We catch up with CitizenLab team, an online platform for qualitative citizen participation in the decision-making of local government. An interview with a Alexandre Detroux, former Project Manager and participation specialist. CitizenLab is now three-year old and its brilliant team features three main types of profiles: software developers or designers, business engineers, and those whose background is more directly connected to policy and participation. For further info, the easiest is to surf www.citizenlab.co where you can sign up to their newsletter keeping you posted about CitizenLab and all things civic tech.
1 Can you tell us how was born and what is the idea behind CitizenLab?
We are from Brussels in Belgium, and we love our city. As such, we happened to repeatedly have good ideas, small or big, to improve our environment. To the point where we decided to share our inspiration with the city administration to see what could come out of this. But the story fell short: we never found the door to knock, even after dedicating some time looking for a way in. This day we realised our city and all cities needed a way to listen to the crowd’s experience. The year being 2015, we started off building a digital tool that would lower all barriers to participation on both the citizen and administration sides
2 How CitizenLab help governments connect with citizens in order to take better informed decisions. Can you tell us any success stories?
The basic idea is that getting your citizens’ opinion should never be a challenge at a time where instant and seamless communication has become standard. CitizenLab is an online platform shaped around one key action: the submission of ideas, comments and votes by citizens to feed into their government’s decision-making. It’s simple. You land on the platform, 10 seconds and a few clicks later you are signed up and when you are done reading other people’s ideas and comments a big button invites you to submit your own. Then comes the voting, allowing to see which among the citizen ideas are the most supported. But the simplicity story goes on on the government’s side – and it obviously matters, if any opinion is to ever become implemented! The platform automatically generates notifications allowing to track and moderate the activity better.
The information flows are designed so citizens do a lot of the moderation themselves. When entering the backend, the administrator of the platform discovers a dashboard with all the key measures she needs to get an overview of the trends. There are more tools to make sense out of the bulk of citizen creativity, among them insightful reports generated by computer-assisted magic. At the end of the day, collection, monitoring, moderation, analysis, feedback and integration in the policy design are all made significantly easier with CitizenLab.
We are happy to have a few success stories to share. One of our first project was with Hasselt (BE). There our platform helped the collective design of a new park, with a “closed loop”: from the crowd’s ideas, through a selection granted by the city administration, to a presentation of what is actually now being implemented – everything is on the platform under a clear timeline structure. This is openness at its best. Another resounding success is Liège, one of Belgium’s major cities. The submission stage just ended, and it gathered 5000 users for as many posts, topped up with close to 100.000 votes. By the way, with more than 30 cities CitizenLab is now used in Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark and very soon in France!
3 In your opinion, how can the social use of open and free technology (Data and Source) contribute to greater citizen participation and change Democracy the way it is right now?
Open source software, in this case, means higher transparency and therefore trust that the software does not protect any vested interest. As a consequence, it can also bring a stronger civic support behind the platform, both in terms of adoption and of software development. These are clearly arguments appealing to all civic tech actors. Yet open source also comes with its challenges: for the sustainability of the core team, security-wise and in terms of maintaining a worthy community. We are still growing our opinion on this exciting challenge.
Open data in general is obviously a symbol of transparency. But I prefer to insist on another aspect: it makes for thriving communities. On the basis of this raw material which is the property of all, businesses –many of them local- can boost the value of their services; not-for-profits and resident groups can start social ventures or gain more traction in their advocacy.
4 Why the Blockchain Could Transform the Face of Digital Democracy?
Decentralisation has been going along technological progress for centuries now: the easier it is to pass on a message to distant agents, the more remotely your organisation can function while not losing in efficiency. This of course applies to systems of government, and CitizenLab is a good contemporary example. The core idea is indeed that what would have been a hassle in the past –involving citizens more closely in decision-making – is now within reach of any good-willing administration. CitizenLab offers the channel of communication underlying this new interaction. Such decentralisation of decision-sourcing can however be taken forward in many ways, of which one is growing trust thanks to the authentication of processes. Processes can be very diverse: voting at general or internal party elections, signing a petition… or casting your support for a citizen proposal in an online participation platform.
One can even go much further, at the image of Liquid Democracy tenants: instead of electing representatives listed on a ballot, you would only delegate your voice in decision-making to someone you trust and only for as long as you keep trusting her. This person would then be able to pass on the voice she received, on the principle of a chain of trust. And yes, here chain materialises as Blockchain, a row of trusted certificates.
5 How do you see the Civic Tech ecosystem in Europe?
The first use of the expression “civic tech” dates back (or so the word goes) to 2012. Only 5 years ago! This is still an early stage for all those who want to bring about this historic change for democracy. The term also covers a lot of different tools. So Europe is now buzzing with initiatives and experimentation, but the technologies and organisations that support them are still in the process of getting mature. In a couple of years we should be able to see a whole new landscape emerge, where governments are more educated on the necessity to embrace change and citizens more aware of their power and liabilities.
In this brave new world, solutions will have consolidated along synergies and only the more fitted to practical reality will have survived. In this respect, the wealth of solutions currently witnessed in Europe will sure result in a healthy competition and enable incredible strides towards renovated democracies. One word: exciting!
6 How does CitizenLab measure success in online citizen engagement?
There are three main indicators one can use to measure success in online citizen engagement. Who is reached? This is the number of unique visitors. Who is interested and kept updated? This is the cohort of registered users. Who is effectively participating in decision-making? These are the posters of ideas and comments, and to a lesser extent the voters. The next frontier we are looking at is to measure the impact of citizen engagement, definitely another metric of success. The quantity of feedback from the administration, the degree of integration of citizen proposals in policy design, and why not the likely gains in effectiveness or in cost compared to the previous track followed by policymakers.
7 Challenges for the future of GovTech: Do you think Governments are ready for radical innovation?
The most radical innovation for governments in the next decade is undoubtedly inclusive governance. No need to say, this goes through enhanced citizen participation in local decision-making. Although what we see on the ground is that our expansion team has to do a lot of education -even before we can start discussing partnerships with cities- a surprising number of local authorities are already aware of the chance it represents. Those see the need for a bigger citizen voice, and our firm belief is that ever more policymakers will realise the essential value of online citizen participation in the coming years. Among gains, the obvious one is legitimacy. And it is very much in demand! The demise of traditional parties and the rise of populist, anti-everything alternatives has come to be a threat for progressive politics, and the one way to answer this is that our representatives restore their legitimacy.
At the local level, operating with more transparency and less seclusion from their constituents is one point, integrating citizen opinions beyond the ballot box is another point. In both cases, civic tech is there to help. The other crucial gain from including citizens is less discussed but very accurate: efficiency. The booming economic domination of Europe now clearly belongs to the past, and abundant coffers won’t be back anytime soon. What some conveniently call crisis is in reality the age-where-we-don’t-have-a-choice: either government spends the right amount for the right things, or it fails delivering on its promise to citizens. In this context, doesn’t it make sense to listen to the crowd to get a finer sense of where are the pressing needs, and of how to solve them best? Yes, it entirely does. Accordingly, we at CitizenLab are convinced that even the laggards will sooner than later open their eyes on the value offered by inclusive governance.
8 Invite Citizens and Govs to participate: Describe the Citizen Lab process to connect for better cities.
We would love to hear from citizens and governments alike! To connect, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call on +32 2 808 50 22.
Notes and references
Do check our blog post on the topic: https://www.citizenlab.co/blog/civic-tech/blockchain-could-transform-democracy/