Expanding participatory governance through digital platforms

Authored by Joan Balcells, Rosa Borge and Albert Padró-Solanet.

This post was originally published on the PSA Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group’s blog Agora.

The forthcoming edited volume by Adrian Bua and Sonia Bussu, Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovations, sheds light on how current social movements are reclaiming and reinventing participatory processes. Nowadays these movements and initiatives are highly digitalised. In our contribution we focus on the significant role of digital platforms as enablers of new forms of democratic governance that can either push forward democracy-driven governance or instead adapt to the bureaucratic ways of governance-driven democratisation.

Our analysis is based on the case of the digital platform Decidim (“We Decide” in Catalan) which combines elements of democracy-driven governance and governance-driven democratisation. Using the analytical framework provided by these two models of governance as background reference, we discuss some of the conflicts and problems involved in the digitalization of participatory policies through digital platforms.

The Decidim platform was originally designed and led by activists from the 15M and free-software movements as an instrument for radicalising democratic governance. One of the most promising assets of digital participation is its potential to reach out to new publics and widen the number of participants in any participatory process, thanks to the openness and ubiquity of digital technologies. Since its first implementation in Barcelona, following the electoral victory in the 2015 local elections of a new political party – Barcelona en Comú – partly derived from the 15M anti-austerity movements, this platform has rapidly spread to other local governments. Nowadays nearly a hundred local governments across Catalonia are using Decidim as a tool for supporting participatory processes, and it has also been adopted by local and regional governments, institutions and organisations around the world. There is also a growing community around this digital platform (the so-called MetaDecidim and the Decidim Association), led by programmers, practitioners and researchers working for the continuous improvement of the platform as a space for innovation and sharing of experiences.

However, this convergence between the logic of social movements and public administration is not unproblematic. The gap between the democratic expectations and the bureaucratic constrictions experienced by local administrations raises some thorny questions. Do digital platforms help to promote bottom-up citizen initiatives and increase the potential number of participants? Does the digitalization of participatory policies necessarily lead to a technocratic bureaucratization of citizen participation? How do the actors involved in participatory policies react to this process of digitalization?

To better understand how digital participatory platforms fit the workings of public administration, we conducted several in-depth interviews with local managers in charge of implementing Decidim in the Catalan municipalities that pioneered its use. We also administered an online questionnaire targeting managers in charge of Decidim in all local governments in Catalonia where it was being used. The reason for focussing on these particular actors is that they play a liaison role between local administrations and civil society, experiencing first hand the challenges involved in the deployment of Decidim. Through this methodological strategy, we were able to collect perceptions concerning issues such as the reasons for using Decidim, ensuing problems and tensions, or how the digital platform has been received by different actors involved in participatory policies, from politicians and public officials to citizens and local associations.

Our analysis revealed some remarkable findings. Interestingly enough, the municipalities that were more ambitious in the use of Decidim (i.e. the ones that had a higher proportion of citizens registered on the platform) were more likely to experience frictions with previous structures of participation. For instance, public managers had difficulties in translating existing working routines and procedures into the logic and functionalities of the digital platform. Participants in our study also detected resistance to the platform from civic associations who feared losing influence and power of intermediation, as digital platforms can empower direct participation by lay citizens. In previous research, we found that public managers, when assessing the performance of the platform, tend to value more goals such as transparency, organisation of information and the collection of citizen proposals, rather than deliberation and transfer of sovereignty to citizens (Borge, Balcells & Padró-Solanet, 2022).

On the one hand, these aspects logically reflect some of the fears, pressures and problems that are associated with any process of change. But, on the other hand, they may also show that, when seriously implemented, digital platforms can have a disruptive democratic political impact. We have found that the platform implementation can foster full-fledged participation if it is backed and used by grassroots movements and local civic organisations; when it is combined with strong face-to-face participation; and if it enjoys both sincere support from politicians and oversight not only by the technologically savvy but also by participatory activists/users (e.g. the Decidim Association).

To sum up, digital platforms can actually introduce an element of disturbance in the ecosystem of participatory policies. That potential for disruption opens a window of opportunity for experimenting with new forms of governance and rethinking the borders of citizen participation, though it may come at a price. If digital participation aspires to be transformative and transfer decision capacity to citizens and civil society, the emergence of new challenges and resistance from within and outside local administrations might be unavoidable. Yet, the lack of democratic deepening may signify the irrelevance of participatory digital platforms as simply a new tool, technologically fancy but democratically shallow.

About the authors.

Joan Balcells is Lecturer in Political Science at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), and member of the research group GADE ‘eGovernance: electronic administration and democracy’. His research interests are in democratic theory, digital democracy, public opinion and deliberation.

Rosa Borge is Associate Professor in Political Science and the leader of the research group CNSC at the IN3 (Internet Interdisciplinary Institute), Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). Her main areas of research are online deliberation and participation, social networks and the use of social media and digital platforms by public administrations, political parties and social movements.

Albert Padró-Solanet is Lecturer in Political Science at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), and member of the research group GADE ‘eGovernance: electronic administration and democracy’. His research is mainly focused on the impact of ICTs on political parties, public opinion, and deliberation.