Just as the architecture of a meeting room affects who can be heard, the design of our digital tools both offers and prohibits certain political possibilities
This article is a translation by Open Source Politics of the article published on the Medium "Participo", an OECD publication. To read the original article by Jessica Feldman, click here.
Recent deliberative democracy projects have shown us that humans are remarkably good at collaboration, empathy and collective decision-making, even with complete strangers. In these times of physical distance, can we use networked digital tools to continue and even expand these projects? Can they take us even further into a future where deliberative democracy 'goes global'?
One of the keys to implementing true democracy will be a careful connection between engineering decisions and political values. We need to think carefully about 1) how and when to use different tools, and 2) how to build them. In this post, I focus on this second question: How can we proactively design for the needs of deliberative democracy? Below I sketch some areas where engineering decisions will need to be made and mention some possible concerns and solutions.
An algorithm is an automated process. When we think about algorithmic governance and deliberative processes, two sets of questions arise. First, where and how do we use digital technology in the deliberative process? For selecting participants? For occasional votes within a meeting? To collect, or even rank, the proposals to be deliberated on? There are many possibilities and many pilot projects. Secondly, how should these algorithms be written? The code itself will affect the conditions of decision making, just as any political protocol constrains our options.
While face-to-face voting is uncommon, it may be necessary in the context of online voting. If the deliberation leads to a vote, should the public be able to see the voting tables in real time? Should the identity of a participant be visible during comments or voting? Digital tools make it possible to record, compile and present this data quickly.
At the level of the code itself, we need to decide whether it should be visible, and to whom. We can learn from the recent Iowa Democratic primary scandal, where a closed, privately designed application was used to report vote tabulations and a "coding problem" resulted in only partial data being reported. For code to be reliable, it must be public: transparent and open source, and funded by the people.
Privacy and security
Computer scientists are taught to evaluate the security of a system on the basis of criteria they call the "C.I.A.". - Confidentiality, integrity and accessibility. In other words, communications/data should only be seen by those for whom they are intended. Data must not be compromised or falsified, and communications and information must remain accessible to those who should be able to access it - without being blocked, denied or deleted.
This is perhaps the most pressing issue: as many decision-making bodies move online, using pre-existing tools, we need to take seriously the threat of conversation monitoring, metadata collection, 'zoom bombing', server crashes (e.g. a cyber-attack) and online vote hacking.
Finally, participants working from home may not be able to speak or vote as they wish. This is not to say that digital tools should not be used, but that they should be designed to be secure and robust. In the short term, democratic bodies need to be carefully advised on which tools to use and make strategic and perhaps conservative decisions on how to use them.
Digitisation beyond quantification
While many debates about digital democracy focus on vote counting, deliberative democracy is much more concerned with conversations and consensus. We need to think carefully about how digital tools can help facilitate this process, rather than replace it. Some tools, such as Loomio or the consul software, have been developed from consensus-based communities, with the idea of helping discussions throughout the process.
Deliberative assemblies have always provided the affective conditions for developing empathy, derived from time-tested traditions of listening. As we move online, we need to ask whether - and if - these experiences can be achieved using digital tools. If so, what tools are needed, and how are our practices changing? If not, what role should digital play in supporting 'in person'?
In answering these questions, we need to keep in mind three key concepts:
Path dependency :
Once an infrastructure or a tool is built, we get used to using it, we start to organise our activities around it and build new technologies on top of it. We have to design things with that in mind.
Open Source :
As an engineer once told me, "open source is honest source". The code that underpins our decision-making and deliberative procedures should be publicly available.
Participatory design :
The best way to build these tools is through 'participatory design', in which the communities that will use and be affected by the engineering are involved in every step of the decision-making and testing process.
One of the great achievements of deliberative democracy is that it has been evolving and testing non-digital codes and processes for (at least) thousands of years. It offers many protocols that can be drawn upon for imaging digital processes.
This conference was an opportunity for OSP to present the role of digital platforms such as Decidim in the framework of citizens' consultations and to share our experience in the implementation of these platforms within local authorities.
The Decidim open source software adapts to the needs of these institutions and offers a complete and transparent information systemfor digital democracy, allowing to model any participatory process.
Apart from the excellent formula of Mathieu Monot, Deputy Mayor of Pantin, referent of the AMIF's citizen participation commission, on the evolution of the role of the mayor:
We have successively admired the managerial and builder mayors, now I am convinced that it is the turn of the concerted mayors!
we retain 3 points from this experience:
Digital commons to power public consultations, a matter of course
Why? The digital commons is a vehicle for values such as transparency and integrity of data, protection of personal data, equality of participants and accountability. The model proposed by Decidim, combining an open license (AGPLv3) and a social contract, provides the democratic guarantees necessary for any digital democracy approach .
To go further on this subject, we recommend the article by @calimaq (Lionel Maurel) which discusses the concept of mission-oriented Free Software using Decidim as an example.
Digital/classroom hybridisation is essential
Digital tools are not magic and active participation is a gradual learning process. Guarantees of transparency are needed to give citizens confidence and these can only be delivered through human interaction. It is therefore necessary to ensure ahybridisation of digital and face-to-face participation spaces.
OSP's work with institutions is now pushing for a critical and strategic use of digital tools for political, collective and sovereign action.
A platform for municipalities is above all a platform and configurable platform.
Participatory approaches in municipalities should consider the different levels of engagement (see diagram below). In order to do this, the tool in question must be able to model any type of participatory process. Decidim is particularly effective in meeting this challenge with its modular and highly configurable architecture. It is a real Lego of participation where institutions define the architecture of their customised participation spaces by activating and configuring participatory functionalities.
The techno-political challenges that civic tech has yet to address
We concluded our intervention by reminding that digital participation is still in its infancy. Platforms like Decidim raise exciting questions:
Shipyards Decidim and OSP
Processing of massive data sets and synthesis of queries
Since 2017 we have been investigating the application of automatic language processing to text and data corpora from consultations. See our articles on this subject on Medium part I and II.
Digital inclusion and accessibility
Open Source Politics is a member of Mednum, the digital inclusion cooperative
- OSP is developing a France Connect connector for Decidim which will be available this autumn 2019. - Decidim allows to set up identity verification systems contextual to the action performed by the user (voting on a participatory budget).
Decidim is one of the only platforms to offer a raffle module.
Decentralization and data security
Decidim already offers a number of guarantees for the data that the platform generates (API, cryptographic fingerprinting of proposals etc.). Within the framework of the European Decode project, Decidim has been able to experiment with blockchain technology to carry out electronic signatures.
So many challenges that we can take up collectively thanks to the open model of collaboration proposed by Decidim, which already brings together a multitude of complementary actors (academics, developers, sociologists, political scientists, designers, etc.). A working framework that allows us to take up these challenges as a network by pooling efforts, investments and learning.
We would like to thank the AMIF for organising the conference and for inviting us to the round table.
How does the Decidim participatory democracy platform work?
Decidim, whose name comes from the Catalan expression meaning "let's decide now", is a digital infrastructure dedicated to participatory democracy, entirely designed and implemented in a collaborative manner according to the rules of free software. On a technical level, Decidim is a framework (or development environment) designed with the Ruby on Rails development software. Decidim allows users to create and configure a web platform or portal for use as a social network for citizen participation. This portal allows any organisation (city or district council, association, university, NGO, local collectives, cooperatives) to set up massive consultation processes such as participatory budgets, public surveys or calls for ideas.
In order to fully understand how Decidim works, it is necessary to understand the distinction between participation spaces and participation tools. The nuance seems fine at first and can be difficult to grasp, but it helps to better understand the structure of the platform:
Participation spaces. They are the framework within which participation is organised, the channels and media through which citizens and members of collectives can formulate their demands, elaborate their proposals and take decisions. Four spaces of participation are available in Decidim: Initiatives, Processes, Agorasand Consultations. For example: a citizens' initiative to change a regulation(Initiative); a general assembly of a workers' collective(Agora); a participatory budget, an electoral process or a consultation to define a long-term objective(Process); a referendum on a specific issue(Consultation). Process and Agora are already integrated in the platform in version 0.9, the other two spaces will be available in late spring.
Participation tools. These are the functionalities that allow interaction between the platform and the participation spaces. Decidim currently offers the following tools: meetings, conferences, calls for ideas, submission of proposals, questionnaire surveys, discussions and debates, results, monitoring of project implementation, votes, pages and newsletters.
The users of the platform (the participants), interact through participation mechanisms - which we call participation tools - that perform specific functions within each participation space. In other words, Initiatives, Agoras, Processes and Consultations have tools at their disposal which compose and give rhythm to the different participation spaces.
The characteristics of the 4 participation spaces
Processes are a space where an administrator can create, activate, deactivate and manage different participation tools, with the possibility of linking them together and configuring them according to the different stages programmed.
The Agoras offer an administrator the possibility of defining groups and collectives that meet periodically, detailing their composition, listing their meetings (with geo-location), facilitating the holding of meetings by managing the agenda, the capacity of the venues and the registration of participants if necessary, taking a position on the proposals and deliberations issued by the assemblies.
The Initiatives allow an administrator to collaboratively launch citizens' initiatives, define their objectives and procedures, collect support, gather the results of discussions and debates, and organise the mobilisation of inhabitants around meeting points for signing petitions.
Consultations are a space for organising referendums, allowing for discussion and debate on the chosen topic. They are connected to a secure voting system and a space for publishing the results.
Within these participation spaces, different tools are therefore articulated, customising the space according to the will of the administrator or organisation launching the space.
The various participation tools
The proposals tool allows you to create a geo-located official or citizen proposal, to associate documents with it, to browse through the proposals and to apply filters to them.
The results tool transforms proposals into findings or decisions, making public an official response to their acceptance or rejection.
The monitoring tool offers the possibility of dividing action decisions into unit projects, the implementation of which is reported with a progress report module.
The survey tool can be used to design and publish surveys and polls and display their results.
The comments tool allows users to comment on proposals, rate them by voting, respond and react to responses by receiving notifications.
The voting tool offers the possibility to apply several voting modes to proposals: unlimited, limited, weighted, budgeted, etc.
The pages tool allows you to create pages with information content including formatted texts, images and videos.
The face-to-face meetings tool allows you to convene meetings, manage their location and date as well as the registration of participants, and then publish the minutes of the proceedings and the results of the discussions.
The conference tool (coming soon) allows you to create a website associated with a thematic conference with specific organisational tools (registration, workshops, programme, speakers, etc).
The newsletter tool is available to send a newsletter to people registered on the platform, or more selectively to those concerned by a particular area (to come).
These tools therefore give real substance to the various participation approaches and provide a framework for the various forms that citizens' contributions to the platform can take. In order to contribute and/or vote, users must first go through a verification of their identity, which is potentially carried out in several stages designed to certify the seriousness and credibility of the platform.
Classification of participants
The participants in a Decidim platform can be divided into three categories, corresponding to greater or lesser possibilities of interaction with the platform's content:
Visitors can see all the content of the platform without registering.
Registered members can contribute to the platform: after providing a username, a pseudonym, a password and an email address (or identification via certain social networks), they can comment, make proposals, send messages and follow certain participants or events, receive notifications.
Verified Members have a broader level of participation. They can be accredited as a member of an organisation, or as a resident/voter of a municipality, or belong to a group with organisational or decision-making power (association, community, collective, etc). Once their status is confirmed, they can register for meetings, advocate for proposals, sign petitions and vote in consultations.
Participants can register individually or as a member of an association or organisation. Profiles representing groups of users can be created with the possibility to express themselves either collectively or individually. Notification preferences can be configured for both individual and group statuses.
More than free software, a real community
Decidim surpasses in quality anything we have seen in terms of free civic tech software. A dozen developers regularly contribute to the project, GitHub issues (problems in the code, filed on the GitHub centralisation platform) are dealt with in a few hours, answers are given to you in a few minutes on Gitter (an instant messenger dedicated to GitHub users) and the application is 98% covered by unit tests - i.e. each tool is tested individually to check that it works properly. These few details perfectly illustrate the dynamism of the Decidim project and the technical quality of its development, which make the platform a project intended for the long term and for the constant improvement of its functionalities.
It was while we were at the Decidim Jam, the annual conference that brings the community together around the tool, that we got a sense of what was behind the code. Decidim is run by a community of several hundred people from all walks of life. Citizens, developers, designers, public officials, politicians and researchers come together to co-construct this participation tool, which is envisaged as a real common ground that everyone brings to life through their contributions.
The community is organised around 4 main bodies:
An inter-municipal coordination group, composed of users who share their experiences and provide part of the funding;
A research group(Decidim Lab) bringing together researchers from 3 different universities, who organise meetings, conferences, debates..;
SOM decidim (physical) and Metadecidim (digital) which are the meeting and working spaces to co-construct the tool.
They are organised around five areas of reflection: tech, governance, research, user experience and mobilisation. It is on meta.decidim.barcelona that new features are decided and planned. The diagram below describes the process of emergence, adoption and development of any new feature that the community wants to add to Decidim.
It can be seen that this process is relatively elaborate but still flexible, which illustrates the initial spirit of building Decidim. Thus, even the governance of Decidim (the addition of new features) is open, which allows full transparency of the process and less freedom of interpretation for the developers; the code is under the direct control of the institutions and the citizens.
To complement this process, it should be noted that there are also companies, including Open Source Politics, that maintain, develop new features and provide services around Decidim for institutions.
These specificities of Decidim's development organisation make it a particularly active digital tool. The advantage of adopting such a tool lies mainly in the automatic inclusion within a large panel of users who share their experience of the platform and thus guide any newcomer. It is also a question of building software that satisfies a maximum of possible uses, in a maximum of possible situations.
Open Source Politics is a company that develops participatory democracy platforms for public, private and associative actors. Contact us if you want to get involved in a consultation process or a participatory budget using civic-tech tools!