Democracy must encompass more than an incidental vote for a certain party. Below, the additional possibilities that cities have for involving citizens in policy making are examined.
In 1339 Ambrogio Lorenzetti completed his famous series of six paintings in the townhall of the Italian town Sienna, entitled The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, representing the characteristics and the effects of good and bad government. The painting above refers to the characteristics of good government: Representing the interest of the citizens, renouncing self-interest, and integrity.
The concept of democracy is associated with political institutions, such as elections, political parties, professional politicians and – sometimes embarrassing – debates in city councils and parliaments. In her book Democrat deficit. Critical citizens revisited (2011) political scientist Pippa Norris describes the gap between the performance of democracy at one hand and democratic ideals at the other. These ideals are rooted in the original meaning of democracy, namely obedience to the will of the people. They express the desire of many citizens to have real influence on policy issues beyond the elected representatives.
In the 1990s political scientists started to use the concept of governance. Among others, this concept is associated with a long-term vision rooted in the interests of the stakeholders and stakeholder involvement in its implementation.
Well-governed cities is the sixth episode in a series of essays on how cities can become more humane. This means finding a balance between sustainability, social justice and quality of life. This requires far-reaching choices. Once these choices have been made, it goes without saying that we use smart technologies to realize them.
The essays that have already been published can be found here.
In this essay, I discuss how a coherent long-term vision on the development of the city can be tailored with the needs and wants of the citizens, as they manifest themselves within and outside the institutionalized channels of representative democracy.
In the first instance, I will examine how the aforementioned “democratic deficit” can be addressed. In the second part I discuss “smart” tools that have become available in recent years to improve the government of the city. In the third part I will elaborate on the approaches in Spain and Estonia, two forerunning countries in this regard.
Vision and citizen-engagement
Vision refers to a clear picture of the intended development of the town, its underlying values, the goals to be achieved, the challenges to overcome in the event of conflicting interests and values – for instance between prosperity and sustainability – and the way to act. It is impossible to develop a vision without citizen-engagement that goes beyond the role of the aforementioned formal democratic institutions. These fall short, because they are rooted in the idea that voters mandate a political party that operates in their name, and thereby refrain from involvement in subsequent political decision-making.
It can be noted that there are additional forms of participation, such as townhall meetings. However, only a few people are attending them, not in the last place because the loudest voices are often heard best. Instead of constructive deliberation these meetings use to be an outlet for citizen’s anger. Instead, governance must prevent citizens from getting angry.
The concept of governance challenges the leadership of a city to establish a permanent dialogue with citizens and to prove that their interests are in good hands, while at the same time preserving the formal democratic institutions.
How to maintain an open channel to the citizens has long been under discussion and this discussion has yielded several potentially useful ideas. These ideas focus on three principles – direct democracy, decentralization, and autonomy – that will be briefly discussed.
Direct democracy dates from ancient Greece civilization, at least for men, and is practiced in Swiss municipalities and in referenda. From the perspective of governance, however, these solutions fall short due to the lack of opportunity for deliberation. In addition, people may feel overwhelmed by the number and the variety of issues that require their attention. Consequently, several writers tried to improve the transparency of indirect democracy by establishing a more direct connection between voters and representatives.
The district system is an option, but political parties also intervene here. In his book Against elections. The case for democracy (2013) the Flemish political scientist David van Reybrouck proposed to appoint representatives based on weighted draws, such as juries in Anglo-Saxon courts. His ideas have been adopted in some municipalities in Belgium and the Netherlands through the establishment of citizen forums. In 2019, the German-speaking community in Belgium installed a permanent council of drawn citizens that advises the parliament, but does not replace it.
So-called liquid democracy is another option. Here, just like direct democracy, citizens can vote on all subjects. However, they can transfer their vote to someone else, who according to them, is more involved or competent. In his turn, this person can transfer his or her mandate too. This is easy to organize with secure IT. The short video below explains how liquid democracy works.
I suggested a different solution elsewhere. Engagement will thrive if people can choose a program, instead of a party. In this scenario, any group or person can propose a program, given a certain number of people who support it. A considerable number of programs will be available during the first round of voting and no program will reach the majority. In a second or even third round, authors of the original programs can decide to work together and prepare programs that potentially can get a majority. In this case too, a reliable IT-infrastructure is required.
Deliberative polling is a final solution: A representative sample of citizens takes part in a series of meetings that successively discuss potential opinions, search for all information, weight advantages and disadvantages, and ultimately formulate preferable actions. The proposals are submitted to the municipal council that will normally accept these.
The subsidiarity principle is generally accepted, but it deserves to be applied more often. This principle means that social and political issues must be addressed at the most direct (or local) level. This prevents citizens from being involved in making decisions regarding topics without impact on them: Residents of a major traffic artery will experience the noise, pollution, and dangers of traffic more intensively than residents of a quiet side street. It is unfair to question representatives of both streets in the same way about the desirability to introduce one-way traffic, to broaden side-walks or to plant trees.
The solution is to decentralize decision making. Transferring decisions to directly involved citizens will significantly contribute to their engagement.
Decentralization does not mean that all all decisions from a central governing body are transferred to many smaller ones. On the contrary, many urban problems must be defined and solved at the metropolitan level. By delegating local issues to neighborhood councils, the central governing body can focus more on these issues.
Apart from organizing power at a central or a decentral level, any government must realize that a city is a complex entity of independent citizens, organizations, companies, associations, and informal groups. Their actions and interactions are responsible for the dynamics of the city, its prosperity and sometimes its problems as well. During the last decades, governments at all levels tend to increase their influence. It seems that city governments have the ambition to see the city as a company and to be in control over most, if not all processes. Many companies in turn accept that they thrive if employees can take more decisions themselves. Cities must distance themselves from practices introduces at the end of the 20th century under the flag of the New Public Management. Instead, they do well to acknowledge the existence of a large and diverse group of urban stakeholders and to cherish their freedom to act autonomously as much as possible. The starting point has to be room to do good things, instead of prescribing what good things are.
Smart technologies to support governance practices
Elsewhere, I have emphasized that embracing a long-term vision is more important for any city that wants to become ‘smart’ than an immediate focus on technology. Where a city government for a couple of decades ago could not claim to be in control because there were simply no resources, nowadays technology can make the difference. Some mayors hope that smart city technology will finally give them more control and influence and thus realize the promises of New Public Management at last.
On the other hand, well-chosen technologies make it possible to hear the voices of citizens better and, as a result, to realize the potentials of governance. Below I will explore the second alternative, because it meets the requirements to become a humane city.
Recently many applications have become available to support the government of the city. Some are discussed below, supplemented with examples, among others selected from the Smart City Solution Database, a comprehensive collection of smart city applications, tools and policies.
In the next section, I will focus on two cities, Tallinn and Barcelona, who are forerunners in the development of digital support for administrative processes, considering the needs of citizens and their engagement into urban affairs.
Foresight Lublin 2050
Foresight creates discussion between decision-makers, scientists, employees or citizens. The method aims to build a long-term vision, and to select priorities based on available information.
In Lublin (Poland) 1500 people participated in 60 workshops and discussed a wide range of topics, which resulted in a vision document. Given the orientation towards the future, young people in particular and representatives from many social groups were mainly involved.
Digital tools can increase public engagement. To do this, an exchange of views must take place: Citizens must be enabled to react to each other’s opinions, and there must be relevant information.
EngageCitizens – Citizenry Social Network
EngageCitizens contributes to the development a virtual ecosystem for citizens to suggest ideas and co-create solutions. Citizens can also report problems, participate in policy-making, attend events, become part of communities and find answers to questions. The platform is first introduced in Braga (Portugal) and later in 30 other cities in- and outside Portugal.
Polls offer useful information as a starting point for decision-making but citizen engagement goes further. The easiest way to organize commitment is the installment of a ‘forum’, similar like the G1000 in Belgium. Forums use to have a website that offers news and background information and opportunity for participation in discussion groups. Incidentally, members of a discussion group can meet physically to deepen their online conversation. Every city can install a forum, but given the complexity and huge number of topics, it is preferable to focus forum on topics. Forums can best work towards a climax, for instance decision making in the community council. Their representativeness can be guaranteed by weighted draw.
Insights Management Tool for Citizen participation
Insights Management Tool is a digital platform for cities, companies and institutions. It supports online and offline channels with which everybody can be involved. Citizens can give advice on specific questions on the platform and their contributions are summarized in insights via crowd-analysis. These insights form a basis for decision-making. Citizens are kept informed throughout the entire process.
The tool has already been successfully implemented in more than 600 projects around the world and more than 600,000 people have participated. 82% of the subsequent decisions are influenced by Insights. Find here an example of citizen participation in the development of timetables for busses.
There are many digital devices to support forums. Some contain a whole range of media, others offer useful tools, like maps as basis for discussion.
The level at which these tools can be applicated can vary from the metropolitan area as a whole to a neighborhood. The more people are involved in decision-making about (the future of) their own living environment, the better.
The ambition of the Moscow local authorities is to involve all 12 million inhabitants in decision making. With the Active Citizen platform residents can participate in online referenda on issues related to urban development. The platform is available via web interface and mobile app. The most important factor for the success of the platform is that the city authorities ensure that all decisions approved by the majority of citizens are implemented.
Blockchain has changed the digital voting process in Moscow. Users can monitor polls in real time and verify the authenticity of results. Every vote is listed in a public ledger consisting of all votes taken. About 1000 votes per minute can be casted.
Most moods are aimed at specific groups. For example, local communities that are interested in specific issues, such as construction and maintenance of parks, sports grounds and playgrounds in neighborhoods, or the planning of new public transport routes.
Until now, 2.3 million citizens have participated in 4,111 votings, for instance travelers could give advice about new metro trains.
Participatory budgeting is a special group of digital applications within decision making. A growing group of municipalities allows citizens to share part of the budget, by giving priority to a number of selected projects or by voting on the amount of money available for certain issues. Here too, attention for the representativeness of the participants is mandatory, in order to prevent the mobilization of supporters of a specific project. At the same time, participants must be informed about the projects and the consequences of shifts in the amount in investment between sectors.
Civic budgeting (Lublin)
Initially, the city of Lublin (Poland) carried out an experiment in the district of Rura. Great importance was attached to participating in physical meetings with representatives of the municipality. The typical projects were explained herein.
In four consecutive years, 638 small projects and 246 large projects were presented in Lublin. Ultimately € 12.5 million was allocated by the citizens.
Participatory budgeting is usually applied to prioritize projects at neighborhood level. In this case, projects can be proposed and prepared by (groups of) citizens. Here too, the availability of information about the backgrounds of the various projects is crucial. This information does not have to be provided only digitally. On the contrary, a small exhibition in the community center can mobilize citizens to participate and offers additional room for informal discussions. No adult local resident needs to be excluded from voting. Schools can organize dedicated moods for their pupils.
Cities offer a wide range of services, varying form the supply of identity papers, birth declaration, to the provision of public transport, energy and housing. Moreover, they are responsible for compliance with laws, ranging from handing out parking fines to the issuing of building permits. How they do this can be a source of frustration but satisfaction for citizens too.
The CityzenApp SaaS Platform is a new set-up in the way in which a municipality provides services to its citizens. The aim is to enable citizens to arrange services online, to listen to their opinion, to provide information, and to facilitate all other contacts with citizens in an easy and flexible way. Citizens can use their mobile phone as well as other channels (web, e-mail, SMS). The app is applied for the first time in Greece.
Most citizens appreciate if they can request services digitally and if – in case of questions – help is available. In the case of a complicated digital application, for instance the request of a building permit, a lot of background information is required. It is helpful if digital tools are available to produce and submit necessary drawings and other documents.
Trimble Feedback is a web application with an integrated map functionality, which makes it possible for a municipality, its citizens and interest groups to communicate efficiently. All community feedback is recorded and sorted, regardless of whether it arrives by telephone, email or forms. Citizens can make reports of, for example, broken streetlights or potholes in the road surface.
Once submitted, notifications are forwarded to the person who will address the issue.
So far, the system is used in a number of municipalities in Finland, Germany and Belgium.
The quality of community services partly depends on information from the citizens. This varies from fairly simple subjects such as graffiti at unauthorized places, pavements that need to be repaired to complaints about connections in public transport. Citizens can make a report and upload photos or other materials.
A prompt response is important, for example an indication of the time needed to repair the reported damage or a questionnaire that asks fellow citizens for their opinion, for example a new route of a bus line.
Conflicts undermine social cohesion, and a trial often satisfies one party only and usually does not lead to improved relationships. For this reason, courts propose mediation as an alternative, which can lead to acceptable solutions for both parties. Digital tools are also available in this area as they lower the threshold to invite a third party to help resolve a conflict. Until now e-justice is limited to relatively small cases, but the results are promising.
Matterhorn Online Dispute Resolution
Going to court for minor offenses, like parking tickets, requires those involves to take time off to go the courthouse. Online dispute resolution through Matterhorn (ODR) allows citizens, law enforcers, and the court to communicate anywhere and with any device to resolve minor violations. It is trusted by more than 70 courts in 10 US states. Matterhorn makes it possible to address a wide variety of problems, including conflicts between neighbors, traffic fines and disagreements about payments.
Governance is closely linked to transparency. This applies to politicians themselves, but also to the availability of relevant data. These can vary from meeting minutes, research reports to statistics.
Geospock’s Spatial Big Data Platform
Geospock’s Spatial Big Data Platform is a software solution, optimized for cloud architecture, which allows for rapid registration, indexing and querying of extremely large geospatial and temporal datasets, with additional analysis and visualization tools. It allows data to be managed, visualized and investigated in a map view.
By no means municipal authorities have answers to all questions, therefore additional research often is appropriate. Citizens can be involved in this research, for example by setting up a steering committee to discuss the questions and the interpretation of the answers.
Citybeats is designed to understand people’s opinions and to respond faster.
It is an AI analysis platform, focused on identifying social trends and concerns. It discovers, categorizes and synthesizes the opinions of people from large amounts of data and offers qualitative information and sentiment insights that give meaning to these data. The AI text analysis platform can categorize unstructured data by identifying the most common opinions.
Here you can download the Barcelona mobility case, which highlights the most important mobility problems in Barcelona as well as how sensitive these problems are to the population such as increasing prices of train tickets and the debate about allowing Uber.
Two forerunners: Spain and Estonia
Barcelona is one of the oldest examples of a city that deploys technological devices as part of its government. Sensor networks have been producing an array of data on transport, energy usage, noise levels, irrigation, and many other topics without having much impact on the life of citizens or solving the underlying problems.
Francesca Bria, chief technology of Barcelona, together with the former mayor Ada Colau started in 2015 to reverse the smart city paradigm: Instead of starting from technology and extracting all the data we started aligning the tech agenda with the agenda of the city, she said.
One of the first challenges was using technology to increase ordinary citizen’s impact on policy. A group of civic-minded coders and cryptographers created a brand-new participatory platform, Decidem (which means We Decide in Catalan).
The video below gives some additional information about Decidem
Spain offers more inspiring examples. The city of Madrid has also created a participatory citizen network, not for chance called Decide Madrid, which is in many respects comparable with Decidem.
Both platforms have comparable facilities.
Active participation in policy making
Decidem enables the public to participate in policy making by suggesting ideas, debating them, and voting. So far 40.000 citizens have suggested proposals, which include 70% of the agenda of the city administration. The most frequently mentioned concerns are affordable housing, clean energy, air quality and the public space.
The Municipal Action Plan includes almost 7,000 proposals from citizens. Decidem enables citizens to monitor the state of implementation of each of them in order to increase citizen’s engagement.
Decide Madrid has virtually the same options. Below is a short video about Decide Madrid.
Decide Madrid and Decidem emphasize the value of being informed as starting point for deliberation. Citizens can start discussions on their own and participate in threaded-discussions started by others.
As soon as citizens feel informed and have exchanged opinions voting can start. Both Decide Madrid as Decidem have a space where citizens can make proposals and seeks support. Proposals that reach enough support are prepared for voting. These votes generally are advising the city council.
Decide Madrid enables citizens amendment legislative texts. The public is allowed to commend any part of it and to suggest alternatives. This also might result in discussions and the suggestions are used to improve the formulations.
Decidem and Decide Madrid are also data portals that show data that have been collected in the city, partly on citizens themselves. Decidem has the intention, as a consequence of its participation in the European project Decode to enable citizens to control the use of data of their own for specific purposes.
As not every citizen has a computer or is skilled to use the above-mentioned platforms, both cities combine virtual discussions and discussion in a physical space.
The community of Madrid has developed its participatory governance system together with CONSUL, a Madrid-based company. CONSUL enables cities to develop citizen participation on the Internet quickly and save. The package is very comprehensive. The software and its use are free. CONSUL can be adjusted by each organization to meet its own needs. As a result, Consul is in use in 130 cities and organizations in 33 countries and reaches out around 90 million citizens worldwide.
It is not only the traditional rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid that has inspired the development of two comparable systems, independently from each other. It is also the fact that until recently the Spanish people had to fight for democracy, given the long exitance of a dictatorial regime in this country. Democratic institutions that have long existed in many other countries had to be reinvented, but with a 20th-century twist.
e-Estonia is currently the most ambitious project in technology-assisted politics in the world. It includes anybody involved with government and it has changed the daily lifes of citizens. A lively description of its impact can be read here. Almost all public services are involved: Legislation, voting, education, justice, health care, banking, taxes, and police. These are digitally linked to each other via one platform. Only for marriages, divorces and real-estate transactions, a visit to the town hall is mandatory.
The country’s ICT-infrastructure has been developed by government, along with a few Estonian companies. The state has been the driving force behind this project and has attracted the best specialists of the country. Below, I mention some of the features of the project.
Estonia has developed an ICT-infrastructure – the Government Cloud – that all government agencies and most companies use. This makes possible almost perfect interoperability in accordance with the highest level of IT Security Standards (ISKE).
To be protected against external cyberattacks, such as in 2007, there is a full back-up. This is located in a datacenter in Luxemburg, which has an internationally accepted status as ‘embassy’. It works under Estonian state control and can take over the most critical services seamlessly.
Data is not stored centrally. Instead, the government data platform, X-Road, connects individual servers via end-to-end encrypted pathways. In the Estonian system any individual owns all information that is recorded about him or her and any use that is made of it is recorded. Unauthorized use is prohibited.
The video below explains briefly the principles behind X-road
The backbone of Estonia’s digital security is a blockchain technology called KSI. It is designed in Estonia and applied worldwide today. It guarantees complete privacy and excludes anyone from manipulating the data. KSI blockchain technology documents all actions in the system and protects information without access to the information itself.
The technology has been developed together with Guardtime, a company founded in 2007 in Estonia, that has exporting the system globally and therefore has offices around the world. It’s headquarters recently moved from Tallinn to Lausanne.
Dutch Government uses Guardtime’s KSI Blockchain for integrity assurance
The Dutch Judicial Information Service (Justitiële Informatiedienst) has chosen Guardtime’s KSI Blockchain technology for integrity assurance of new e-services. The blockchain integration ensures transparency, verifiability and security of the information that is processed in government systems.
Whereas most technology advanced countries still let people vote with pen and paper or use primitive voting machines, from 2007 Estonia applies e-voting for parliament election and elections at municipal level.
With e-Voting, voters can cast their vote from any computer with an internet connection anywhere in the world: During a designated period, voters log in to the system with an ID-card or Mobile-ID, and cast a ballot. To ensure anonymity, the voter’s identity is removed from the ballot before it reaches the National Electoral Commission, which counts the votes. Every system of remote voting, including traditional ballot papers sent by post, risks buying or enforcing someone’s vote. Estonia’s solution is the possibility to change his or her vote later with only the last vote counting.
Governmental bodies at all levels use a paperless information system – e-cabinet – that has streamlined decision making and reduced the time spent on meetings with 80%. Well before the start of a meeting, participants view the agenda items and determine their opinion. If they have objections or want to discuss the subject, they click on a box. The opinions of all participants are therefore known in advance. If there are no objections, decisions are taken without debate.
The video below illustrates how e-cabinet is working:
Like many other European states, the population of Estonia is shrinking. Increasing the number of babies is complicated, so a digital residency program was launched in 2014, in style with the Estonian e-government project. Any foreigner can become Estonian resident without ever visiting the country and can participate in Estonian services, such as banking. Estonia has liberal rules for technological research and the lowest corporate tax rates in the European Union.
About 28.000 people have applied for an e-residency, including many owners of small businesses from the United Kingdom who want to be based in the E.U.
The examples from Spain and from Estonia are different but complement each other. The digital systems in Barcelona and Madrid are rooted in the desire to improve democracy by enabling citizens to have their voices heard. The only reason behind e-Estonia is – according to the government – to facilitate and improve the life of citizens and to make the government more efficient. This last goal certainly has been achieved. The total amount of savings is calculated at 2% of GNP. Estonia has cooperated with many IT-companies, including a few large international ones, but most of all have local roots. Unlike many other countries, the government has retained control and was not forced to reclaim control, as happened in Barcelona.
Good government and the humane city
Let’s go back to Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s allegory of good and bad government in the town hall of Siena. Good government refers to two underlying and overlapping concepts: The formal organization of decision-making and the provision of services to the public at one hand and the alignment of policy with the needs and wants of citizens and other stakeholders at the other. The term governance is often used for the latter.
Technology can play a role in improving the quality of the formal organization. of decision making, of the provision of services and of the relationship with all stakeholders. In this context, concepts such as e-government (digital government) and e-governance are often used. Both contribute to the development of a humane city if certain conditions are met. I will briefly mention these below.
For many citizens, ‘the municipality’ is a source of rules and indispensable services. For years, citizens have complained about the ‘bureaucracy’, that was associated with decision making or with obtaining a new identity card or building permit. In the last decade, decision making has become more transparent and services have improved, but a visit of the town hall and a meeting with a civil servant still is indispensable in many cases. Nevertheless, some citizens appreciate the possibility of personal contact. However, more and more residents prefer a digital process, assuming that it is efficient, easy and save.
The development of e-government is limited by security risks, and in developing technology that limits these risks, Estonia plays an exemplary role. For instance by the use of blockchain technology and by law-making with respect to data ownership and interoperability. Other countries, such as Russia, have also recently started introducing e-voting based on blockchain technology.
Urban government has a major impact on traffic, affordable housing, protection of safety, and safeguarding the quality of life. This is why many citizens want to make their voice heard and to participate in decision-making. At least, they want that mayor, aldermen and civil servants are approachable, communicative, and transparent. e-Governance reflects the mutual communication between municipal authorities and citizens through the use of digital tools in order to align decision making with the needs and wants of citizens and other stakeholders.
Below, I summarize how the desire to be a humane city and the principles of good government can reinforce each other.
Actions to align principles of good government and the development of a humane city.
- The city has a widely shared vision of its development, based on principles such as a decent income, affordable housing, a pleasant and healthy living environment for all its citizens, equal treatment, respectful and democratic relationships and a sustainable relationship with nature.
- Citizens can directly contribute to translating the vision of the city into policy measures, without the intermediary role of political parties. To achieve this goal, digital resources are used to increase the number of citizens involved.
- For all citizens there is a listening ear to their concerns, complaints and proposals and they can trust that the administration will take them seriously.
- Participation of citizens in urban policy offers the opportunity to discuss policy proposals, propose changes, carefully aligned with the legal rights of the elected participation bodies.
- Whether a request or a proposal is accepted or rejected by the city council, the municipality or officials, citizens have the right to be informed in a timely, honest and complete manner.
- The metropolitan government focuses on important policy issues relating to the city as a whole and in the long term. In all other subjects, decision-making is decentralized to the level at which citizens are directly involved.
- The city administration creates the possibilities and the framework for citizens, companies, institutions and other stakeholders to act freely, given the current legislation. Conscious actions of stakeholders to actively participate in the realization of the vision of the city are encouraged and rewarded.
- The city administration supports and protects the diversity of citizens and institutions on the condition that it does not threaten the equal treatment of all involved.
- The city administration creates space for citizens and other stakeholders to make their voices heard. First-line workers can play a connecting role and the use of artificial intelligence to analyze the content of social media can also provide useful information.
- The use of participatory budgeting, in particular at the neighborhood level, will contribute to the involvement of the citizen and also strengthen the attachment of the citizen to his environment.
- The government will develop a coherent set of e-government services to improve services to its citizens and their efficiency.
- Citizens who rely on certain services or rights are supported in an impartial and empathetic manner, regardless of whether personal or digital channels are used.
This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.