Author: 
Ismael Peña-López
Publication Date
June 15, 2017
Affiliation: 

Open University of Catalonia

"Although the scheme may be simple, we believe that it already features most of the components of a new democratic participation in the digital age."

This research brief from IT for Change via Making All Voices Count looks at initiatives that are working towards enabling citizen voices to be heard in Spain. In the public sector, Spain has made efforts not to lag behind digital leaders in terms of public e-readiness and e-government, but literature shows that "the crisis of participation and representation" is pushing citizens outside of institutional politics and into new kinds of organisations that are strong in digital and social media. However, these efforts do not seem to be able to establish a dialogue with the institutions of representative democracy in order to reform the aforementioned institutions.

As the brief explains, in the period between 2004 and 2011, the Spanish political arena was witness to many citizen initiatives where information and communication technologies (ICTs) played a major role in fostering access to extra-institutional information and circumventing state institutions to coordinate and engage in political action. May 15 2011 saw action from the 15M Spanish Indignados Movement, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets of dozens of cities in Spain. One of the clearest demands of the movement was the improvement of democratic processes and institutions, especially by increasing transparency, accountability, and participation. There was a keen recognition regarding the key role that ICTs could play in realising this. "In the short term, the 15M had little effect."

In 2015, Madrid, Spain, initiated a participatory democracy project, Decide Madrid (Madrid decide), which was designed to enable participatory strategic planning for the municipality. In 2016, Barcelona issued its own participatory democracy project: decidim.barcelona (Barcelona we decide). While the former (Decide Madrid) mostly focuses on particular proposals and participatory budgeting, the second one (decidim.barcelona) has been used as a supporting tool to draft the strategic plan of the city for 2016-2019. The cities use the same free software platform - the open source solution CONSUL - as a base, and are guided by the same political vision. These efforts share free-software-based technology, procedures and protocols and reflections, both on open events as well as informal official meetings. Both city governments have ambitious plans so that the platforms become the axis of all decision making of the city, where the citizens will have a personal profiles through which they can propose, engage with, and monitor all the activities, topics, etc. that they might be interested in.

The abundance of open documentation available demonstrates, for example, that decidim.barcelona has increased the amount of information in the hands of citizens, created momentum around key issues, and led to an increase in citizen participation.

An excerpt from the paper follows:

"The active push for deliberation and openness, combined with an influx of elected representatives in the city council who share a hacker ethic, has resulted in an adoption of free software and open processes as a pathway to achieving these goals. Which has meant that instead of introducing deliberative processes that are pre-set, participation is overlain on a platform that is open source and collaborative from the get go. An unintended outcome of such participatory cultures has been greater legitimacy around decision making.

This can be summarised in four key points:

  • Deliberation becomes the new democracy standard.
  • Openness as the pre-requisite for deliberation.
  • Accountability and legislative footprint as an important by-product to achieve legitimacy.
  • Participation leads to more pluralism and stronger social capital, which fosters deliberation, thus closing the (virtuous) circle of deliberative democracy.

...What remains to be measured and analysed is the strength and stability of the new relationships of power and how exactly these will challenge the preceding systemic structures and lead to newer ones. Some aspects of this shift have been identified in what relates to new relationships between citizens and institutions. They are also evident in the emergence of new tacit communities, para-organisations and relational spaces. However, the real trends and the hypothetical final scenario will only become clear after several iterations of the same project evolve...

What is clear is that the engaged and transformative citizenship initiated by decidim.barcelona has established some reference points that need to be thoroughly measured and compared with former parameters used to define and assess democracy. Some such directions include, a deeper study of:

  • The diminishing role of intermediation and traditional institutions (e.g. governments) and civic organisations, in favour of individual participation and new liquid collectives and para-institutions.
  • The increasing role of informed deliberation...both tacit - as in supports or comments and explicit - as in real communication between participants in the digital platform, in events or in social networking sites.
  • The balance between institutions (representation), experts (local leaders) and individual citizens, who now make up a new ecosystem of actors with new roles and relationships. There is an increase in the amount of networks and communities...

These aspects can be summarised in one point: the devolution of some sovereignty in matters of democracy to the citizen in a structural, and not temporary, way.

By leveraging the power of ICTs to bring more actors and more resources into the political arena, democratic processes can improve the state of democracy. Time will tell whether the outcome will be as positive as expected..."

This research brief is part of the IT-for-Change-led Voice or Chatter? - a multi-country case study analysis about how ICT-mediated citizen engagement can be empowering for citizens and transformative for democratic governance outcomes. Voice or Chatter? was funded by Making All Voices Count.

Source: 

C4D Network Twitter Trawl: 12 – 18 June 2017 and Making All Voices Count website, June 23 2017; and email from Karen Brock to The Communication Initiative on July 25 2017. Image credit: "Hashtag by Rico Reinhold from the Noun Project. Meeting by Iris Roijakkers from the Noun Project"