Sam DeJohn: Recently, Pablo Soto Bravo, Madrid City Council Member, computer programmer and the city’s lead for public engagement, spoke at an event in New York on “Restoring Trust in Government” on the occasion of the United Nations General Assembly. “Why should we trust government,” he asked, adding “the people don’t trust governments…they’re right not to trust the government.” Like many Spaniards, Soto had joined the 15-M movement in 2011 to protest the government’s austerity measures and rising levels of corruption.1 With trust in government having declined over twenty percentage points since 2007,2 Soto used his programming skills to champion the adoption of digital technology to give the public a greater voice in a traditional two-party governing system from which the average person had generally been excluded. But, as we shall explore in this three-part series, Decide Madrid, a pathbreaking civic technology platform co-designed by Soto to force “the administration to open their ears” (El Mundo), is evolving from a protest tool designed to challenge the status quo into a more mature platform for improving governance.
In Part 1, we will explore the platform, which is among the best-of-breed new generation of open source civic technologies, and its myriad features. In Part 2, we will draw on open data from Decide to focus in more depth on how people use the site. In Part 3, we focus on recommendations for improvements to Decide and how to test their impact on the legitimacy and effectiveness of decision-making.
What is Decide?
The Ahora Madrid coalition (which was founded with support from the Podemos political party3) created Decide in 2015 to enable citizens to propose, deliberate and vote on policies for the city and ensure transparency of all government proceedings within the municipality. An information page on the Decide website further elaborates the program’s focus. “One of the main missions of [the platform] will be to ensure the inclusion of everyone in the participatory processes, so that all voices and wills form a part of them and no one is left out.” The website, which utilizes the free software Consul as many other administrations are now doing, allows Madrileños to influence the City’s planning and policy-making through voting, discourse, and consultations with the goal of empowering citizens, promoting transparency, and fostering open government practices. The site is composed of four distinct features to address these areas of desired impact. Of these components, two processes stand out as having the most potential for direct citizen influence: a proposal section where individuals may propose new laws and subsequently vote on them, and a participatory budget section where citizens decide how a portion of the City’s budget is distributed among different projects. The other two features include a consultation process where citizens are asked to offer, and vote on, opinions about City proceedings and finally a debate process which does not directly lead to action but rather deliberation for the City to assess public opinion. These processes are all designed with the intention “to create an environment that mobilizes existing collective intelligence in favor of a more hospitable and inclusive city.”
Propuestas: Citizen Proposals Enable More Direct Democracy
The proposals feature was designed as a way to allow citizens to utilize the full power of direct democracy and shape government actions. According to Pablo Soto Bravo and Miguel Arana Catania, Director of Participation for the City Council of Madrid and Project Director for Decide Madrid, the proposals feature is by far the most important aspect of the platform as it has the greatest potential for impact. It has definitely generated interest as almost 20,000 proposals have been submitted since the launch of Decide in 2015.
This feature enables citizens to create and directly support ideas for new legislation. Registered users4 can propose an idea by simply clicking the “Create a Proposal” button and submitting a title and description. Proposals range significantly in terms of length and content, but gravity of the topic does not seem to influence popularity as two of the most supported proposals currently active on the site are “Penalty for those who do not collect the feces of their pets” and “Replacement of public lighting by LED lights.” Once a proposal is submitted, anyone with verified accounts can click a button expressing their support for said proposal.5 Each proposal is given twelve months to gather requisite support to advance in the process.
In order to move forward for consideration, a proposal must receive the requisite support, represented by 1% of citizens of Madrid over 16 years of age (~27,000 people currently). The process is designed this way to ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to submit proposals but that the administrators do not have to waste time considering proposals that fail to attract minimal backing.
Proposals that receive the necessary votes advance to the decision phase, which affords time and opportunity for citizens to get educated about the issues and make informed decisions. The site announces whenever a proposal reaches this phase and it is grouped with others that are in the same stage of the process, thus beginning a 45-day period of deliberation and discussion before the final voting phase. The managers of the platform do not provide background information other than what is posted by users, so citizens are responsible for conducting their own research and perusing the site for debates and comments about the proposal. Afterward begins a seven-day period where anyone over 16 years of age and completely verified in the municipality of Madrid can vote to either accept or reject the proposal.
It is important to note that proposals that receive majority support are not automatically implemented, as the Spanish Constitution does not permit binding referenda. Instead, the Madrid City Council commits to a 30-day study of any such proposal, during which they will determine if it is to be implemented. During this examination, the proposal is evaluated based on its legality, feasibility, competence, and economic cost, all of which are highlighted in a subsequent report that is openly published. If the report is positive, then a plan of action will be written and published to carry out the proposal. If the report is negative, the City Council may either propose an alternative action or publish the reasons that prevent the proposal’s execution.
Although it is understandable that the administration wants to ensure that only popular, viable proposals are presented before them, the hurdles that each proposal must clear are proving to be a significant obstacle. While it is difficult to determine the reason, the undeniable fact that only two proposals have even reached the final voting phase suggests a serious flaw in the system and a possible deterrent for future participation. However, on a more hopeful note, the two successful proposals (one calling for a single ticket for all means of public transportation and the other an extensive sustainability plan for the city) reached majority support in February of this year and in May the Council approved them and posted implementation plans.
Presupuestos participativos: Participatory budgeting
This feature was created to allow citizens a substantial say in how their taxes are being spent. Specifically, it permits them to decide where a designated portion of the City’s budget is going to be allocated. In the first step, individuals registered in Madrid can submit expenditure projects which will be posted publicly on the website. Spending projects can be submitted for either the entire city or for an individual district. One key difference between this process and that of proposals is that authors of similar projects are contacted and offered the possibility of submitting joint projects as a way of limiting the volume of projects and ensuring cost-effectiveness.
The next phase consists of a two-week period where qualified voters are authorized ten support votes for city-wide projects and ten for projects in a district of their choosing. After this period, all projects undergo an evaluation by the City Council either confirming or denying that the projects are valid, viable, legal, and includible in the municipal budget. Following the evaluation, both approved and rejected projects are published with their corresponding reports and assessments. The “most supported” projects then move on to the final voting phase, but the administrators are unclear about this term’s definition as they do not specify how many projects are permitted to advance.
In the final voting phase, the total available budget and the final projects along with their estimated cost (produced by the City Council during the evaluation phase) are published. Qualified voters can vote for any number of projects for the whole city and one project from the district of their choosing but the projects they support cannot exceed the total amount of funds available in the budget.
Projects are then listed in descending order of votes received, both for city-wide projects and district projects. They are then selected down the line from highest number of votes to lowest number of votes, making sure each additional proposal can fit within the total available budget. If the estimated cost of a project would cause the budget to be exceeded, that project is skipped and the next viable option is selected. Finally, the selected projects are included in the Initial Project of the General Budget of the City of Madrid (Participatory Budgets).
This feature is making impressive progress consistent with its goals. From 2016 to 2017, the amount allocated to these projects rose from €60 million to €100 million and the total number of participants rose by almost 50% from 45,531 to 67,132 people. With each project’s status and details available in a downloadable file on this page of the site, transparency is not an issue for this component. Pablo Soto Bravo and Miguel Arana Catania have indicated that citizens should start seeing concrete results from the 2016 projects very soon, which should lend credibility to, and faith in, the process.
Debates and Consultations
In addition to the proposed actions which actually go through a voting process, the site contains sections that are intended more for simple deliberation, promoting communication and information-sharing. Debates do not call for any action by the City Council but are instead used to assess the public’s opinion and general consensus on a range of topics.
There is also a consultation process where users can voice their opinions about certain proceedings throughout the city. They can answer questions, make suggestions, and praise or denounce measures or activities that are already happening instead of creating new proposals. For example, the City Council currently plans on remodeling several squares and plazas throughout the city. Thus, there is a section where citizens are able to answer three questions created by the City Council pertaining to the revitalization of each area. City officials can comment and debate as well, allowing them to directly engage users on the site. There is no indication as to how seriously the public’s opinions are taken into consideration, but it is implied that their ideas are valued. At the very least, the highlighted names of politicians appearing on the debate space creates the appearance that they are taking an interest in these concerns.
Because Decide has the potential to cause such a grand impact on Madrid’s citizens, government, and economic prosperity, there are certain security precautions to encourage participation while protecting the integrity of the process. The platform has a sliding scale of permissions with stronger authentication enabling access to more features of the site to create the incentive for more accountable participation. The site is open to anyone with internet access and users may create an account simply by providing a username and valid email address. While anyone can submit proposals, additional authentication is necessary to access other capabilities. There are three levels of authentication, each with differing rights of access.
- Registered users, who provide a username, email address, and password but do not verify residence, are able to:
- Participate in discussions
- Create proposals
- Create expenditure projects
- Basic verified users must verify residence online by entering their residence data. If it is correct, they will be asked to provide a mobile phone number in order to receive a confirmation code to activate their verified account. People may also elect to do this in person at a Citizen Assistance office. These users are able to:
- Participate in discussions
- Create proposals and expenditure projects
- Vote for proposals and expenditure projects in the support phase
- Completely verified users must fully verify their account in person at a Citizen Assistance Office or via mail. If done by mail they will receive a letter containing a security code and instructions to carry out the verification, which they must send back to a Citizen Assistance Office. These users are able to:
- Participate in discussions
- Create proposals and expenditure projects
- Vote for proposals in the support phase
- Vote for proposals in the final decision phase
Although the concept of Decide is consistent with the highest ideals of open government, the execution falls short in practice as, with the exception of participatory budgeting, there is no evidence that the site leads to improved decisions. We will discuss these shortcomings in more detail in part two, however, on the surface it is seems that Decide has not yet accomplished its ultimate goals, as its creators acknowledge. Soto and Arana want Madrileños to understand and fully utilize the power of direct democracy. With only two proposals reaching the voting phase of the process, it is clear that neither citizens nor Madrid’s institutions are taking advantage of this novel system and it has yet to achieve a significant impact on governance in Madrid.
The platform’s design is innovative and impressive and has been inspiring many other administrations to adopt similar programs. Indeed it bodes well for Madrid, and the rest of Spain, that various cities throughout the country are being inspired by the same political aspirations to replicate this process, such as decidm.barcelona which uses the same Consul software. However, like many others, Decide still has its flaws. In the next installment, we will address how Decide handles the keys to a successful digital democracy, such as advertising, incentivizing, and stakeholder analysis. We have identified the strengths and weaknesses at its foundation, so the next step is to examine the results it is producing.
1 2016 marked Spain’s worst year on Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index since its launch in 1995, as they scored just 58 on the 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (highly clean) scale.
2 Trust and Public Policy: How Better Governance Can Help Rebuild Public Trust, OECD, http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/download/4217051e.pdf?expires=1492821633&id=id&accname=ocid177224&checksum=6C5097C12FAE130455255C94D249CA20 (Mar. 27, 2017)
3 Podemos did not formally run in the most recent local elections. However, it has been the driving force behind local platforms that share the same political agenda.
4 See “Membership Levels” below for detailed explanation
5 Note: in order to maximize citizen participation and accommodate those without internet access, most actions that take place on the website can also be done in one of Madrid’s 26 Citizen Assistance Offices with the help of trained staff.