains into proposals, tend not to say “no” but “I would like this”.

Territory safekeeping is a formal agreement between someone that wants to use the territory and a civic organization that wants to take care of a given territory. In this case, civil society approaches better the territory than the Administration. There are communication and coordination channels needed between such organizations and the Administration, but the Administration should be able to step back and leave room for civil society organizations to play some roles related to the public good.

Safekeeping agreements are formal agreements, but are non compulsive, based on goodwill, adapted to individual and collective needs.

The experience of Geoinquiets
Marc Torres, Membre de Geoinquiets i Geostart

The change of culture in the Administration is a transformation, not just an evolution, on how public workers work. It is becoming more about reaching consensus, about talking to others and about listening to much more others. In many senses, this is what most innovative public workers were looking for: to open up their work, to be allowed to explain what they think and what they do, to address specific actors — not necessarily always the same ones —, to disclose working for the public good as the public good is a common matter.

We have to think about the we, not about the I.

With participation, we can address the citizens, but also let public workers share their experiences and their diagnosis.

Participation is about building a knowledge network, a unique and collective network that thinks and acts.

Participation is much more than contributing to a top-down project. Participation should also be understood as people doing things for the sake of it, as people taking the initiative to address and solve problems, with or without the Administration. Sometimes these grassroots initiatives are the seed of major collective planning projects or policy-making initiatives in general. This is also participation.

We speak about co-deciding, but can we speak about co-participation? About designing the very same processes of participation?

The experience of Mirapeix Lawyers
Carolina Mirapeix

Most people realize that there are plans or regulations just when they want to do something, and the regulation would either not allow them to do it or force them to do it in a given way. This usually leads to conflict: people are surprised and, even worst, people tend to think that something illegitimate happened. “Why was I not warned? Why wasn’t I aware of this?

When planning becomes norm, transparency and participation take on a new meaning. Participation has to come at the very beginning of planning. The diagnosis, the forecast, the responsibility of planning have to be shared by all actors, public and private. And for participation to be possible, information is a must. Information that is easy to find and easy to understand.

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Conference on Democratic Innovation (2019)