How do you win an election? According to Ahora Madrid’s Miguel Arana and Victoria Anderica, the key is keeping it real – with real openness and participation. It won’t work to pay lip service to those ideals and abandon them later. There’s no faking it.

This year we’ve been talking about the municipalist uprising in Barcelona and, more recently, in A Coruña and Valencia. But what about Madrid, the state capital of Spain and a conservative stronghold for 2 decades? How did a bunch of 15M activists form an electoral coalition which, after lagging in the polls, finally had a breakthrough victory? A win that shatters the chronic neoliberal narrative and forges an alternative path bearing little resemblance to the Brexits, the Trumps, to all that we’ve been conditioned to endure, if not expect.

We see the networked, humane logics of P2P and the Commons reflected clearly in these civil-society led electoral platforms. Against all odds, they upend the power structure and challenge the establishment clique. But is it about winning power, or more about reexamining it? What happens when you find yourself taking that power, as an individual working towards change from within – does your life change? Do you find yourself feeling absorbed by the system, or can you manage to hack it from within?

With these and other questions in mind, I paid a visit to the Madrid city council’s citizen participation, transparency and open government department, and sat down with Victoria Anderica, head of Transparency, and Miguel Arana, director of Citizen Participation. Their shared office is spacious and well-lit, nothing to take for granted in an unsurprisingly institutional government building. Like protective amulets against the dire aesthetics, they’ve peppered the walls with 15M protest posters and Ahora Madrid cartoons. Some booklets on free healthcare for undocumented immigrants and refugees are strewn about the desks. “Yes, Madrid cares for you”, they read.

Among other things, Victoria and Miguel spoke about citizen participation, transparency, the Commons, a 60 million-euro participatory budget, the persistent misunderstanding that Podemos equals Ahora Madrid or Barcelona en Comú, how to bring “open source logics” to city governance, and the difficulties of institutional encroachment for those used to consensus-oriented assembly spaces. Although recorded separately, we’ve edited the interview to read in-line. We hoped that in doing this, the answers to the questions I asked both Victoria and Miguel form a fuller picture of their municipal – and personal – experiences.

Victoria Anderica and Miguel Arana

Stacco Troncoso: There were some meetings two years ago, in a well-know Madrid squat/social center called Patio Maravillas, among other places, where people made a statement: “We’re going to take power”. That was Ganemos. They were called crazy, yet one year later, you took power. I’d like to hear your view of these last two years – first, the transition from Ganemos Madrid to Ahora Madrid, and then the second, the year since the election.

Victoria Anderica: Well, I was working in Access Info Europe, fighting for transparency in Europe. Our offices are here in Madrid, so, we’ve had a big campaign here in Spain. I was in touch with people in the movement because they were interested in promoting and including transparency within the electoral program, which we were very happy about. So I knew about the movement, but I wasn’t personally involved in the creation of the Ganemos movement. I was just hoping, as someone who lives in Madrid, that Manuela Carmena, the mayor, was going to win. But it really was a surprise at the end.

Miguel Arana: OK. First, one important word is power. When social movements think about power, they think about institutions. That’s where power resides: you just have to enter the building, become the one who gives the orders, and then things will change. One thing I love about Spain in this recent period is that from the very beginning of the movements on the streets, the idea was that we’re not going to the institutions. That was wonderful – we were out there for three or four years in the streets, in the squares, the assemblies, the “citizen tides” (mareas) green, white, etc. – the Stop Evictions movement – and the idea then was, “We don’t care about institutions! We’ll get together and think about how to change everything, press on and make all these crazy actions and ideas and everything we can imagine”. And then, just in this last phase, after we tried everything else (laughing) we said, “…ok, maybe we could also try to enter the institutions. Some part of the power is there – we should get inside”.  I think this is an important remark. When people are looking from the outside – from other countries – it’s difficult to understand what’s been happening all these years. It’s very easy to focus just on this last part: “ok, they built a party, finally, they got into the institutions – now they’re changing things…”

Stacco: “Now they’re serious…”

Miguel: Yeah, “now they’re serious” and it’s like…no, no, no (laughing), it’s the opposite. We got to the institutions because we spent four years building something really strong, really powerful, and that’s what allows us to enter them now. This is also important because the game in the institutions is a difficult and special one. To some degree, it’s designed so you usually can’t win when you come from outside. We won because we were in the streets for all these years, thinking about the things we wanted to do and change, being really clear, building the movement without leaders, without faces, without laws – everything. Now, we can be in the institutions and face the attacks, which are really crazy. Outside, you’re a lot more resilient against attacks because it’s about the ideas, not the people. It’s about the ideas of how the country should be. When you’re inside, they only focus on the people. They just focus on the subtle things, crazy things, you know?

One of the many brilliant campaign images from the Movimiento de Liberación Gráfica Madrid featuring Manuela Carmena.

Stacco: Can you clarify who you mean by “they”, or, the attacks?

Miguel: Especially the media and the other parties, the traditional parties – the way they interact with you is by not focusing on problems or solutions; they only focus on you, personally. It’s like, “you did this…” or, “you’re coming from this world”, or – whatever. And it’s a totally different kind of debate. Previously, when we were not a party, when we weren’t the people inside, we never talked about ourselves. We just talked about the problems (laughing), that was the important thing!  All the things we talked about for four years, now we can go inside and try to put these ideas into practice. Solve things, and face these attacks with some strength. If we had built a party the first year, it could have been very easily destroyed. Back then, we would have had some leaders; leaders can be attacked, which could make it look like the whole thing is destroyed. We’re very happy we didn’t make that mistake in the first years. We built something serious, and now we can enter the institutions.

So this last phase, building the party, was really different. The values that the movement held as important before — horizontality, avoiding structures, no hierarchies — well, once you get inside, you are required to build some kind of hierarchy. Things are not as horizontal as you would like anymore. Of course this is problematic. You have to understand, and imagine how you want to solve these things. I think we’ve been able to get through some of the main problems, for example, building the electoral list. That was done in Ahora Madrid, in a very open way. Anyone could just join…

Stacco: Could you explain that, because people may not be familiar with the lists.

Miguel: It was an open process where any person could propose him/herself on a list with other people. Then we had an online voting process where people could register and vote. We used a proportional system called Dowdall [1] —  the same kind of system, just to explain it in common terms, that’s used in Eurovision…

Stacco: The Eurovision song contest?

Miguel: (laughing) Yeah. If you give one point to the first one, one half to the second, one third – you give different weighted points to the people you vote for. That was important because usually, when there are lists competing in a system, people know the head (or the “leader”) of the list, but they don’t know the rest. Sometimes a prescribed list can take total control of the structure without voters wanting everyone actually in that list to be there – maybe they want the leader, they trust the leader. The leader usually – or sometimes – is the one who chose the others on the list. So, the democracy of this system can get a bit lost.

Stacco: Right, because in the end you have this unitary list, but what you proposed, what happened, was more diversity – you had different voices, complementary…

Miguel: Since you’re giving different powers to all the lists, all the lists get mixed. Even if one of the lists gets 70% of the vote, they don’t have 70% of the upper position, the most important positions. So, with this system, all of the lists get mixed and then you have real diversity there. That worked really wonderfully. Now, in the city government, there are ecologists, people from the traditional parties, the independent people, people from the communist party, as examples…

Stacco: Wow…

Miguel: I mean, real diversity, and they all have different kinds of power, and they have to survive together. This is wonderful. We have seen other situations during this last phase of electoral experiences where this has not been done. Or, there have always been online voting systems where anyone could propose anyone, but if you don’t control the way it’s done, one single list can take all the power.  In the end, the effect can be just as if it was done in the traditional way, as if the leader prescribed the candidates on the list, and so on. Despite the institutional requirement to build a recognizable hierarchy and settle on the those who would take the roles of power inside the city council, we still managed to find a system where it was done in the most open and democratic way of ways. To me, this is key.

Also, the party program was, essentially, built in an open, collaborative way. There were working groups deciding the main issues for the program, it was open on the internet for people to vote, etc. It’s a difficult problem – maybe one of the most difficult problems to solve in collective process – to draft such a complex text including ideas for the long term. It’s not easy to be absolutely sure that everyone agrees with the ideas. That’s a problem we still haven’t solved. But at least it was done with the tools we have, where people could vote, and have opinions.

But then, of course, once we were inside the institutions, things got more “traditional”. Now, there are councilmen and councilwomen, they have the power and decisions, it’s quite vertical – but, since most of us are not really coming from the traditional political field, we’re coming up with different ideas of how to do this.

Stacco:  So, would you say there’s something of a nominal hierarchy – because there are “boxes” which people must fit inside – but that informally, you bypass that hierarchy? And they know that they’re representing the people but also their other co-workers in the party?

Miguel: Yeah…we’re bypassing the hierarchy as much as we can (laughing). It’s really difficult to bypass. In the end, there is a small group of people taking a lot of the decisions. Every week, they have to take a lot of decisions, it’s crazy. The system is not really well thought out, so you can’t really open the process and ask citizens a lot of questions, get their feedback – this is not done. Even if you wanted to, it’s not really possible with the system as it is now. Something totally different would need to be thought of. The government works in a really traditional way, but it’s the will of the people inside to do it differently. So they’re really open: the doors of the councilmen and women are open, it doesn’t matter if you’re a collective or a person – doesn’t matter who you are, they’re meeting everybody, every day, every hour, and making a strong effort to be able to solve this problem.

Stacco: So, they’re exhausted (laughing)…

Miguel: Yeah, they’re totally exhausted, working like 14 hours a day, every day, weekends…it’s a bit beyond human forces, I mean, you can’t do it. The system is not designed to solve this. We’re somewhat lucky because we’re in a specific department, which is the Citizen Participation, Transparency and Open Government department, so our role is to solve that problem. We don’t have to produce some specific content to decide specific laws – just to make these laws or rules to listen to the people. Perhaps we don’t suffer as much as other departments. I think we’re starting things to solve and bypass this problem in a real way. We’re starting all these new processes – Direct Democracy processes…

Stacco: Yes, I’m going to ask about that, but first I want to backtrack. Just tell us what your specific roles are, Victoria and Miguel, within the Ayuntamiento, and if you can tell us about your personal trajectory before you got into office. Let’s start with you, Victoria…

Victoria: Nowadays, I’m the head of transparency for the city of Madrid. We’re putting all kinds of measures into place that we consider essential to ensure and promote transparency within the city. Before that I was a transparency advocate, working at Access Info for almost 6 years, trying to get governments to improve transparency policies. So basically, now I have to do it myself! It’s quite a challenge, but I think we’re getting there. In one year, we’ve done a lot. We’ve based the first step in ensuring that everything we’re going to do is going to last. This means having rulings — not laws, we don’t make laws — but making sure that whatever we do is not only because we want to, but ensuring that the following government will also be transparent. For most of our first year, we’ve published a lot of information and put a lot into practice, but mainly we’re also making sure that it’s going to last, that it’s not something that this government does for four years and then after that, everything’s just going to go back to where we were.

Stacco: So, what you’re saying is you’re making actual legal rulings; you’re embedding it in the “code” so it carries on itself?

Victoria: Exactly, so it can’t be changed. If there’s another government which has absolute majority and they want to change it, well, there’s nothing we can do. But obviously, it’s not very sexy for a government to say “no” to transparency.

Stacco: (laughing) Say “yes” to opacity.

Victoria: Yeah.

Stacco: Miguel, what can you tell me about your specific role within City Hall, your trajectory and how you got here?

Miguel:  OK. My position is director of the Citizen Participation project. The department is divided into two: participation and transparency (that’s me, and Victoria is the director of transparency). I come from science, I’m a doctor of theoretical physics – nothing to do with politics – and I was working in that field until I came here. At the same time, I was working in the University, finishing my PhD, and I was very involved in the movement in the squares and 15M. Most of us had parallel lives during these last years. We had some kind of job, and at the same time, we were trying to use all the time we had to be involved in the movement, because we were absolutely clear that this could change everything. In the last phase, it became really absorbing! We were full-time, because of course here you can’t be part-time. You use up all your free time. Some of us decided to be here full time. But the most important part of my trajectory was probably the experience we had in the squares.

Stacco: That’s great  – for me, it’s not your labor history, but where you’re coming from. OK, I’m going to ask about the various platforms. First of all, I’d like to talk about What are your plans for it, how will it work, and how has it been received so far?

Victoria: Well, the website hasn’t changed very much since we arrived, at least formally. We’ve added a lot of information which was not there before we arrived, but the site itself hasn’t changed. The way people interact with the website, and can – or can’t, in many cases – find information, hasn’t changed yet. That’s going to take more time. For us it was more important, as I said, to start by establishing the foundations of what a transparency system should be. So, the next step would be to actually change the portal. We have some ideas to have a site where people could find information very easily, but we also want to have a portal which goes beyond displaying the data. It has to be possible for anyone to understand it. That’s a key aspect of what we want from these four years of transparency.

We don’t want to just publish documents that no one understands. Normal people – I’m including myself, of course – we just don’t speak the administrative language. We need to find information in the way that we normally find it…here’s a very silly example. If you go to the transparency portal of the state and search for “salaries”, you won’t find anything. You have to put in a very specific word, I don’t know if it was “remuneration” or what, to find the salaries – that’s very stupid! And that’s just the most basic thing. We want to work with the portal so the questions are answered very easily.

Cartoon images of Ahora Madrid working. Original art by Enrique Flores.

Stacco: What kind of outreach are you doing with non-digital natives, or for people who might not have access to the internet?

Victoria: Well, the transparency systems are divided into two parts. One part is the right of every person to request information. That’s something that is, and has been, implemented and ensured for anyone who wants to request it via computer, or anyone who wants to come in personally, or send by mail, a request for information which is put in a register. For the practical application, it’s a fact that for transparency, the evolution of new technology has been essential.  It wouldn’t be possible without a transparency portal. It’s not possible to have a room with all that information printed, so that anyone could publish it. So, we don’t have a physical bureau, but anyone can request information and receive it in a printed version. If anyone requires it, they will get it, by law. But, that said, the reality is that most of the people who request information do so digitally, because that’s how we interact with each other nowadays.

Stacco: Let’s talk now about the citizen participation portal, Decide Madrid. Tell us how it works, how long it’s been up, and what the general reaction has been.

Miguel: OK. Before coming into the institutions, one of the main problems we faced was that the moment you want to open the movement to everybody and have them make decisions, you start facing the complexity of the situation. If you want to have 20 people debate and decide something, it’s easy. You make an assembly, like we had in the squares, you talk, and that’s it. If you want to have 100 – or 1,000 – people, maybe you can still have an assembly or some kind of a more complex system, but if you want to scale up, it’s impossible.

Stacco: Say, how many people are in the census, in Madrid?

Miguel: We have 3.2 million people, something like that…

Stacco: They won’t fit in a squat…(laughing)

Miguel: Yeah, it’s totally impossible, anywhere! You also want to build an effective system. You don’t want just one decision in four years, you want to take all of the important decisions, every day. We believe that this can only be solved through the internet with a digital platform where all the physical barriers disappear, and where you can have thousands of people talking, deciding, proposing, whatever. This whole year, we’ve been thinking about the tools we had available, trying and experimenting with everything that was on the internet. We learned a lot, tried a lot of platforms and got a lot of experience. But still there is no set, proper platform really capable of allowing all these direct democracy processes that we want. Nothing fits what we really need.

So, we decided from the beginning to design a platform that collects our years of experiences and similar experiences we’ve heard about from all over the world, and build something that allows us to produce mechanisms and reproduce the democratization we want to see. We started with this new platform. The software is called Consul and the platform is called Decide Madrid.

We started from scratch in June, it got built very fast. In September of last year, we opened the first very basic process for the platform to start to work. It’s a free software platform, we’re sharing it with different cities. Barcelona, Oviedo and A Coruña are using it. We’ve already spoken with 40 or 50 cities who are interested, in Spain but also in other countries. Complutense in Madrid, the city’s largest university with one-hundred thousand students, they’re installing the platform – so it’s really spreading. It’s great because we’re not building it alone. The core developers team is here in Madrid, plus others in Barcelona and other places who are really helping – it’s amazing. It’s meant to be a flexible platform for different kinds of processes, different democratic mechanisms.

Stacco: Can you give us an example?

Miguel: Yes, the basic process is the citizens initiative process. Anyone can enter the platform and propose something in common language. Anyone can support the proposals. Once a proposal reaches the threshold, which is 2% of the census or 50,000 people, it goes to a referendum one month later. Then, if there are more people voting “yes” or “no”, we take it as binding and we fulfill the proposal.

Stacco: And, is this debated in parliament, is it debated online, or…

Miguel: The thing is, we have a problem in Spain because the constitution forbids us to have binding referendums.

Stacco: But you have a majority, so, if it’s binding internally for you, that means that automatically, you have the majority of votes…

Miguel: Exactly, we take it as binding but legally, we can’t force it to be, because of the constitution. It’s something absolutely crazy, I think no place in the world forbids this – it’s illegal! It’s really illegal…

Stacco: But in your jobs as representatives, when you go to assembly you will vote, and just by mathematics, you will get a majority.

Miguel: Exactly, the thing is that some of the decisions can be taken by the executive of the city council (the Ahora Madrid party), so that’s automatic. Some decisions should be taken into the local parliament where the other parties are, and where Ahora Madrid is the minority party. We have the support of the Socialist party, and together we have a majority, but they have to agree with things. They say they agree with the mechanism, that we’ll have binding agreements, of course, and that there will be no problems, but…(laughing) we’ll see! .

Stacco: There are very different economic interests at play.

Miguel: Yes, it’s a bit different because the Socialist party is a traditional party, a “real” party. Ahora Madrid is just an instrumental party, something very different. We’ll see, but in principle, it could work as if it were binding without a problem. Decide Madrid is the most important mechanism because it comes from the bottom up. Really, people can decide what they want to do. There is no limit to the kinds of proposals they can suggest, and they are not limited to the city. For example, they can propose that we want to stop the war in Iraq. Of course, the city cannot stop the war! But if one million people in Madrid were to vote against the war, that could produce a very important political effect. This makes a statement against the war that is not aesthetic. Maybe what could be voted on would be having the Mayor meet the Ambassador…

Stacco: …to amplify the effect.

Miguel: Yes. The city government could call the national government and say, “We should abandon this war”, something like this. The thing is, we don’t want to impose limits. We want to build something that anyone in the city can join, to have a debate and decide together whatever they want. If we can do it, people will join. If we can’t, we’ll do as much we can to get closer.

We’re also studying different mechanisms to open the city council for the citizens. For example, we opened the citizen budget, a participatory budget. This year a small part of the budget, 60 million euros (which, anyway, is a huge sum of money) is now decided by the people. Yes, people can always make proposals, but this is much more specific because now, they’re proposing on how to spend a certain amount of money. You cannot propose just anything, it has to be focused on how to use money. It’s part of the city’s investment budget. It’s open, but not everything is an investment, so, it’s close to specific issues. You can build a school, a social center, maybe fix some streets, but you can’t spend the money however you like. There are legal terms.

This is not so powerful, it hasn’t got as much potential as some other mechanisms, but we thought it was interesting because the budget is one of the main tools in the city council. It can really design the kind of policies that you want, so it’s important to be open to everybody. It’s been very well received: 5,000 really good proposals were submitted. Nothing stupid, all really focused on issues that haven’t been solved in recent years. We also have another process, the redevelopment of one of the main squares of the city (Plaza de España), and we started that process on the web.

Refugees are welcome in Madrid City Hall. Image by Jerome Paz.

Stacco: But you put forward that proposal, it wasn’t put forward by someone…

Miguel: Exactly, it’s another kind of process which we call the “electoral” process. Here we start from the top, rather than the bottom. Parts of the government that were traditionally executed in a closed way by the councilmen, like the redevelopment of this square, for example. That was one of the main problems in the last few years:  the big, stupid construction and waste of money. The councilmen decided with us to make it participatory, to open it up to everybody. We created a specific process where people answered 18 questions to design the kind of square they want – do they want it green, with bike lanes or not. These answers are binding for the square. The process is now open, so architects can send their projects, but they must fulfill what people requested. They present their projects, we upload them to the website. People will be able vote and, in the last phase, decide what to build.

The potential is not as huge as the main, general process because it’s so specific, but it’s also important that we start taking these small corners of power inside, to bypass them and build a new way of solving these problems. We just have to go step-by-step, taking what we can. Next month, we’ll start a human rights program that is also going to be done in a participatory way, people will vote on the measures they want us to fulfill. We’re going to start a process with a disability plan, and a citizen audit of the city council (which will be very important). We’re going to take all the information on what’s been done in the last 8 years, and ask everybody to help us understand it, and see what we need to do with the decisions. Maybe the contractors were in fact illegal, for example, maybe there were debts taken on that shouldn’t have been. We’re going to make it possible for people to check every corner, and decide what they want to do with these things.

Stacco: Speaking of the various portals, how about Datos abiertos, how does that relate to the rest of the ecosystem you have in place?

Victoria: As I said, the transparency policy of the City of Madrid would be completed by different pieces, right? We have the transparency portal, we have the right to request information, we have the Open Data portal — a portal that was set up around 3 years ago. Nowadays, we publish roughly 200 datasets, which is not too much for a big city like Madrid. The quality of the data that we’re publishing is not yet as good as it should be. Still, it’s a good portal. We’re publishing useful information, and every day we’re publishing more.  

The transparency ordinance that we drafted this year, which hopefully will be approved at the plenary session at City Hall, includes an article making it mandatory for the government to publish all information in open formats. This will have a huge impact in increasing both the number and the quality of datasets we publish on the portal. That’s because we’re also working on internal education, telling people not to use PDFs, but to use spreadsheets or any format that can be reused by anyone. So, we have big plans for the portal.

We have a project with three other cities to have interoperable systems among them. We’ll not only be publishing more information; it will be in a better format, and using the same architectures. When you have big countries that are very decentralized like Spain, you find that information is held by different administrations, and you can’t really understand who has the competence for what. You don’t understand who has the information, and even if you can find that out, what if you need to re-use the information and everyone has different formats, or different information related to the same issue?

Here’s a silly example: you can find the list of buildings that a city has, and what they do with them, but you have different datasets and they’re differently organized. To be able to compare them, you’d have to undertake enormous manual work to do some homogenization, making it effectively impossible. The conviction that we need to work in open formats, using open software, is key to our department in participation, transparency, and open government. We believe in it, and we will do it. The transparency and open data portals are being created as open software, that’s a definite requirement we will follow.

Stacco: Which cities are you talking about?

Victoria: The cities we’re working with are Zaragoza, A Coruña, and Santiago, with whom we’re also working on the participatory processes we’re opening up. That’s the idea — we work together to create one project that can be shared and improved upon by anyone who uses it.

Infographic by depicting the political parties and movements who coalesced into Ahora Madrid.

Stacco: That ties into my next question. Comparisons between Madrid and Barcelona are very artificial, even a bit odious to me, but I’d like to turn that around somehow and ask you your opinion on what’s been going on in Barcelona, and to compare it with Madrid just to see the differences. So the people outside can understand what’s going on.

Miguel: This is very interesting because when Ahora Madrid began, it happened the same way in almost every city in the country. New parties began to appear in every small village and city…

Stacco: There’s something else I should have asked about. My experience outside Spain, is that everybody confuses Podemos with what’s actually going on. I think that it’s very important for our friends in the commons movement to know that Podemos is not Guanyem, or En comú; or that Podemos is not Ahora Madrid, etc.

Miguel: I will try to clarify this. When people decided to build new parties, the first one on the scene was Podemos. This was at the time of the European elections. Podemos came along with leaders like Pablo Iglesias and others, and it was a strange mix. They had leaders, but they also had assemblies where everybody could go participate, and be part of the party. This was totally unseen, and it turned out to be a complete success. They won five seats in the European parliament and grew from there.

The next elections were the local elections. At that time, people decided they wanted local parties. Podemos didn’t want to run for the locals because it was impossible for them to build 5,000 new local structures and ensure that they weren’t full of crazy people, etc.  As Podemos weren’t running in the locals, people decided to build a new party. All of these local parties are disconnected from Podemos. They aren’t part of its common structure, the people have no relationship. Yes, they may have a working relationship, but that’s it. The idea underlying these parties is very similar: we are all taking the content from the social experiences of the last four years and putting it in practice within the institutions. The idea was to open the decisions as well as the information to everybody, making it a citizen project more than a traditional party.

I think there’s a difference in how it’s working at those two different levels. The local parties have been built by people who were in the streets and squares as part of the 15M movement, people who were obsessed with horizontality, openness and inclusivity. It worked quite well in that sense. All the leaders that were chosen in the main cities in Madrid, Barcelona, A Coruña, most of them came out of nowhere. In Madrid, our current Mayor, Manuela Carmena wasn’t even there as we were building the party. We were a party without a leader. It was totally crazy, but we just opened up the process and someone proposed this woman, saying “she’s gonna be great!” Most of us didn’t even know who she was, but as we got to know her we all thought, “oh, she’s wonderful”, and it turned out great.

But you see the exact same thing happening in other places. The leaders of the new city councils in many cities were largely unknown, but now people are in love with them, and like, “wow, how come you haven’t met this important political person” now that they’re all over the media. That was pretty great. Also, given the way we built the electoral lists, as I explained earlier, it really was a mixture of people, open to everybody. Conversely, Podemos was built in a much more traditional manner. They had some defined leaders from the start, invested in building the project. Now, they remain as the people taking the most important decisions on everything.

Of course, it’s not quite a traditional party. It’s more open: the base, the membership, and those who are really upholding the party are also unknowns who value openness, assemblies, etc. But at the end of the day, the party’s structure now, after this year, resembles a traditional party. It has an executive, the leader has a huge amount of power, and is able to make a lot of decisions. So, it’s something quite different from what we’re doing, and not as open. It was open in the sense that they started a few participatory processes, but there is a lot of control. This doesn’t lead to anything substantial, and it’s more about whether people agree with the vision espoused by the party’s leadership.

They’re still light years away from the traditional parties we’ve had in Spain, but it’s important to understand that the effects are a bit different. The fact that we built a totally open platform that people could trust was one of the big draws for Ahora Madrid. We were able to win the elections because of this. A month before the election, we thought that there was no way we could win the elections, it was totally impossible! No one knew about our party. Sure, everybody knew about Podemos, but the local parties? No one knew about us, and at that time, Manuela Carmena was hardly known.

But we were really open, and our attitude was like, “ok, you take control of it! You can control the campaign, control everything. It’s your party, you can do whatever you want!” And that’s how we built trust, people really trusted this. They trusted the process and supported us massively. In one or two months, we had a very good shot at winning — and with no money. The money we had was raised through crowdfunding, and it wasn’t all that much either. We did it without the support of the media, without any of the kind of power that everybody assumes is necessary to win elections: money, the media, etc. But we proved otherwise. Common citizens who self-organized…and won!

And this is something that, until now, hasn’t happened with Podemos. Podemos entered the regional elections, then they went to the nationals and they weren’t able to win any of these. I think it’s because of what I’ve explained earlier. If you don’t open up and share your control with everyone, you lose that potential. People will not support you because they understand it’s more your game, and not theirs. They don’t feel the need to engage.

Stacco: Can you explain to people, because I think this is quite telling. In Spain, when we have local elections, we have elections for the city and the province simultaneously.

Miguel: Exactly.

Stacco: And in the last local elections one year ago, we had Ahora Madrid running for the city of Madrid, and Podemos running for the province. But these, in the case of Madrid, are voted on by exactly the same people, the same census. If you live in the city of Madrid, you vote at the city and at the provincial level simultaneously. It’s two ballots. Can you tell us about the results of that election?

Miguel: This is the interesting thing, and the same thing happened in every region and every province of Spain. Podemos didn’t win in any of them. At the same time, the “local versions” of these parties won in all the major cities. We won in Madrid, Barcelona, Cádiz, A Coruña, Zaragoza. So, this was very clear: this is the way you do it. You have to share this control with everybody else. If you make it look as if you’re opening up, but you’re not really doing it in the end, people see through that straight away.

Stacco: You can’t fake it.

Miguel: You can’t! This may be very subtle, but you should be true to your principles.  It doesn’t matter how participative it “looks”, it really has to be. And this was clearly proven. The results spoke for themselves. It’s interesting because all these local parties, Madrid, Barcelona, A Coruña, are different. We don’t have a common structure. The people in each city are totally different, even if some of us have a prior relation from the squares.

Representatives and Mayors from Spain’s new municipalist coalitions. Image by Terrassa enComu.

Stacco: So, with this focus on openness, do you mutualize information and best practices?

Miguel: All of us are working on the same things. We’re just taking the common ideas developed in the last four years and putting them into practice. At the end of the day, all the programs are quite similar but it’s not like we wrote them together, it’s just that we’re coming from the same place. Common traits include being open to everybody, participatory decision-making, putting social justice at the core of everything we do. This is a very comfortable feeling, it’s really great when working together. And we really are working together, in everything. In all the plans.

This is significant. Normally, you find a sense of competition among the major cities. Madrid, Barcelona, big cities…“mine is better!”, etc. But here it’s is the opposite. We really love each other, we really want to work together and to help. Whenever something bad happens to the people in Barcelona, we’re totally outraged and screaming our lungs out: “No, the same thing can’t be happening to them!” And it’s the same with the other cities, it’s amazing. We meet in lots of forums, conferences, working groups. We really are working together, which makes life much easier. Normally, most city councils work and develop their projects in isolation, and they want to come out on top of the other cities. So, if they want to build software for participation, you go to a big technology company and pay a million euros…

Stacco: …and you make it proprietary…

Miguel: …and you get your proprietary software. At the same time, the next city is doing exactly the same. They have exactly the same software but they also paid a million, and it’s the same for other cities. You end up with 50 cities using the same software while announcing it as this great new thing. It’s totally stupid (laughs). And we’re doing absolutely the opposite. We started the software from scratch – this is Consul, from Decide Madrid. Some months later, Barcelona started using the same software. Now the developers from Barcelona have come to Madrid and they’re working together. And now it will be adopted by the people in A Coruña, working together – Victoria mentioned that.  

Even from the point of view of saving money, even if you forget about politics, ideology, everything, it’s like, “we’re saving money, we’re saving lots of money!” (laughs). And of those millions of euros the others were spending…nothing! We’re just paying the people developing the software, who actually work for the city council. It’s available for every city in the world. If we start solving all our problems by applying collective intelligence and debating how to scale everything, we will have something available for everybody in the world. This is the way it should be done. We agree that working together is the way to go and we’re seeing the benefits. It’s not something we do to look good (laughs).

Stacco: Besides your own personal work here, what other things are happening here in Madrid that you’d like people to know about.

Victoria: Well, somehow I prefer not to give my insights on how other people are doing because I think they’re doing great, but that’s an insight.

Miguel: Right now we’re in a bit of a bubble. As I’ve said, working here is quite crazy. We’re living our whole lives inside this building and we’re really focused on this phase. I think that once we entered institutions, a lot of the stuff that was going on outside became more quiet. This is partly because a lot of people who were outside are now within the institution. Because of this, they’re totally focused on their day-to-day while assuming that other people can be outside doing a lot of things. But a lot of the really active organizers are not out of there any longer.

I also think that in this specific phase of the movement, people are mostly focused on the institutions instead of on protest, direct action or building new projects on the outside. This is because, given the potential of institutions, everybody is thinking of how to exploit and use this potential. This is just a phase. I am totally sure that it will pass and we will go back to the streets to build something new, or whatever comes later. Regardless, I think that it’s really important to focus and understand how to change this. This is a huge monster, a huge machine, and it’s really difficult to change things. We really need to put a lot of focus on ideas for this.

Stacco: OK, let’s turn the question around. We talk about politics and counter politics, we talk about power and counterpower. Now that you find yourself within power, how do you enable and make sure that there is a counterpower, and respect that? I guess that, through your work, you’re enabling the great majority of people outside institutions to still have a voice, to still matter.

Miguel: Yeah, for us specifically this is our objective: to give people the control of institutions, and then…disappear! (laughing) I mean, our department could last a very short time.

Stacco: So you can finally go on holiday! (laughing)

Miguel: For sure! Our specific role here could be quite short. This what we need to do: enable people to take decisions, to take control. Once that’s done with, we don’t need to do anything else. Ok, we have to take care and do the maintenance so it keeps working, and nothing more. We’ve started all these processes and think that they have the potential to change everything, but up until now, the bulk of the decisions taken by the city council are elected in the traditional way. We can’t forget that 99% of the system still works that way. People are doing their best to open everything to everybody, but power remains focused on a small group of people.

Stacco: OK, so this is my final, long-winded question. To me, in 15M I could identify the Commons as part of the discourse, both explicitly and implicitly. My observation was, I see a commons being made over here. There was a lot of popular resonance with 15M, huge indexes of approval from the general populace who may have been sympathetic to 15M, even if they weren’t participating in the squares actively. So now that you’ve come into power, do you think that the Commons is still part of the dialogue? Not just with the activists and the people working here but with the citizens that you interact with? Or, do you think it’s a hard political concept to understand?

Victoria: I think it’s a hard political concept to understand. I think that in cities like Barcelona, they use it more naturally than we do here in Madrid, probably because of the people who are working in the city right now. But the fact that you don’t use it as a concept doesn’t mean that we’re not actually putting it into place. The feeling that brought everyone in, which nowadays exists in the Madrid government is very similar to the one that struck the people of Barcelona, Zaragoza, and other cities That’s something they had in common. I think it’s being used, or verbalized, more by people in Barcelona. They’ve even done a congress about it, talking about it — but I think in Madrid, it’s also happening. It’s probably something we don’t say, but I would say, yes, it’s definitely happening.

Stacco: I definitely think it’s part of the matrix, and I would like to see it become more part of the conversation because, it’s impossible to define. Because of that, it’s actually an interesting conversation to have with people, to engage their creativity. It’s not something you just explain with a little pamphlet and no further dialogue: “here’s all you need to know about the commons, read it, goodbye.”

Victoria: Exactly. I think it’s the philosophy behind the commons that’s moving every single department here in the city of Madrid, because the idea is to give the city back to the citizens. That’s essentially what we’re talking about. That’s what we’re doing, actually doing, no? I would say there are a lot of concepts that are difficult for people to understand because they don’t normally use them, but it doesn’t mean they don’t really understand them – they know what’s going on. Even if they don’t call it “the Commons”, they can feel what’s really happening. In that sense, I think it’s just a different approach in terms of communication, but I don’t think it’s different in terms of what’s actually happening.

Miguel: I think that the Commons, as a concept, is absolutely important because it offers us a new path to follow. It’s quite a complex concept which points to an absolute paradigm change, but we’re still ensconced in the old paradigms and it may be difficult to understand the concept and its full potential. Still, it’s a beacon to follow and one of the few new possibilities allowing us to change things because it really questions the matrix of the whole system. It’s huge and complex as it has to do with economy, with knowledge, with power and its distribution. However, at this moment I can’t say that it’s playing a very visible or specific role.

Stacco: Would you say that the commons is part of the matrix which informs what you’re working on over here, but not communicated so much to the outside due to its complexity?

Miguel: Absolutely. It’s not communicated, and it’s also something that we have to develop. We need new ways to see how the commons could work everyday in our economy, our information systems, everything. But this is something that we have to invent, to build. This has to be clear. We more or less know where we want to go and the direction we want to follow, but we don’t know what we’ll find there. This something we have to work on. It’s going to take a lot of time but, otherwise I cannot imagine another tangible direction capable of changing the whole system.

Stacco: Ok, now that we’re talking about large scale change, and we’ve left Madrid far behind…

Miguel: Yeah!

Stacco: How do you see this crystallising and scaling up, both nationally and transnationally? These experiences you’re building here, do you think they are feasible at other levels? Or do you think that we need to go through a process of maturation of the urban commons before we can tackle national and transnational Commons?

Miguel: All these ideas, including the commons but also focusing on things like collective intelligence, or mechanisms for direct democracy – they’re not really concerned with scale, or the way power and society were previously organized. A true paradigm change will not be fixed to the old structures. For example, take this decision-making platform we’re building: once you’ve built a viable platform that incites tens of thousands of people to work, think and take decisions together, the number of people or the scale doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter what type of decision you make, it doesn’t matter if it’s a local or national decision, none of that matters.  The same thing happens with the Commons.  

Since one of the characteristics of these ideas is how fluid and open they are, I don’t think they’re fixed to preexisting structures. Anything that we can make in Madrid and other cities will work at any scale, anywhere in the world. Actually, inside the department we have built a service, a kind of working group called “The Institutional Extension Service”. And that’s precisely what they do: they’re calling every city council in the world, every country, everybody to tell them: “Okay we’re building this platform, it’s free and we’re going to give you the platform, we’re going to give you all the rules and laws we had to write to make it work, and we’ll give you all the knowledge that we have built around this platform, for free. It’s working for Madrid, so it can also work for you – so, why aren’t you using it?”

Stacco: Please, fork it and surprise us!

Miguel: Yes! Fork it and also help us with it. But, please, use it! We’re not navel-gazing. It so happens that we’re in Madrid, but we could be in any city government and institution, and we’d be doing exactly the same things. If it works here, it works everywhere. Furthermore, we have to tell every institution that we should be working this way. Institutions are designed to work for the citizens, so the Madrid city council should work for the people in Madrid — and this may be one of the main problems.

Every government at the local or national level is not thinking about the common good, about everybody. They’re just thinking about their common good and that brings the competition, the arguments, the fights and all that stuff. If you start to build new institutions with a shift in logic, and build them to always take into account what’s going on on the outside…perhaps some of the largest problems can be stopped.

Stacco: Anything else you want to say?

Miguel: No! I’ve said enough already! (laughs)

Victoria: We talked about the transparency policies, but I haven’t gone into much detail about what we’ve already done and what we can share. For example, in this transparency ordinance which will include what the government must do, we will include, for example, the publication of diaries, or agendas. That means that every single public official needs to publish their meetings. We need to say who we’re meeting, and what we’re talking about. This is essential to decision-making transparency and is one of the goals we want to achieve within the three years we have left. We’ve built the software for that, and it’s being used very well. In terms of people filling in their agendas, it’s working quite well. So, anyone who is interested in reusing that can also find it.

Then, the second thing I haven’t talked about is the transparency of the lobbies. This ordinance includes the obligation to create a lobby register, which is something that is not very common in Spain. The locations that have put a transparency register into place, like Catalonia, haven’t had it implemented in a very good way. There are many lobbies that aren’t registering, because no one is taking care of it. So, we will create a mandatory lobby registry, we’re working on it. I think this will be a very good tool to share. I’m talking about the software, because we will mix it with the agenda so it will be easy to register a new one, and then access the agendas and request meetings. It will flow – it will be very easy to use.

In terms of losing the fear that many people have about the transparency of decision making, we’re doing it and nothing is happening — in the good sense. I mean, we’re publishing the agendas, we’ve published the CVs of everyone that is not a public official who works in City Hall.  We thought it was going to be the end of the world — and nothing happened. We’ve had positive feedback. People are happy to know who they’re working with because actually, we have really good professionals joining us in City Hall. That’s great. I think that’s something where Madrid can work as an example of how we should lose that fear of transparency, because it can be done. There’s no apocalypse after publishing any data!

Stacco: I like the fact that you’ve done it pre-figuratively. I mean, you’re already doing those practices even though you’re not bound by law to do them, while you’re working and making those practices actually codified.

Victoria: Yeah, it’s something that we also want to achieve for participation, because we do believe that. Of course, we want to do things. Of course, we want to publish information and open participatory process, but we believe that those two sides, those two elements are essential for democracy to exist! So we want that to last, and to be established as something which the next government following us will also have to implement. Because it shouldn’t be optional.

Stacco: Perfect closing.

Victoria: Great!

Lead image by Enrique Flores. See his Ahora Madrid images here. Ahora Madrid office images by Stacco Troncoso. Other images are credited in the captions.

[1] The following is extracted from Government of the Republic of Nauru’s website. Nauru were the first to implement this system named for its creator, Desmond Dowdall: “The electoral system that was adopted in 1971, the Borda count, known locally as the ‘Dowdall system’, involves an unusual form of preferential voting. There are 6 two-member constituencies, 1 three-member constituency and 1 four-member constituency. Voting is compulsory and voters must indicate a preference for all candidates on their ballot paper. Rather than a process of successive elimination of candidates with the lowest number of votes, each preference is allocated a value corresponding to its fraction of a vote. For example, a first preference is 1, a 6th preference is one sixth of a whole vote, 0.16 (so preferences are valued respectively as 1, 0.5, 0.33, 0.25, 0.2, 0.16 etc). All values are tallied and the two candidates (or in Meneng, the three candidates, or in Ubenide, the four candidates) with the highest scores are elected. As the Constitution does not prescribe an electoral system, the current system can be changed by Parliament without the need to amend the Constitution.”

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