When working with the idea of the citizen participation ecosystem from the point of view of a national government, one of the basic questions is how the Administration should nurture and facilitate such ecosystem. There are, at least, two approaches that have been traditionally explored.
- On the one hand, the Administration can fund the creation or growth of a body of professionals that can contribute to deploy a number of citizen participation initiatives all over a given territory. These professionals can work at the higher level of the Administration or can be distributed or scattered on lower levels of the Administration (i.e. local administrations), but the result is to be able to cover most necessities with a good amount of trained and dedicated professionals.
- On the other hand, and sometimes compatible with the former approach, the Administration can fund the creation or growth of a constellation of facilities that would run initiatives specifically devoted to the promotion of citizen participation. They can have many names depending on their particular focus or especialization: citizen labs, living labs, social innovation labs, fabrication labs (fab labs), maker spaces, etc.
The problem with these approaches is, at least, double:
- They are not very economically sustainable, as they require and maintaining groups of people and networks of facilities with a single purpose and which can very difficult be replicated or scaled outside of their specific area of intervention. Of course this is a goal worth aiming at, but for starters it makes the investment very demanding.
- They are not very socially sustainable, as they divert the attention and focus of the citizen, which now has new places to go, which can be good, but also bad: people have a limited capability to gather at and to focus their attention on.
Another approach is to leverage the fact that there are already public facilities on place and that people are already using them and gathering around them. Thus, instead of creating a new network of people and facilities in addition to the existing ones, another approach could be creating a new network of people and facilities upon the existing ones, or in other words, overlapping new goals and uses with the already existing ones.
The Catalan ParticipaLab Network aims at just that. We borrowed the name from the successful ParticipaLab initiative of the Medialab-Prado in Madrid (Spain) but with the idea not to create a new big facility, not even a network of small facilities, but to weave a network of citizen labs by providing a portfolio of new content and services to the already existing networks. The logic behind it is to follow Artur Serra’s ideas on citizen labs, who proposes thinking of citizen labs as we do in public health systems: there is a large network of primary health care you go to when you feel sick, a second network of regional hospitals you are sent to if things get complicated, and national network of top-level hospitals you are sent to when the situation becomes really bad. Same would apply to citizen participation and social innovation.
With that logic in mind, big top-level citizen labs would be the top-level hospitals of democratic innovation; regional networks of living labs or fab labs or maker spaces would be the regional hospitals, and… and already existing public facilities should be able to act as primary democratic innovation points of access for the general population at the local level.
A first approach to this scheme I drafted it at The role of public facilities and civic centres in a citizen participation ecosystem.
After this first scheme, my colleague Yago Bermejo and I (much more him than I, truth be told) developed the main principles, guiding lines and preliminary portfolio for such a network of public facilities devoted to citizen innovation for quality democracy.
The result is the report Xarxa ParticipaLab de Cataluña. Equipamientos ciudadanos e innovación social [Catalan Participation Lab Network. Public facilities and social innovation], which is expected to be the blueprint and roadmap to deploy such a network from the Catalan Government. The report is in Spanish and Catalan and can be downloaded below.
Although I had been long interested on gender studies, during December 2018 and the first months of 2019 I began to actively search for documents that dealt with the issue of gender (discrimination, inequality, etc.) on citizen participation. I found out that there was quite a lot of literature on gender and democratic institutions, but nothing specifically on gender mainstreaming in participatory processes.
So, at the Directorate General of Citizen Participation and Electoral Processes we decided to do our own research and project on the issue. With the valuable help of Fundació Surt, and after an initial training, we analyzed public procurement, the facilitation of events, the evaluation processes, information and communication protocols, etc. under the light of gender mainstreaming.
The result was triple. First, the aforementioned analysis and evaluation; second, a set of internal protocols to improve our own work; third, a Guide to gender mainstreaming in participatory processes so that anyone in the field of citizen participation can use and apply in their own citizen participation instruments.
The guide has been published in Catalan and English (see below) and the whole project was distinguished by the IOPD with a special mention in their distinction on the “Best Practice in Citizen Participation”, the award given annually by the International Observatory on Participatory Democracy to recognize public policies implemented by local governments.
Below one can download the guide and access the bibliography I personally used on gender planning and evaluation methodologies in relationship with citizen participation.
Berbel Sánchez, S. & Geronès i Rovira, M. (2008). “Participació política de les dones
”. In Bodelón, E. & Giménez, P. (Coords.), Desenvolupant els drets de les dones: Àmbits d'intervenció de les polítiques de gènere, Capítol 12
, 199-231. Col·lecció Estudis, Sèrie Igualtat i Ciutadania, 2. Barcelona: Diputació de Barcelona.
Delatte, M., Guijarro, B., Almirall, J., Llop, N., Adell, H. & Medrano, A. (2018). Anàlisi de la participació de dones en els espais institucionals i socials mixtos de la ciutat de Barcelona
. Barcelona: Ajuntament de Barcelona, Liquen Data Lab.
Ecologistas en Acción (2018). Patriarcalitest
. Madrid: Ecologistas en Acción.
United Nations Human Settlements Programme (2012). Gender Toolkit
. New York: OCHA.
Xarxa d'Economia Solidària de Catalunya (2017b). Reunions roDONES
. Barcelona: XES.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis I wrote about the differential impact of crisis in the Information Society based on the first fact that were quickly becoming evident before our eyes and at plain sight.
Shortly after, professors Josep M. Reniu and Víctor Meseguer led a monography on how the COVID-19 crisis was impacting democratic institutions and what to do about it. The book ¿Política confinada? Nuevas tecnologías y toma de decisiones en un contexto de pandemia [Confined politics? New technologies and decision-making in a pandemic context] focuses on how institutions are responding to a pandemic that keeps people at home or away from each other, and how they are figuring out ways of keeping in touch with citizens and keep performing the tasks they have been committed to.
I wrote a book chapter, the second one, with the aim to provide a wide landscape on how democratic institutions and the democratic arena are configuring themselves, and how the pandemic crisis may be an accelerator to it. On El ecosistema de gobernanza pública: las instituciones como infraestructuras abiertas para la toma de decisiones colectivas [The ecosystem of public governance: institutions as open infrastructures for collective decision-making] I take the idea of the citizen participation ecosystem to a higher level, trying to scale it up to the global public governance level.
To do so, I introduce the concept of ecosystems on social sciences, which have been applied with much success —in my opinion— to describe the quick deployment of digital business infrastructures. I describe such ecosystems as knowledge communities and infrastructures that wrok in open and shared ways, aiming at the building of a digital commons. Following, I review the idea of ‘the state as a platform’, ending up with a definition and proposal of the ecosystem of public governance, which I define as:
A public governance ecosystem is a technopolitical, self-organized, autopoietic, replicable and scalable system that articulates actors, spaces and instruments around a set of open and distributed infrastructures rich on knowledge for collective decision-making.
A preprint of the whole chapter (in Spanish) and the bibliography I used can be accessed below.
Chesbrough, H.W. (2003). “The Era of Open Innovation
”. In MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2003
, 35-41. Cambridge: MIT Sloan School of Management.
Dini, P., Darking, M., Rathbone, N., Vidal, M., Hernández, P., Ferronato, P., Briscoe, G. & Hendryx, S. (2005). The Digital Ecosystems Research Vision: 2010 and Beyond
. Brussels: European Commission.
Heimstädt, M., Saunderson, F. & Heath, T. (2014). “Conceptualizing Open Data Ecosystems: A Timeline Analysis of Open Data Development in the UK
”. In Parycek, P. & Edelmann, N. (Eds.), CeDEM14. Proceedings of the International Conference for E-Democracy and Open Government 2014
, 245-255. 21-23 May 2014, Danube University Krems, Austria. Krems: Edition Donau-Universität Krems.
Iansiti, M. & Levien, R. (2004). “Strategy as Ecology
”. In Harvard Business Review, March 1, 2004
. Cambridge: Harvard University.
Nachira, F., Nicolai, A., Dini, P., Le Louarn, M. & Rivera León, L. (Eds.) (2007). Digital Business Ecosystems
. Brussels: European Commission.
O’Reilly, T. (2011). “Government as a Platform
”. In Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization, 6
(1), 13-40. Cambridge: MIT Press.
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.
Non-formal and informal learning just happens. And the digital revolution has but increased exponentially both the potential and possibilities of such non-formal and informal learning to catalyse, emerge, cluster, deploy and have an educational impact.
Non-formal and, especially, informal learning can be fostered and nurtured, and its ways and general horizons even by somewhat put in line with those of formal education. Sometimes.
The COVID-19 crisis is one of these times. The difficulties of formal education are many, and in general have been focused on keeping schools open.
But formal education does not only rely on schools being open: besides focusing on guaranteeing teaching (at school), there is a complementary approach based on guaranteeing learning (home, or elsewhere but the school) for times when schools cannot be kept open. We thus shift the approach from guaranteeing teaching to guaranteeing learning.
Blended and online learning have been the recurrent alternative to schools kept open. Blended and online learning has usually been understood as replacing schools by a virtual campus (or a learning management system, an LMS). This has brought forward at least three dire problems:
- The obvious issue of the digital divide.
- The problem of student mentoring, both by teachers and also by families, which now have to assume a share of what formerly was mainly done by the school, i.e. by teachers.
- The difficulty to keep minors at home (especially the youngest ones) while their parents cannot stay home with them because they have jobs to attend too.
A third option —besides just keeping schools open and just keeping kids in front of computers while burdening their parents— is to work collectively towards education. This option turns upside down priorities, from teaching to learning, and then tries to find the resources where they are. But not only: it also aims at strengthening those resources —quite often “human resources” (the term is not the best one)— so that they can work better, be more efficient, be more effective.
What I here propose is nothing new. It is an ecosystem of communities of practice and communities of learning, just put together and working for a common goal (and a common good), which is K-12 education —of course it can be applied to secondary and any other learning environment, but we will focus here in the areas where the learner is less autonomous.
The real proposal, if any, is how the Administration can foster such ecosystem and make the best of it, in this case, so that no kid is left without learning in general, and in particular during the COVID-19 crisis.
Mind that this scheme is neither easy to implement nor cheap. The good news is that it can be implemented differently in all its different pieces, so that different levels and speeds can live together, depending on resources (of many kinds), social capital, and needs to be addressed.
I think the scheme of this governance model for an ecosystem Ecosystem of educational communities is quite self explanatory. I am going, nevertheless, to briefly list its main components.
- Learning, custody and socialization represent the three main functions of the school and which turn to be the main goals to achieve in the long run. In addition to this, there is a fourth instrumental goal which I label knowledge infrastructure. This is a big simplification of what the school is about, but it also helps to clear out what schools are not and, most especially, that upon schools rely a complex set of functions whose relative importance change a lot depending on who is doing the measurement.
- Communities are collectives of people to share resources, doubts, questions, solutions about the issue that gathers them. What differentiates such communities and informally gathered people or institutionally created bodies is that these are facilitated by (external) experts, who contribute to set mid-term goals, identify all relevant actors and call them to participate, try and make explicit tacit knowledge by documenting and maintaining whatever kind of repositories, and most especially, as it has been said, facilitate the short-, mid- and long-term dynamics of the community by applying specific methodologies.
- Communities of disciplines are made up by educators working in the same field and at a similar educational level so that they do not reinvent the wheel, save efforts and improve their own resources and methodologies;
- communities of centres are made up by the education and director boards of centres to leverage the potential of the most advanced teachers and mentor the striving ones;
- communities of learning are especially made up by learners, so that they apply collaboration and cooperation in their own learning processes and strategies;
- communities of environment are made up by all educating actors in a neighbourhood, with the educational centre as the axis, and with the concurrence of families, libraries, civil society organizations and most especially local Administrations.
- The governance of the Ecosystem of educational communities is complemented by a governing body, made up by a coordination body, the facilitation, open educational resources (OER), learning management system services, and of course the boards of the educational centres.
- The outputs of the Ecosystem of educational communities are learning resources, the online learning infrastructure understood in very broad terms, the practical organization of teaching, all methods required for teaching, methods to apply in the classroom, and the essential methods for families to help each other and help themselves in assuming part of the teaching/learning functions that intermittently open schools cannot provide normally.
As it has been said, the ecosystem of educational communities, as well as the knowledge infrastructure, do not come to replace, but rather to complement, both the institutions of formal education and the physical or face-to-face spaces. Regarding the first one, the optimum is that the educational centre is the axis around which the teaching and learning strategies are articulated, mobilizing and locating the necessary resources where they can best deploy their potential. Regarding the second one, the role of the knowledge infrastructure is to make it possible for learning resources to be ubiquitous, both for planning (by teachers and educators in general) and for their application, be it in a brick-and-mortar classroom, in a virtual campus, or in the dining room at home on a laptop or after having been processed on a printer.
This scheme aims not at being neither comprehensive nor thorough. It just aims at providing a general landscape on how to approach the complexity of non-formal and informal learning and how this could be leveraged to support teaching in these strange times where schools are not working normally.
- 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.