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.
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:
Bridging the gap between what leaders see vs. what citizens see
Lack of identification of EU issues with daily-life issues
An ecosystem of infrastructures of participation
Engaged citizens in a technopolitical paradigm
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.
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.
Regional planning and citizen participation Chairs: Laura Suñé. Sub-directora general de Participació Ciutadana de la Generalitat de Catalunya
Regional planning guidelines in Euskadi Rafael Sanchez Guerra. Tècnic del Govern Basc
When one mainstreams citizen participation in policy-making (e.g. regional planning), participation is not something that is added somewhere in the project, but that is taken into account in all key points during the deployment of the project. Sometimes as a one time thing (e.g. a participatory processes), sometimes as a structural thing (e.g. advisory councils).
Doing participation processes during the design of a political instrument may seem as it slows down things, but in reality it provides useful information and legitimacy that, afterwards, is less conflict, better instruments and, thus, policies that run smoother and faster.
It is important to disclose all processes, to adapt language and concepts to the different target groups that one is addressing, be sure that everyone understands each other, have flexibility to adapt to different timings.
Master regional plana of the Generalitat de Catalunya Josep Armengol. Sub-director general d’Acció Territorial i de l’Hàbitat Urbà de la Generalitat de Catalunya
Trust between different actors — especially between the Administration and the citizens — is a must. There is no way things will work in the future (or in the present) without increasing levels of trust. Indeed, oftentimes participation is not as much about policy-making but as trust-building.
Initially, master plans in regional planning were regulated by the law. Thus, departments used to follow the regulation strictly, and implement participation processes where the law had put them. But it did not work. Citizen platforms would appear regardless of the regulated spaces for citizen participation.
One also would doubt about whether citizen organizations were really democratic themselves, whether they represented many people or none, etc.
Honest, flexible, ad-hoc participation processes came to improve this two-ways lack of trust. Participation has been rich in their contributions, in reducing conflict, in being able to tell who wants to build for the common good and who wants to destroy and who wants to make the public good work for one’s own private interest.
Participation is now introduced at the very beginning of the process. It is not an information session, but a diagnosis and design session. Participation is open where decision-making is still open: it is crucial to match expectations with reality. Mapping actors correctly is also very important to gather all the different realities and views upon a given topic.
Regional planning strategy in Aragón (EOTA) Carlos Jesús Oliván. Cap de Servei de Participació del Govern d’Aragó
LAAAB methodology, based on an open and collaborative design of public policies, as in a lab. Using design thinking during the design of policies and also of participatory processes.
For the regional planning strategy, participation sessions were turned into workshops, where real proposals had to be designed, not just stated. Besides, “real people” endorse or sponsor all proposals, so that one can come back to them for more details, etc.
The return phase is crucial, and one has to clearly explain what proposals were accepted and put into practice, and which ones were not, and why.
Participation processes are about building trust. Sometimes they may not be very productive in terms of content, but they are productive in terms of building citizenship.
Can we map cities differently? Instead of just a descriptive mapping based on buildings, roads, rivers, hills… can we map other information such as social or public assets? Yes, we can add layers to maps that include not only morphology, but behaviours, sensations, emotions.
We can, for instance, map electrical consumption in the city at the block level. This can be helpful not only to know where consumption is, but to map poverty and social exclusion by tracking the determinants of specific electricity consumption patterns.
Mapping not only assets, but uses, can be useful to find out how the social contract is being subverted by misuses of formerly agreed public assets.
We can also map last-mile usage of public infrastructures, especially roads and streets. One can plan the city perfectly and find out that e.g. delivery of online purchases destroy all your planning. Mapping the way delivery services work and plan how this is happening can be done by using open data and it is a new way for urban planning.
This is the case of the Use planning of Ciutat Vella (PDF) that mapped the usage or urban assets in the Barcelona district of Ciutat Vella (old downtown). Beyond planning, it deals about looking at citizens as an asset and as an active actor.
And now urban planning is not anymore about making a static diagnosis of the situation, but about having tools for dynamic action.
Under this paradigm, open data are a must. Open data are disclosing a new way of understanding the territory, of acting upon it, of assessing policy-making.
Of course, if (open) data are a must, the governance of (open) data are also a must. Hence, the public/collective governance of data. And this includes, of course, citizen-generated data, not only data generated or published by the Administration.
Miguel Mayorga, Jorge Rodríguez. Architects and urban planners, Mayorga-Fontana.
Architects usually worked depicting things, while engineers usually worked with relationships. Now we can have a strong link between things and their relationships thanks to technology. The word ‘smart’ in ‘smart city’ is not about being smart, but about linking things and their relationships, stocks with flows. The city is made no more of things, but of things that have relationships with things.
Participation is not a trend: it is here to stay. Participation helps to find patterns, to map relationships and behaviours.
Data come from many sources. Some of them are open data generated by the Administration, other are big data generated automatically, other are data than one has to generate with qualitative and quantitative methodologies, such as polling, focus groups, etc. People are good “sensors”: they see, they watch, they reflect, they generate knowledge that can be “queried” with appropriate methodologies and technologies. Participation is about making the best of this “human sensors”, about getting the best from people.
Camil Cofan. Sub-director general for Urban Planning, Generalitat de Catalunya
Four steps in opening up regional planning:
2002: Management of regional planning records (GEU), to better manage documents and initiatives on regional and urban planning.
2007: Catalan register of regional planning (RPUC), to gather and publish all regional and urban plans in Catalonia.
2010: Catalan urban map (MUP), to map all regional and urban interventions.
2017: Open Data.
The strategy on open data aims at being useful both for the Administration and the individual citizens (especially professionals or regional and urban planning). The idea is to have a unique tool that works well for many purposes.
Ismael Peña-López: What are the incentives that professionals have to be involved in opening data with the Administration? Mar Santamaria: To better understand the data, how they were created, what is their source. Be able to find new ways to apply data, to improve one’s own projects. Miguel Mayorga: Participation is a must and has come to stay. Anyone, Administration and citizens, should acknowledge that. And participation should be mainstreamed, we should learn how to better measure times and timelines, how to map and engage different actors, etc. Technology can help in levelling languages, concepts, etc. between the different actors gathered around a project. Núria Espuny: participation in opening data also helps the Administration to identify the priorities and where the bigger returns are.
Jorge Rodríguez: it is important to involve people before the public decision is made, not after, when we just inform of the decision.
An architect meets a biologist Itziar González, arquitecta, Institut Cartogràfic de la ReVolta Ferran Miralles, director general de Polítiques Ambientals i Medi Natural Chairs: Nel·la Saborit, Enginyera civil del Gabinet Tècnic del Pla Estratègic Metropolità de Barcelona
Saborit: what is the importance of regional planning?
Itziar González: the good thing about regional planning is that a collective plans how it wants to live, and does it collectively. But we have to make compatible the “vertical” approach with the “horizontal” approach. If it is too much vertical, it usually goes top-down and forgets or undervalues the feelings and approaches of the ones in the bottom. We should speak more about co-operation and collaboration instead of just “planning”.
Ferran Miralles: regional planning is like the hardware that other softwares use to run upon. Regional planning is about efficiency and efficacy. Planning is, above all, about scales, about addressing the most appropriate scale. The scale will determine what is efficient and what is effective and at what level.
Nel·la Saborit: what is the relationship between regional planning and open government?
Ferran Miralles: there is one approach to open data that is knowing what is out there and/or showing what is being done. But we have to shift from descriptive mapping to impact mapping. We have to be able to listen to what the territory talks. Open data adds value to mapping, makes it able to measure impacts or outcomes and not only outputs or results. Evidence-based decision-making should be the norm, but oftentimes decisions are made after personal feelings or impressions. Open data can address this bias.
Itziar González: regional planning is deliberative, is complex, has to go down to the ground. Regional planning has to be brought naturally into the public agenda and be part of the daily lives of people. When people can speak-out they can provide rich data and approaches to policy-making. Open data is about trust, is about solving problems, is about disclosing the whole process, beginning with values.
Itziar González: what do we expect from the territory? An economic revenue or a sustainable place to live in? These are approaches that need to find a common ground, which will only come from deliberation.
Ferran Miralles: the further the decision is from the citizens, the more the need to participate and encourage participation. One of the roles of the Administration should be to guarantee the coherence between different political or collective decisions, that what is done at one lever or in one place is not undone elsewhere by other decisions. When there is trust, regional planning is no more a zero-sum game, a fight, but an agora to reach long-term agreements.
Itziar González: regional planning should not be a static discipline, but a dynamic one. The world changes, people change, and so should policy-making in general and regional planning in particular. Let’s think of regional planning as a guide, not as a framework.
Ferran Miralles: as important as an accurate diagnosis is an accurate monitoring and assessment. And an added problem is that when there is lack of trust, plans are difficult to change — and thus adapt to the new realities that monitoring and assessment uncover.
Nel·la Saborit: maybe we should stop talking about regional planning and talk instead about regional processes. What are the big challenges today?
Itziar González: listen, listen and listen. And build trust. And empower public servants.
Ferra Miralles: citizens have to be clear on whether they want total control and guarantees in what matters the Administration, or whether they prefer more trust that gives some freedom back to the Administration, with post-hoc control and accountability.
[my take in this is surely part of the job of public controllers could be taken by individual citizens by means of transparency an open data. It surely needs a change of culture, training new intermediaries and totally opening all the infrastructures of public decision-making.]
Itziar González: we need to reset public spaces, make them more deliberative, re-balance legitimacy and authority between public bodies and citizens.
Ferran Miralles: we have to strengthen the communication channels between the Administration and the citizens, especially when it comes to citizen assemblies, councils, etc. That these bodies have all the information, that they have feedback, etc.
Ramón Pintó: trust has to be earned. And the Administration should take the first steps towards regaining trust.
Laura Suñé: There is lot of room to improve things without making more and more regulations. Sometimes talking is enough. But talking, deliberation, requires time, quality information, etc.
Roger Buch: what are your experiences on citizen deliberation? Is it productive? Itziar González: if one creates spaces for deliberation, if one maps correctly all actors and especially minorities, then this investment pays back. It is also a good idea that deliberation processes have different intensities: there are people that want to decide, others to speak out, others to be informed. It is all fair, and one has to make compatible different levels of commitment and that these different spaces feed each other. Ferran Miralles: projects work better when they are about specific things and when there is time enough to sit and talk.
Jordi Güell: we have been talking about participation between the Administration and citizens, but we also need participation or co-operation between different levels of the Administration. Itziar González: better actor mapping could contribute to that, by acknowledging that e.g. municipalities also are actors that should have their own voice.
Notes from the conference Democracy and Media in the Digital Era, organized by the Digital Enlightenment Forum and the Delegation to the European Union of the Government of Catalonia, and held in Brussels, Belgium, on 14 November 2019. More notes on this event: digenlight2019
ICT for Democracy Chair: Stefan Klauser, ETH
Digitisation is a challenge to democratic societies. The development of AI, IoT and the collection of behavioural data lies unprecedented power in the hands of private companies. Can digitisation also be used to strengthen self-organisation and democratic processes?
It is discouraging to hear people that e-democracy does not work: it took centuries for actual democracy to work. ICT-based democracy tools may not work in the long term, but we need time to try and to correct to be able to really assess them.
Dirk Helbing (ETH, Zürich, CH) Digital Empowerment: How to Make It work
Algorithms may turn correlations into casual relations. This can “just happen”, but it can also be on purpose and addressed to manipulate the perceptions of people upon reality.
Better education, or better media or digital literacy, may be not enough when what it’s at stake is one’s attention.
Are we heading towards digital feudalism? A surveillance capitalism?
Data-driven and AI-controlled society lacks human dignity, love, freedom, consciousness, etc. We need better design for values, a design that puts the person, the citizen in the center. A design that leads to informational self-determination.
Digital democracy is not about technology, but about harnessing the collective intelligence, to bring the best ideas of many minds together. And here is where technology can help: we need to build suitable platforms to collect, share and integrate ideas.
Top-down majority kill variety.
Mike Kalomeni Blockchain for democracy through accountability
People have been escaping the state-money (fiat money) system by borrowing and investing in assets like stocks and real-state.
The financial system does not look healthy. Democracy is endangered by social inequality, and social inequality is increase by asymmetric access to economic opportunities.
Can blockchain contribute to fixing this? Blockchain can contribute to democratise the way money is created and used, and how the monetary system itself can be democratised too. Bitcoin is a good example of how to opt-out of the fiat money system and thus balance economic power.
Ismael Peña-López (DG Citizen’sParticipation and Electoral Processes) DECIDIM
Most of the times, when the aim of the regulation is to protect the private interest, online regulation is stronger than offline regulation; on the contrary, when the aim of the regulation is to protect the public interest, online regulation is weaker than offline regulation.
Digital technology is escalable, modular, adaptable, flexible. It does change depending on place and time. Technology should be regulated in its societal and normative contexts. There is an urgent need to address the governance of this new upcoming democratic system that ICTs are bringing —for good or for bad.