Citizen participation on new digital platforms

Notes from the Citizen participation on new digital platforms conference, organized by Open University of Catalonia and held in Barcelona, Spain, on 15 January 2019.

Quim Brugué, Universitat de Girona
Participation: what are we talking about?

Participation is not new. We’ve been hearing about this since the 1970s and there already is a boom of citizen participation in the early 1990s. The first decade of 2000s, until 2007, witnesses a quick rise of citizen participation, with a strong support of the Administration. These are years of learning to participate in “good times”. It was an experimental period. There was no consensus of what was the purpose of participation. Many times the issues were not crucial to citizens, but very marginal: no “serious stuff” was shared with the citizen. It generated some not purely legitimate practices where participation was a means to give local administrations or civil society organizations either resources or a public platform were to air their ideologies. This experimentation also led to more focus on the methodology rather than on the issues: people did not want to solve a specific issue but “do participation”.

Experimentation, lots of resources, focus on the instrument rather than on the topic led to some tiredness and disenchantment with citizen participation. This did not last long: the 2008 crisis put a stop to the whole trend.

2011 — 15M Spanish Indignados Movement, Arab Spring, Occupy — was the outburst of a sense of lack of quality democracy. Citizen participation came back to the spotlight, but not on a period of dire crisis. The paradox was that when participation was most needed, lack resources due to the crisis could not meet the needs.

So, what is citizen participation? Many things:

Representative democracy Direct democracy
Additive democracy Democracy of the moderns: do not trust citizens, trust representative. Risk: “they do not represent us” Referendums, polls. Empowerment vs. experience of elder people
Deliberative democracy Democratize policies: participation, consultation vs. authority, legitimacy Democracy of the elder: trust citizens, do not trust representatives. Risk: elitism

Technology plays a different role in each different approach. While it is not yet clear neither the better technology or methodology nor the impact or degree of improvement, it does seem clear that there is a trend towards empowerment of the citizen. And a thing that has not changed is that every option carries an underlying ideology: while deliberation is about the “we” and about building a solution, polling is about the “I” and winning the preferred option.

Antonio Calleja, Internet Interdisciplinary Institute

Especially since 2011 we’ve been witnessing a crisis of representative democracy and a rise of “datacracy”, where who owns more data can affect or even interfere representative democracy and its processes.

Decidim aims at being an alternative to big corporations controlling the platforms that will be used by “datacrats”. Decidim is thought as a political network.

As a political network, Decidim has a community around the platform that deals about strategic and technological issues, also including research, dissemination, etc.

Decidim begins with the strategic plan of the city council of Barcelona in 2016. Initially based on the citizen participation software of Madrid, Cónsul, it was later recoded as a new platform on 2017. New features have been added since.

An important feature is the ability to track what happens with a given proposal by a specific citizen: how it is included in an approved political measure and the degree in which this measure is executed.

(NOTE: case study on Decidim: Peña-López, I. (2017)., Spain. Voice or chatter? Case studies. Bengaluru: IT for Change)

Rosa Borge, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

Research project to test the deliberative capacity of several projects that have used Decidim to enable citizen participation. 18 projects were analyzed, choosing first level processes such as strategic or investment plans at the local level.

Decidim has become central in organizing and managing participation processes in municipalities. It is worth noting that the platform was used by municipalities with governments from different parties, and ranging from left to right in terms of ideology.

There does not seem to be a pattern between the number of participants, number of proposals and number of comments to these proposals. The evolution of participation processes varies a lot depending on a wide rage of reasons.

The tool has proven useful to run three dimensions of participatory processes:

  • Participation
  • Transparency
  • Deliberation

The reasons to run participation processes and to do it online are many. Sometimes it is a honest need, sometimes a way to be trendy and get more votes in the coming elections, sometimes it is mandatory by law depending on the kind of policy to be passed. What is clear is that many times there lacks a deep reflection on why and what for developing participation initiatives at the “theoretical” level (purpose, design, limitations, etc.).

The research analyzed the quality of deliberation performing content analysis and according to several indicators like equality in the discourse, reciprocity, justification, reflexiveness, pluralism and diversity, empathy and respect, etc.

Results show that there certainly is a good degree of depth in the discourse and a real debate with pros and cons on the proposals. The dialogue shows almost no effect of echo chambers but, on the contrary, dialogues provide reasoning, proposals or alternatives.

Unfortunately, the debates that take place on the institutional platform are not transposed on other social networking sites like Twitter, were the audience could be bigger and reach a greater range of actors.

PESTEL and DAFO analyses were conducted to better understand the environment and main trends.

On the cons side, there still is a certain lack of commitment from political leaders. On the pros side, online participation attracts new actors to participatory processes that were not the usual suspects of citizen participation.

(NOTE: paper on this research Borge et al. (2018). La participación política a través de la plataforma Decidim: análisis de 11 municipios catalanes. IX Congreso Internacional en Gobierno, Administración y Políticas Públicas GIGAPP. Madrid, 24-27 de septiembre de 2018. Madrid: GIGAPP).


Anna Clua: what has been the impact of the digital divide? Have municipalities taken it into account? Rosa Borge: municipalities do not have the resources to measure and seriously address the issue. Notwithstanding, some of them are aware of the issue and thus have made some projects (e.g. training) to try and bridge it during participatory processes.

Manuel Gutiérrez: does online deliberation create more or less discourse fallacies? Rosa Borge: in general, the research has not found many bad practices. On the contrary, quality of the debate was high according to the indicators chosen. Of course the methodology is arguable and there were some methodological issues that are worth being reviewed.

Quim Brugué: can we deliberate on everything? Should we deliberate when the government has already decided on a given issue? What for? Rosa Borge: of course if the decision is already made, it may not make a lot of sense. Notwithstanding, most dedicions are not “totally” made and all comments and shades of meaning poured on the platform are taken into account by decision-makers — as stated by officials and politicians during the research.


Rosa Borge. From protest to political parties: online deliberation in the new parties arising in Spain

Notes from the research seminar From protest to political parties: online deliberation in the new parties arising in Spain by Rosa Borge, organized by the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Open University of Catalonia, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on July 20th, 2015.

From protest to political parties: online deliberation in the new parties arising in Spain
Rosa Borge, Eduardo Santamarina

What are the deliberative practices of the two most important parties (Podemos and Barcelona en Comú) that emerged from the 15M Indignados movement in Spain? What trade-offs entail the process of transformation from social movements into political parties? To what extent participation and deliberation could be realized at the same time?

Podemos and Barcelona en comú were founded in 2014. Three months after its foundation, Podemos won 5 seats at the European Parliament, and less than a year after its foundation Barcelona en Comú won the mayoralty of Barcelona.

Internal organization:

  • Anyone can easily register online and participate in important decisions.
  • Open particpiatory spaces at the base of the party: assemblies, high degree of independence, etc.
  • Dominant position of the General Assembly or Plenary.
  • Specific consultation or referendum for important decisions: electoral programme, agreements with other parties, etc.
  • Participatory preparation of the electoral programme and organizational documents.
  • Channelling for individual proposals (Plaza Podemos).
  • Revocation of elected positions.

Developed a theoretical framework for measuring online deliberation, after Kies (2010) and Friess & Eilders (2014):

  • Institutional or structural dimension: technical and structural design of the online platform in order to build a deliberative space: inclusion, asynchronous communication, content visibility, moderation, identification rules, division of labour, relevant information, horizontal interaction, etc.
  • Communicative dimension: deliberative attitude of participants and how the communication process looks like, mainly with relation to the reaction of participants to each other’s ideas: discourse equality, reciprocity, justification, reflexivity, empathy, sincerity, plurality (inclusion).
  • The outcome dimension: results or impact of the deliberation that could be individual or collective (external impact): tolerance, knowledge, efficacy, compromise, preference shift, consensus, legitimacy, impact on political decisions or public debates.

The research analysed the two most voted debates held in the online platform known as Plaza Podemos and the online process of developing the municipal electoral programme of Barcelona en Comú. The three levels (institutional, communicative, outcome) were examined through the deliberative criteria: analysis of the design of the platform and content analysis of the threads of the debates.

Plaza Podemos run on an installation of Reddit; while Barcelona en Comú used DemocracyOS for the deliberation, plus Agora Voting to prioritise and vote the final proposals.

Main conclusions:

  • Both online processes were designed to be both participatory and deliberative spaces. This “procedural duality” seems to lean towards the voting side, becoming a kind of competitive space.
  • Tensions between openness and closeness (a typical tension of a party).
  • Extensive experimentation of new democratic processes: learning by doing.
  • Inducement of a “participatory literacy” among citizens.
  • These processes and the internal structure will be subjected to future changes.

The processes maybe were not optimal, but very much aiming at improving democratic processes.


Q: are there facilitators in the platforms? What is their role? Rosa Borge: yes, there are facilitators, which usually do not appear on the front row, and whose role is mainly technical.

Q: how can you assure that you are fulfilling anyone’s expectations? Rosa Borge: we do not know by sure, but the overall sense of the community is of high satisfaction with both the platforms and the results.

Ivan Serrano: after this research, how do we characterize Podemos or Barcelona en Comú? Are they deliberative parties? Aren’t they? Were do they stand between the extreme of being a traditional party and a fully deliberative one? How can they compare one with each other? Rosa Borge: it is difficult to say after our research, as only a few debates were analysed. But, there is enough evidence to say that these parties look different from other more traditional ones. And yes, there is a tension between pure Habermasian deliberation (which aims at consensus) and the need to participate within the constraints of electoral times. Indeed, the idea of consensus is highly criticised by some authors, and that is why it was not included as an indicator for deliberation: there seems not to be that important that there is an agreement at the end of the process (and just vote instead).

Q: how long does it take to become a regular party? Rosa Borge: Everyone is quite surprised with the political success of both Podemos and Barcelona en Comú. What is true is that an initial lack of structures or political organization allows movements to move faster than traditional parties. After that, there is a tension between being operational and being more participative, and the tension is solved with a pendulum movement approaching each side until a balance is reached.

Marc Esteve: what about the tension between consensus and voting? Rosa Borge: lately, the priority is to have a decision or a position after the process of participation and/or deliberation. Thus why in most platforms everything can be voted on the go. Yes, it adds a sort of competition unnatural in a deliberative process, but it also allows to have “something” at the end of the process, and to make the process a finite one, one that won’t last forever.


IDP2014 (XII). Internet and politics (II)

Notes from the 10th Internet, Law and Politics Congress: A decade of transformations, organized by the Open University of Catalonia, School of Law and Political Science, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on 3-4 July 2014. More notes on this event: idp2014.

Chairs: Joan Balcells Padullés. Lecturer, School of Law and Political Science (UOC).

Are Social Media changing party politics? Brokers among the members of the Catalan Parliament Twitter Network.
Marc Esteve i del Valle, PhD student on the Knowledge and Information Society Programme at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). Researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3); Rosa Borge Bravo; Associate Professor of Political Science at the UOC and researcher at the IN3

When looking at the political usage of Twitter in political parties, it is noticeable that it’s not the leaders but other members of the party the most active on Twitter. Are we before the appearance of ‘brokers’ that bridge different political clusters?

H1: Given the high density of the Catalan parliamentarians’ Twitter network, its high reciprocity, its clustering structure and the particular working milieu that it reflects, we expect the appearance of structural holes and therefore brokers.

H2: The Catalan parliamentarians who are young, highly educated, highly active on the Internet and parliamentarian works and belong to the ruling party, are more likely to be the bridges of the Catalan parliamentarians’ twitter network.

The dependent variable was the degree of centrality in the network, and as independent variables there were many: socio-economic, political, about your personal network, etc.

Results showed that the Parliament is a not very dense network, but also that it is a close one. It’s a closed and affiliated universe. 26 MP where considered as being brokers. They are not leaders of their respective parties and, indeed, they often neither belong to the mainstream ideology of the party.

We can cluster all the MPs in 4 communities, whose composition changes along time (January to March, 2014).

H1 is corroborated. But H2 is not. For being followed is important to have a blog, to speak a lot at the plenary and to hold a MP position, but there is no relationship with socio-demographic characteristics, no official role at the Parliament, no interventions to the commissions, no tweet intensity, no incumbency, no Internet use.

La desrepresentación política. Potencialidad de Internet en el proceso legislativo.
Francisco Jurado Gilabert, Jurista e Investigador en el Laboratorio de Ideas y Prácticas Políticas de la Universidad Pablo de Olavide. Doctorando en Filosofía del Derecho y Política en el IGOP, Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona.

We have a context where even the voters think that the Congress or the Senate represents the people… despite the fact that the Law says that it is so. On the other hand, there are other institutions of “direct” participation, which are not actually such, as they require some approvals or backing from the representative institutions.

Political representation is forced: one cannot chose not to be represented by the Parliament (e.g. as one can choose a lawyer to represent them in a trial). Elections are not about being represented or not, but only about somewhat influencing who is going to represent the whole citizenry. Why is it so? Why is the citizenry forced to be represented? There do not seem to be solid reasons to be politically supervised and represented. The only reason being the incapability of gathering everyone together, at the same time and at the same place for decision-making.

And it gets worse: the laws that frame representation are increasingly used as barriers against the entrance of competitors. It is difficult to create a new party or to create a new political platform. Pitkin’s dimensions of representation (1967) are systematically violed: there is no authorization or empowerment, no accountability, no suitability, no symbolic dimension (or just a little bit), no substantive representation of interests.

We need an act of de-representation, of demanding representation back. Maybe not the whole time, but on demand, when it is needed.

And there are many ICT tools that come very handy for that purpose.

La identidad digital en procesos de democracia electrónica. La desastrosa experiencia de la firma electrónica basada en certificados, en
Javier Peña, Presidente de; Ignacio Alamillo Domingo, Investigador del GRISC, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. [MySignature] is a non-profit organization to collect signatures to promote certain initiatives. The difference with other petitioning sites is that at MiFirma signatures are electronic and thus legally binding. For instance, formally and officially signing political initiatives.

Setting up the platform is easily in technological terms than in legal terms. One needs and administrative authorisation, the platform has to accomplish some (non-justified) requirements and restrictions on the time of e-signature to be used, etc.


10th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (2014)

IDP2013 (VI): Politics

Notes from the 9th Internet, Law and Politics Congress: Big Data: Challenges and Opportunities, organized by the Open University of Catalonia, School of Law and Political Science, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on 25-26 June 2013. More notes on this event: idp2013.

Moderator: Ana Sofía Cardenal. Lecturer, School of Law and Political Science (UOC).

Opening new windows: decision-making centralization and online interaction in CIU, ERC and PSC.
Marc Esteve Del Valle. Doctorando del Programa de Sociedad de la Información y el Conocimiento de la Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) – Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3); Rosa Borge Bravo. Profesora Agregada de Ciencia Política de la Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) – Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3)

What is the use of the Internet that parties do to “open” themselves and interact with the citizenry.

There are two approaches to ICTs and politics:

  • normalization: nothing is changing, parties will adopt ICTs for their traditional purposes, for their “politics as usual”. The citizenry nor adopts ICTs to participate more or whatever.
  • new mobilization: citizens can initiate their own campaigns thanks to several tools available online. These campaings, though, would be bound to parties, that is, it’s partisans that initiate campaigns to support parties. Networ party (Heidar & Saglie, 2003), cyberparty (Margetts, 2006), citizen initiate campaigns (Gibson, 2013), etc.

Reasons why parties would use ICTs: external context, inner characteristics of the party, position in the electoral market, contagion, etc.

H1: centralized and highly hierarchical parties have less interaction instruments in their websites (centralization index by K. Janda, 1980)
Data show that the three parties do not difer very much in centralization, and they do not difer either in matters of windows of interaction. Thus, evidence that centralization leads to more interaction is very weak.

H2: the degree of centralization does not seem to be related with the windows of interaction that PSC, CiU and ERC provide on their Facebook pages
Concerning the web 2.0, there neither are many differences. Indeed, the thesis of the contagion is very powerful, as there seems to be a pattern where a party initiates a certain activity and the rest copy it not long after.

Though parties showed different strategies and different levels of participation on Facebook, it cannot be stated that this was due to centralization differences. It is very likely, though, that is the state of political news or the political agenda that better shapes the strategies and interactions on Facebook.

To tweet or not to tweet? Social networking strategies in Catalan local governments
Joan Balcells, Lecturer, School of Law and Political Science (UOC); Albert Padró-Solanet, Lecturer, School of Law and Political Science (UOC); Iván Serrano, Researcher, IN3

How can be Twitter used in the context of e-Government? What are the factors of adoption of Twitter by local governments? How is Twitter used by local governments?

Logistic regression on the characteristics of the 947 municipalities in Catalonia was performed to tell the reasons for Twitter adoption. On the other hand, Twitter was mined to retrieve tweets by twitting municipalities and be able to tell the different usages of Twitter by them.

Problem: what (or which one) is the “official” Twitter account in a local government? The more representative one was chosen.

Assumption: if local governments are rationals, they will be on Twitter if the benefits are bigger than the costs of using Twitter.

Characteristics like size of the government, level of e-government, population, public employees expenditure per inhabitant, level of education of the municipality, socio-political mobilization or a change in government in the 2011 elections impact positively in probability of opening a Twitter account. The last issue, a change of party in office, is especially relevant, which stresses the point that in local governments leadership still plays an important role.

Concerning performance, measurements were tweets per week, RT per week, mentions, etc. Larger cities were the ones that performed better on Twitter.

A survey was addressed to Twitter managers asking what was Twitter for. There is major consensus on Twitter for informing citizens. But there is no consensus on interaction with citizens. Again, there is agreemen that Twitter is good for the local administration and for citizens, but there is some level of conflict when asked whether it is good or not for the public employee.

Accounts were grouped in three clusters according to the perception of conflict or not, and the use of Twitter for information or for engagement. And performance is related with perception: if one thinks Twitter is good, the account will do well.

A caveat is that having a Twitter account has consequences for the inner organization of the local government.

Casual Politics: From slacktivism to emergent movements and pattern recognition
Ismael Peña-López. Lecturer, School of Law and Political Science (UOC).


9th Internet, Law and Politics Conference (2013)

Internet, Politics, Policy (III). Participation in Politics and Policy-making

Notes from the Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment conference, organized by the Oxford Internet Institute, and held at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, UK, on September 16-17, 2010. More notes on this event: ipp2010.

New ways for policy-makers to interact with citizens through open social network sites – a report on initial results
Matthew Addis, IT Innovation Centre, University of Southampton, UK

WeGov aims at using social networking sites (where the people is) to engage citizens in two-way dialogues as part of governance and policymaking processes.

Several issues are raised, though, concerning security, privacy, digital identity, hacking, masquerading, bugs and system malfunctions, etc.

So far, though, it seems that social networking sites do offer plenty of potentgial for improved interaction of plicy makers and community, and they are complementary to other models. Notwithstainding, care is needed on what’s legally acceptable, risks need being assessed. On the other hand, there is a high dependency on the major actors (Google, Facebook and other SNS operators). Last, many technical challenges have to be overcome before real dialogue can take place.


Q: Should politicians and/or public servants take part in social networking sites? Are them an appropriate place where to engage in a conversation? A: These issues are taking into account in the project, though no results are available at this moment. Notwithstanding, SNS can be used to create only-politicians workgroups, so they can work amongst them in a new environment without “third parties” peeking in.

Q: Isn’t that a big brother approach to policy making? Are SNS only used for surveillance but not for listening? A: Of course it depends on the usage.

Analysing e-consultations with the help of Computer Assistance
Aude Bicquelet, London School of Economics (LSE)

Text mining is the process of extracting information in large corpora with the aim of identifying patterns and relationship in textual data. Can text mining methods help the analysis of large corpora such as e-consultations?

Alceste software was used to explore petitinons and comments from the citizens. After a first scan, cluster analysis was performed to try and isolate groups of terms and infer from them concepts/meanings.

Text mining methods help in categorization of data, reduction of information, visualization to help and disentangle complex and prolific data, high velocity of analysis.

On the other hand, there are some risks like points or issues missed by the algorithm, missing data, insensitivity to meaning and context, etical issues related to privacy or confidentiality, “dehumanization”, non-awareness of participants being a matter of research, etc.


Ismael Peña-López: Though there might be a risk of decontextualization, text could also be mixed with other data (e.g. on the author of the text) and thus reintroduce context within the equation. Would that be possible? A: Yes, this is definitely an option.

Q: Text mining can be used for “sentiment mining”.

Q: How are these findings used? A: They feed back the whole participation process and they inform the people designing the systems so that they can improve them.

Surfing the Net: a pathway to political participation without motivation?
Rosa Borge and Ana Sofía Cardenal, Internet Interdisciplinary Institute IN3, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona

Goals of the research: To investigate the relationship between internet motivation and political participation, and to see whether the use of Internet changes the importance given to motivation.

The literature is not conclusive, and both positive and negative impacts have been found in Internet over political participation in the literature.

The main drivers of political participation are resources, psychological involvement and recruitment networks. Does the Internet reduce the importance of motivation (psychological involvement)? Does the Internet has any impact on it? When participation is not so costly (due to the Internet), maybe political interest is not so important, as participation is almost costless.

(H1) Use of the Internet will not cause the effect of motivation to disappear, but digital skills may actually be a barrier. (H2) Browsing aimlessly on the Internet and being contacted online will increase the probability of online participation.

First results show that political interest and political skills have a direct effect on online political participation. Specifically, having internet skills does have a direct effect in participation, though it will not make political interest disappear as a reason to participate.

There also is a relationship between browsing aimlessly on the Internet and being contacted online and an increase in online political participation.

[Own ramblings: Pippa Norris stated that citizens were increasingly engaged in “actions” rather than “ideologies”. Isn’t that the next step, where “action” is substituted by “casual politics”? Is there still a role for deliberation? We’re witnessing transition fr endorsement of ideas, to participation in actions to casual politics on the run. Seems like e-politics is less of the Habermassian e-agora and more about e-herding.]

Civil Society and ICTs: Creating Participatory Spaces for Democratizing ICT Policy and Governance in the Philippines
Ian Jayson Reyes Hecita, Florida State University

Goal of the research: analyse the state of Civil Society Organizations (CSO) in Philippines.

Context: failure of institutions, lack of capacity of government, democracy dominated by the elite.

Thus, CSOs are raising many relevant issues in Philippines related to ICTs and society.

But government receptiveness on CSOs can depend on leadership, on tapping government “champions”, the political attractiveness of the policy issue, and the effectiveness of engagement will be more viable at the executive level than at the legislative level. It will also depend on the openness/receptiveness/political will of government agencies to CSO participation, on the level of institutionalization of CSO participation, the resources of CSOs and capacity and skills to engage the government, the critical mass in their basis and policy audience, the need to develop consumerism, their capacity to carry on research and, of course, the legal and regulatory framework.

As a conclusion, CSOs may have a limited impact in terms of influencing policy outcomes, but they may have an important one in brining relevant topics on the table.



Internet, Politics, Policy 2010: An Impact Assessment (2010)