This is a very interesting overview of the problems and progress with participatory democracy. It was written by Cidade Democrática, a Brazilian social participation “think and do” tank and originally published on Medium.
The advent of the Internet, the ICTs and the collective intelligence enabled by them point to the rise of a networked democracy that promises, among other things, the protagonism of the common citizen in relation to the State and to the distribution of power. In recent years, there have been a number of initiatives in this area that, somehow, advanced towards this goal, but the promise remains unanswered.
One reason may be the fact that, advocating for a leading role to the ordinary citizen and the distribution of power, one is severely threatening the interests of politicians, political parties and companies that have been benefiting from an autocratic and centralized paradigm for hundreds or maybe thousands of years. So, we are aware that the mission we have before us is one that will take some time and effort to be accomplished, as it is inscribed in the great transition we are all going through.
Believing in the digital culture statement that “technology is everywhere, the people is what matters” seems adequate to avoid the fetish of technology itself and the creation of solutions that do not realize the potential of a distributed network, responding to the challenge of consolidating autonomous collective action processes that would ultimately lead to the distribution of power.
It was the promise of common citizen protagonism and distribution of power that, in 2008, sparkled the development of Instituto Cidade Democrática’s free software. Four years latter, new functions were added to the digital platform to respond to the human dynamics of autonomous collective action, modeling unique experiences such as the challenges: Amazonian Webcidadania Xingu (2013), São Paulo state city Jundiaí Cidadonos focused on social accountability (2015), Brazilian National Youth Conference digital process (2015) and São Paulo city Free Laboratories of Social Participation(2016), which promotes the appropriation of open source applications by cultural social movements for autonomous political action.
Still, in our perspective, the social participation ecosystem as a whole is far from delivering initiatives that significantly advance into the construction of this networked democracy. In this post, some of the lessons learned in recent years are presented to help us understand the complexity of obtaining some of the necessary elements for this answer: scale without intermediation, financial sustainability for ICD from a hard to measure value created, debate quality without exclusion, permanent changes in state institutions and building commons.
The answer to the above issues seems to reside between softwares’ interaction architectures, initiatives’ business models and projects’ impact and the likelihood of social participation technology ecosystem initiatives to engage in collective impact. Below are some of our latter reflections. We hope that you enjoy and that our learnings will help you work better and make the promise to come true.
1) Audience success is good for democracy?
The widespread use of social media platforms brought the promise of horizontal communication from many to many and the possibility of mobilization without media control. Groups organized around communications and campaigning tools would be able to spread their messages, becoming strong actors to influence the course of action towards their interests.
This promise has given rise to initiatives that select ‘relevant’ agendas through content curation to be offered to the ordinary citizens, producing incidence masses that act via automated systems (e-mail, phone calls or social media publications) to urge decision makers to act towards these initiatives intermediaries’ interests. Together with leading social media algorithms, this strategy only strengthens the logic of audience competition, increasing the chances of the chosen agendas to get attention and be adopted by decision makers.
The above-mentioned initiatives, almost always based on proprietary software and nontransparent algorithms, have shown to be effective at putting messages through targeted audiences, sometimes achieving positive political results and, most often, producing promising return on advertising investment. Products’ campaigns (political or non-political) are benefiting from new and effective tools to influence the public, allowing new combinations of feelings and emotions with products and messages. On the other hand, those tools are definitely not suited for the political debate. For this purpose, the strategy must include interaction architectures and algorithms that value cultural and democratic dynamics, are transparent and efficient in identifying noise and establishing minimum consensus.
That is why we keep wondering: where will this audience success lead us in the long run? Must we conform to a refashioned logic, able to mobilize ordinary citizens through impactful messages, as the next step towards a networked democracy?
Our answer is no and, therefore, we have been working on a more adequate change theory to respond to common citizen protagonism and distribution of power, stimulating autonomous collective action to surpass the limits of audience oriented social participation and enabling arrangements that strengthen each one willing to participate in the decisions on the common good. We will talk about this in the end of this post.
2) Qualifying the debate leads to exclusion?
As summarized in the previous section, this issue is not new. Several organizations, governments and open source communities have been developing and using applications based on interaction architectures and algorithms that foster informed and autonomous debate between different ideas. Some examples are: Liquid Feedback (Pirate Party), collaborative public consultations based on Dialoga and Delibera (Marco Civil da Internet, Pensando o Direito, Participa.br), Cidade Democrática (contests of ideas, Webcidadania Xingu), Decide Madrid (Cónsul), Decidim Barcelona(Dedicim), DemocracIT (Greece). Our close analysis of those initiatives shows that there is a clear desire of governmental and civil society organizations to offer alternatives for democratic dialogue based on the collective intelligence and network intelligence, but these experiences have been having difficulty in scaling or generating the desired impact.
Why, to date were these initiatives unable to scale or impact? Our opinion is that it is because of the engagement limit represented by architectures that required the user-activist to have cognitive resources, time, motivation and training to be able to use these platforms properly. In other words, the unfitted way these solutions were developed requires empowered citizens — a social ‘category’ that has grown very slowly in times when politics and consumer markets still operate in the old autocratic logic of media and political power centralization. These citizens must be able to jump on a discussion with resources and willingness to hold long conversations, often requiring a lot of prior knowledge that are not widely distributed in society. It’s possible to say that we are reaching a kind of “participation elite”, ie people who already have pre-disposition and time to participate.
Moreover, even for those who have mobilized themselves to participate in the traditional tree process, the incentives (proposals/ discussions resulting on improvements in their lives) are far from encouraging: often there is no clear decision-making process that takes advantage of all that information made available by the participants leading participants to feel disempowered. Some examples of tree or mixed mode architectures that present clearer processes of deliberation (Loomio, Cidade Democrática, Decide Madrid, Application of Brazilian Youth Conference, Liquid Feedbackor even the proprietary ConsiderIT) do so at the cost of significant increase to the process complexity, setting stages, rules and obligations which ultimately reduce the engagement potential, despite of the increased effectiveness for those who pass the barrier.
To respond to this barrier that prevents more people to participate, we believe that the design of collective deliberation should take into consideration the pedagogical aspect of interaction. A good example of digital tool with minimalistic and dynamic interface is the one of collective deliberation that we will name here as ‘crowdsourced discussion’ architectures — able to gradually increase the amount of energy that participants need to offer at every step of the engagement process. These kind of applications are able to gather data from different ways in which people participate, almost no information is lost and all is put to good use in the final result.
This research of architectures that allow mass participation in a pedagogical way and facilitate the generation of autonomous collective action motivated us to choose the Pol.is open source software for the challenges of collective deliberation. In the current state, this application can provide a simple interaction architecture and uses advanced machine learning algorithms to foster the creation of groups of people based on how they participate in the proposals. Though Pol.is is very good at identifying these affinity groups, currently it only shows this information and do not progress towards helping these people to organize around autonomous collective action. In our opinion, there are improvements to be made in the application precisely to carry out this type of action.
Media-Lab Prado (Madrid, Spain) selected our proposal for a prototype that incorporates the feature mentioned above in the call for Collective Intelligence for Democracy to be developed together with the creators and main developers of this community in November 2016.
3) Autonomous collective action is enough to change policies?
In the previous reflections we have presented some of the pitfalls of opting for interaction algorithms and architectures that bet on audience as a mean to scale and that operate through events, maintaining broadcast standards, reinforcing a passive form of participation, with strong intermediation structures, maintaining the dominant political culture and stimulating content and agenda consumption instead of autonomous collective action.
To build an effective networked democracy, we must be able to encourage autonomous collective actions as the ones that express singular interests and hyperlocal contexts, stimulating the role of agenda promoter that each one can perform. In the current context, however, there are few chances for these proposals to be highlighted and outreach because they end up being overwhelmed by strong intermediation structures or, also, they do not prevail against evidence brought by social indicators and the inescapable finitude of resources.
So, besides being limited by the small audience provided only by the singularly qualified citizens, proposals created through autonomous processes have an additional risk to be taken off from the agenda setting process as they are the expression of interests of small groups with little chances of being highlighted in the deliberation, planning and prioritizing processes of political institutions. Thus it seems necessary to have some kind of ‘magnet’ for societal agendas arising from autonomous collective action to adhere to State agendas for which there are available public resources (public budget) and which respond to the most critical demands (weak social indicators). When the autonomous collective action consider these two diagnoses in its strategy, it increases the likelihood of its actions to have greater impact and it also leads the State to better plan and execute the public budget and policies in the areas where it is most needed.
To our knowledge, to date, there are no social participation processes implemented by the State or civil society taking into account such evidences. That could be one of the reasons why social participation initiatives have been lacking impact. Designing participatory processes to foster autonomous collective action around the intersection between popular needs/ desires, existing public resources and deficient social indicators seem to be the way to address this problem. This also provides a strong incentive for participants to engage around proposals that, besides of being critical, have better chances of being implemented.
For this to happen, that is, for the autonomous processes of participation to join (magnet) the issues where there is public funds (and also private as far as there are records of the availability of companies and private foundations resources for public affairs) and weak social indicators, we argue towards the articulation of current social participation initiatives with initiatives that map public resources and social indicators (e.g. IPS Amazônia) and present them through data visualization and open data. Thus, open and accessible provision of information on public resources and social indicators will increase the effectiveness of autonomous collective social participation actions.
4) Are society and State ready for joint efforts to build common digital resources?
Another barrier for the common citizen to play a protagonist role and the distribution of power is the dispute between public and societal parties to command the way through which social participation should occur, a matter that can be translated as: who decides which process and application will be adopted. And the quality and effectiveness of the process, as said before, depend on the characteristics (architecture, implicit process and features) of the applications used.
We believe that a plausible way out of this impasse is to join efforts from State and civil society to build common digital resources, with the State participating by adherence to the work of open source software development communities. This has happened to a part of the governmental social participation policies in Brazil, over the last 7 years, benefiting from the efforts invested by Brazilian civil society to build technologies for collaborative social participation on the Internet.
The first of these experiences took place in Marco Civil da Internet consultation that had its technology based on the work of an open source community from digital culture agenda, led by the Ministry of Culture. As an extension of this experience, a number of other public consultations used the same technology or articulated other open source communities developing collective deliberation technologies. This was the case of Participa.br and Pensando o Direito who adhered to at least three different open source communities: Noosfero, Delibera (WordPress) and Allourideas (Pairwise). The common trace of these initiatives is that they were all based on the use and adherence to open source software development communities who had already been working on the creation of innovative technologies for collective deliberation.
Beyond bringing innovative technology into the governmental processes, State’s relationship with those open source communities was also an opportunity for State and society to work together in the construction of shared common digital resources. We believe that the knowledge to build and maintain relationships with open source communities and manage the development and use of software as a common good is a capacity for the State to acquire and incorporate into its formal processes.
This would be a way for the State to develop public policies from the standpoint of the common goods (technologies/ digital resources), ensuring State’s sovereignty (often dependent on isolated processes and proprietary technologies) and, at the same time, preserving the autonomy of society. These institutional changes would significantly reduce the information asymmetry and produce sustainable and democratic policies’ designs. We see this as a clear way of building the bridge to a networked democracy.
In this post we have tried to present a synthesis of our recent reflections on the limits faced by the social participation technologies ecosystem. We have analyzed event based advocacy models and other models of qualified deliberation in terms of advantages and disadvantages of each kind. We have put both models on stage starting from a discussion that has, as the background, the promise of achieving a networked democracy that enables autonomous collective actions and distributes power.
Designing engagement processes aiming at the building of a networked democracy seems like the most promising strategy to be taken on days strongly marked by transitions in politics, economy, climate, health, education and other systems that governs our lives. In our perspective, these engagement processes will derive from open source commons arrangements capable of building crowdsourced and easy to use interaction architectures, connected with state resources mapping and public indicators dataviz solutions.
This is a fairly good description of Instituto Cidade Democrática’s change theory, built from our project’s experience in the recent years. This is the result of a wide-ranging reflection, motivated by the burden of perceiving the social participation technologies ecosystem to have low capacity to scale and impact towards a networked democracy. This theory was the basis for the shaping of our next products and prototypes, and sharing it with all of you who follow us and other stakeholders as an invitation to jointly address the challenges posed here, is a contribution that we are proud to offer to the our field of work. We hope that you enjoy it and we encourage you to share your thoughts with us.