Innovation in Democracy Programme

We’re delighted to tell you about Demsoc’s involvement in the UK Government’s Innovation in Democracy Programme.

We will be working with three areas in the planning, design and delivery of Area Democracy Forums – the programme’s name for mini-public deliberative democracy events similar to citizens’ assemblies.

A screen grab from the Andover Advertiser’s article about Test Valley’s involvement in the Innovation in Democracy Programme

The Innovation in Democracy Programme was announced last year by the UK Government – Demsoc is are part of a partnership delivery team including Involve, mySociety and the RSA.

We have already started work with the Greater Cambridge Partnership, which recently announced its plans for a Citizens’ Assembly on traffic congestion in Cambridge, and is being led by our colleagues at Involve.

We are leading the projects at Test Valley Borough Council and Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council. Dudley is planning to explore the future of town centres, while Test Valley is looking at future of waste and recycling or possibly the vitality of town centres.

The Innovation in Democracy programme is being led by two government departments, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. You can see more about the programme on the Government’s website, and on Involve’s website.

How voting works in the European Parliament elections for England, Scotland and Wales

A polling card and a voting ballot box

Tomorrow, voters in the UK will go to the polls to elect new members of the European Parliament. Unlike most other votes held in England, Wales and Scotland, these elections will use a system called D’Hondt to decide how seats are won.

Developed by a Belgian lawyer and mathematician, Victor D’Hondt, it’s one way of ensuring that seats are awarded to parties proportionately. D’Hondt does this with a complicated system of counting that penalises parties that have already won seats, so other parties or independent candidates have a chance of winning seats.

At Demsoc, a big part of what we do is explain how democratic decision making works. So, for a bit of fun, we’ve had a crack at explaining D’Hondt. It’s not easy!

But D’Hondt worry

What makes the D’Hondt system interesting, however, is that from a voter’s perspective, it’s really easy to vote.

Unlike some other proportional systems, where you may have to indicate which candidate or party you prefer by voting several times, with D’Hondt you vote once. It’s what happens after you vote that’s a bit more complicated.

Nonetheless, learning how it works is a good idea. If you are a voter, and you’re trying to work out who to vote for, you’re going to want to know how likely it is that your chosen candidate or party will win a seat.

How it works

So here are some slides we’ve prepared that take you through the nuts and bolts of the D’Hondt system.

D’Hondt stop now

Just so you know, this is the system that’s used in Great Britain, but not in Northern Ireland – which uses a different voting system. This guide explains more.

Elsewhere, EU elections are different too – the rules only state that a form of proportional representation must be used. For an overview of some of the differences across the EU, you could look at this European Parliament PDF – but be warned: it’s also a bit complicated!

Oh yeah… D’Hondt forget to vote! And sorry about all the terrible puns!

Online PB in Reykjavik: making democracy easier and more fun

As part of our work developing the use of digital participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland, Demsoc has been sharing inspiring examples of how digital tools have been used for PB around the world. This time we’re looking at Reykjavik’s long-standing PB process. This blog was written with the help of Róbert Bjarnason, who gave us a short interview about Reykjavik’s PB process. Róbert is Chief Exec of Citizens Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation, whose technology has been used in this process. Citizens Foundation are also one of the providers we’ve worked with to support digital PB in Scotland.

Why read this post?

Are you interested in:

  • Using Participatory Budgeting as a way to give citizens power to change what happens on their doorstep?
  • Using digital to make it easy to get involved in political decision making?
  • The promotion of digital PB and dealing with security of voting?

When the city of Reykjavik introduced Participatory Budgeting it was an attempt to do politics differently: giving citizens tangible power to make things happen on their doorstep; and turning participation from something onerous into something easy, or even fun.

This blogpost shows how they did it. It also shows some of the key considerations needed for digitally enabled PB to work, particularly around promotion and security. Lastly, we look at how the PB process fits into other forms of online democracy in the city.

A view of Reykjavik showing low white buildings with water and an imposing mountain in the background.
Reykjavik. Creative commons image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marcobellucci/8154357332

The history of participatory budgeting in Reykjavik

After the Icelandic financial crisis there was huge distrust in Icelandic politics. The Citizens Foundation was set up as a not-for-profit civic tech provider in response. The Foundation  developed a platform that allows parties standing in a forthcoming election to crowdsource policy ideas. The Best Party, set up as a satirical response to Iceland’s crisis of confidence in its traditional politics, really took this up and thousands of people engaged with the opportunity. In elections to Reykjavik’s city government, The Best Party won enough seats to form a coalition government and continued to look to the public for direction on policy making. It was in this context that participatory budgeting was first set up in Reykjavik in 2011. According to Róbert Bjarnason of the Citizens Foundation, a key motivation for introducing participatory budgeting was to build a different way for  politics to be done, where engagement was more fun, and where the effects of taking part were really tangible to citizens. But it was also a response to substantial cuts to spending that followed the economic crisis that focused the reduced resources on the best uses.

The digital PB process in Reykjavik

Roughly 6% of Reykjavik’s city council investment budget of €3.5 millions is subject to participatory budgeting each year. This is split between the city’s 10 districts. The PB process is based online, with offline activities feeding into the online idea generation and deliberation.

Stage one: generating ideas

Participants submit ideas for how one of the city’s ten neighbourhoods can be improved on the open-source online platform, Your Priorities, developed by Citizens Foundation. They just need to register with Facebook Connect or an email and password to do so. They are then asked for a short description, an image, and to click on a map to share their proposal’s location. You can also comment on other people’s ideas,  by adding points for, or against the proposal. You can express support by ‘liking’ an idea, and can up-vote or down-vote other people’s comments. This idea generation stage lasts for about a month.

A screenshot of the Better Neighbourhoods website, showing three proposals citizens have made. Each has an image and short description and numbers showing how many comments, up-votes and down-votes each has received.
Screenshot of the online ideation stage for the 2018 PB process within one of the city’s districts: https://betrireykjavik.is/group/1505/successful  (Translated to English using the auto-translate feature in Your Priorities)

Stage two: assessment

Following the completion of this stage, the city’s construction board judges how much they will cost. Ideas that are beyond the scope of the process are rejected. Where ideas are not taken forward, participants are emailed to tell them why.

Stage three: voting online

Voters have the chance to choose which of the ten districts they will vote in, and they then decide which projects they think their district’s budget should be spent on. Anyone 15 and over can vote, two years younger than the voting age ceiling applied in other Icelandic elections. To cast their vote, residents divide the available budget up between their favourite projects. This encourages people to think about trade-offs and get the best value for money. It’s also designed to be a fun way of casting a vote.

Voters are also able to select one project as their favourite, and therefore give it double the vote. Voters aren’t given a lot of information about projects, but instead the focus has been on making it easy for voters to express their preference. Róbert told us that the process of casting a vote takes on average 4.3 minutes. Voters can also go back and change their vote at any time during the voting period. Every time a voter clicks on the site ideas are presented in a random order to protect against bias. The software used for the vote is called Open Active Voting, which is also open source. The votes are announced through a voting ceremony, with participants emailed to share the results.

Each year about 100 – 120 ideas are implemented. Róbert suggested that having a large number of proposals involved could help to increase the chance of a range of different interests getting their projects implemented.

Promotion

Róbert said that you can roughly  predict how many people will take part in a the PB process by how much is put into the promotion. Reykjavik has made a conscious effort to invest in  using professional marketing companies and a multi-channel marketing campaign to make people aware of the PB process. This has included Google and Facebook ads, and adverts on radio and TV. Comedians have been hired as the face of the process.

The city also runs face-to-face meetings. Ideas put forward here are fed directly into the online process. And they conduct outreach in places like shopping malls, older people’s homes, and schools. Using tablets makes it easy for such outreach to feed straight into the online process.

Security

Security is an important consideration for online PB, ensuring that only Reykjavik residents get a vote, and that people aren’t getting more than one vote. This has become even more important over time as concerns about foreign interference have grown around the world. It’s also important that processes are protected from the possibility of corruption – particularly when sizeable budgets are involved.

To make it easier to take part, the ideas generation stage just uses an email and password or Facebook Connect, but stronger security is introduced at the voting stage. The Icelandic National Registry operates a single sign-on system, using citizens’ phones, which is used for a variety of services, including banking. This system is used to verify voters within the PB process.

In offline votes different people would perform different roles to protect against fraud. This principle is emulated in Reykjavik’s online vote. Citizens Foundation created the code used, but they do not have access to data about how people have voted. The election itself is operated by the City of Reykjavik. The city’s Internal Audit monitors the election, and there is also a security audit each year, before, during and after the vote.

Online democracy in Reykjavik

The online PB process, branded as ‘My Neighbourhood’, is hosted on a site called ‘Better Reykjavik’. This site, built using the Your Priorities software, brings together a range of ways that citizens can have their voice heard in the city.

One part of  Better Reykjavik is ‘My voice at the city council’ which allows citizens to make suggestions online about  how their city can be improved. These ideas can be commented on and voted up or down by other participants on the site. Every month the top five ideas, and the top idea in each category, are discussed in the appropriate standing committee within the council. Their response is published on the site.

In 2017 the city also experimented with using this site to crowdsource ideas for their education policy over two stages.

A screenshot of the Better Reykjavik site. Links to different parts of the site are shown using images with short descriptions underneath.
Screenshot of the Better Reykjavik site, showing different initiatives that citizens can engage with: https://betrireykjavik.is  (Translated to english using the auto-translate feature in Your Priorities.)

As such, Better Reykjavik provides an online location where a number of opportunities are brought together. There has also been some movement between these, for instance ideas first submitted to the PB process have been moved into the ongoing ideation section.

What has been achieved?

In  Reykjavik the annual PB process has been able to attract participation of around 12.5% of the city’s population. PB can act as a gateway for bringing citizens and bureaucracies together. It has now become something demanded by voters, and which politicians also really like. At time of writing (April 2019) the city has had just completed its 8th annual idea generation, with around 39,000 people visiting Better Reykjavik (approximately 37% of the voting population) and 5,800 logging in to take part.

The population of Reykjavik makes up about 35% of Iceland’s population. Since being introduced to the capital, PB has subsequently spread to other smaller municipalities.

Find out more

Reykjavik’s PB process shows how online PB can give citizens an easy way to have real power, which they can see working. It also shows how this can be built into a wider array of online opportunities for participation. In creating this accessible front-end, there is lots of work that has to be put in behind the scenes – some of these considerations have been shown here. If you want to know about this case study, or the topic in general, you can contact Róbert via the Citizens Foundation website, or speak to us at: Scotland@demsoc.org.

Corra Foundation’s Change Convention

On 28th March 2019, we attended Corra Foundation’s Change Convention at Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh, which over 300 people attended and it was so great that we decided to write all about it! The day was focussed on exploring how to create positive change in uncertain times. This is fundamental to our work in the Democratic Society as we want to better understand and learn from others how social change happens and how we can help support challenge, change, and create new ways of doing things to develop societies that are just, democratic, and empowered to make their own positive changes.

10 things we learned from Corra Foundation’s Change Convention

1.) In order to change media stereotyping of areas that are depicted as deprived and run-down, we need to change our consumerism habits (what we read/watch/buy into) to tell stories that are balanced around both the good and bad of towns, therefore not sensationalising and buying into bad stories. This will ensure an experience of greater equality and benefit citizens to feel more empowered about where they live.

2.) Creative arts and theatre are a great way to integrate migrants into communities and to express living experiences of moving into a new country.

3.) “Shouldn’t people who have risked everything including their lives and their children’s lives to move country gain the right to work and immerse in a new area?” It’s important to listen to others and treat everyone with respect and equality.

4.) “Evil happens when good people do nothing” We have a human moral responsibility to not let the system fail people.

5.) “Do we have our priorities right?” There isn’t enough compassion and funding for groups that support migrants and isolated individuals. Should we change to a 4 day working week so that 1 day could be allocated to volunteering to support kindness in communities, dignity, and helping others?

6.) A fundraising issue. “Where is the trust?” In order to keep sustainable projects going, charities and organisations have to keep re-applying for funding every year or so. When asking for 10 years worth of funding the answer is usually no way. It’s therefore difficult for companies to get into the swing of their great projects and the potential for positive change because of the concern with funding. We need to work out a way to transcend boundaries between working organisations, councils, communities, and volunteers, by joining resources this will make people’s lives better and develop a more sustainable society.

7.) Sheila McKechnie Foundation Workshop. The social change project. “In whose hands is the power really in?” Governments don’t drive change- it starts with civil society. There is growing evidence in how civil society can ‘play big’ and truly create change. More change is happening through individuals and civil society because of the development of technology, access to online media and the ability to communicate widely. There are lots of examples of this as well; the campaign for the living wage to be changed, plastic ban/reduction, me-too movement, and many more.

8.) Sheila McKechnie Foundation Workshop. The social change project’s 12 steps for social change:

1.) Mission first, not model nor money. Everyone campaigns when they have to (example- saving a child, crisis situations, etc) Perhaps organisations striving for change and charity organisations could and should engage more in public spheres to shift attitudes.

2.) Looking at the bigger picture. In a complex system we shouldn’t be working alone but intervening in different ways. (Invitation to let go- everyone is required to pin down and be accountable for their own actions).

3.) Being adaptive and responsive (example-Grenfell fire).

4.) Persistence, perseverance and resilience- (how do we model longer term thinking?)

5.) In whose name? “Nothing about us, without us” how do you do thing with and not to?

6.) Primacy of relationships- transformational service, civil society can build relationships in a way institutions can’t.

7.) Understanding other people’s interests and motivations. (example, Abraham lincoln- “I don’t like that man. I just get to know him better”)

8.) Radical listening and an asset-based approach- people have value and agency. Power is much more dispersed.

9.) Collaborating rather than competing. (It’s not always about the money?!)

10.) Knowing our tools. How do we pursue change what are the other things we could do?

11.) Evaluating what matters and learning from it- reflection and things went wrong.. be honest and share.

12.) Take responsible risks and take a leap. (It might not work… but that’s ok)

9.) Maryhill Integration Network. “Do we know the difference between refugee and asylum seeker?” There are currently flaws within the system that mean asylum seekers do not have the right to work and can be waiting months before their applications are accepted and thus causing many negative implications to their lives. Giving people the right to volunteer in communities will give individuals a sense of belonging, reduce the sense of isolation, build local language knowledge skills and work skills for employability.

10.) Ruth Ibegbuna- founder of Reclaim and the Roots programme. Don’t be scared to be disruptive. Disruption is key for change.

Many thanks to the challenge speakers, panelists, workshop hosts, event illustrator and event coordinators who put on this event, you can find out more here: https://www.corra.scot/change-convention2019/

Weighing Digital, An Experts Guide

This week we published our new podcast series Weighing Digital, An Experts Guide.

We spoke to three digital participatory budgeting experts across the globe who have designed, developed and are actively running participatory budgeting & citizen engagement digital platforms, with an aim to create a better and more democratic world.

In this first episode we spoke to Miguel Arana Catania, Director of Citizen Participation for Madrid City Council about the benefits and challenges of using a digital tool for citizen engagement and Consul which is a free software platform first set up and used in Madrid by the brand Decide Madrid and now used across the globe, that allows everyday citizens to participate in various functions for a more open, transparent and democratic government. It includes: citizen proposals, voting options, participatory budgeting, collaborative legislation, public debates, collective interviews, and sectorial processes.

Listen to this if you’ve heard about or are interested in the digital pilot in Scotland! Consul is the digital tool that was set up in Madrid and is now being used here. Listen to what Miguel has to say about Consul, digital engagement and citizen participation!

In this second episode, we spoke to César Silva, CEO & co-founder of Change Tomorrow about the benefits and challenges of using a digital tool for citizen engagement and Participare which is a digital platform used in Portugal, Scotland and beyond, that allows everyday citizens to participate in various functions for a more open, transparent and democratic government. It includes: citizen proposals, voting options, participatory budgeting and their aim is to provide easy to use, do-it-yourself like, solutions to help change the world and make it a better place.

Listen to this if you’re looking for some digital tips on designing your PB process. In this podcast, César talks about international examples, what’s worked, why it’s worked and overcoming challenges!

In this final episode of Weighing Digital, Annie chats to Róbert Bjarnason, President & CEO of Citizens Foundation a non-profit organisation about Iceland’s experience of using digital tools for citizen engagement and the future of democratic participation. The tools used are Your Priorities & Open Active Voting, which are open sourced digital platforms used in Iceland, Scotland and beyond. These tools allow everyday citizens to participate in various functions for a more open, transparent and democratic government. It includes: citizen proposals, voting options, debating, collaborative legislation and participatory budgeting. Their mission is to bring people together to debate and prioritise innovative ideas to improve their communities whilst also helping citizens get their voices heard and to encourage citizens participation in governance.

Listen to this podcast if you’re interested in finding out how you build trust in your area, the importance of building trust and maintaining trust, citizen engagement and the future of digital…including artificial intelligence. Róbert also tells us about setting up digital in Iceland and how it came about!


(Interview by Annie Cook over Skype) Available on Creative Commons licence. Music by Hamish Cook (copyright for music, all rights reserved)

Communities celebrate their participatory budgeting

Four people on stage. One holds an envelope in one hand
Crieff announces the results of its participatory budgeting process

Musselburgh Area Partnership & Crieff Community Trust have both successfully completed their first ever digital PB process with voting events completing on Saturday 16th March.

Musselburgh, in East Lothian, and Crieff, in Perthshire, both received Community Choices funding from the Scottish Government and chose to involve citizens the power to make decisions about how budget was allocated, with digital participatory budgeting. Demsoc supported them to use a digital participation platform as part of our work supporting the programme.

Both Iain Clark (Musselburgh Area Partnership) and Arleen Sinclair (Crieff Community Trust) chose to use both online and offline voting methods to engage as many people in their communities as possible to deliberate and vote on the local proposals.

Congrats to Arleen and Iain!

Both Iain Clark and Arleen Sinclair did an amazing job of working out their PB process, getting others on board in participating, marketing their process, overcoming both digital and offline challenges in the face of adversity, organising and running events and simply cracking on and getting things done, whatever barriers they may have faced.

Recently, there’s been a lot of talk of PB champions – and we’d say that people like Arleen and Iain are PB champions for the effort that they have put into thinking about how these processes might work, running them and supporting their community into getting involved.

Open Government Week 2019

This year, Open Government Week has focused on “increasing the number and diversity of partners taking part in events and conversations”. Countries, citizens, governments and civil society all over the world are taking part, running online and offline events and sharing the work they have been doing to promote open government. There have been webinars, panels, art, rallies, debates, & so much more, including ‘Open Government and Open Data Family Feud’ in Canada and a Public Debate conducted by Deaf Participants in Sri Lanka, with subjects ranging from budget literacy to investigative journalism to gender equality.

Demsoc, through the Open Government Network for Europe (OGNfE), is also committed to growing the number of individuals and organisations interested in open government and improving the quality and effectiveness of conversations being had.

The core principles of the Open Government Network for Europe are:

  • Bringing together guides and practitioners.
  • Creating open safe spaces for discussion.
  • Encouraging peer learning, joining and federating ideas and initiatives
  • Starting in Brussels but expanding, creating a centrally facilitated community owned and driven by members.
  • Creating a neutral space for honest and open conversations.

This year, the OGNfE is focused on helping European Union institutions, particularly the Commission, to become more formally involved with the Open Government Partnership, and to advocate for open government principles. The OGNfE is hoping to open up the European institutions, increasing transparency, accountability and participation; to connect actors in Brussels and beyond together for eventual co-creation of an action plan for open government work in the European Institutions, and to support continuous work on democracy and open government. 

We hope by encouraging the conversation open government in EU institutions, that EU citizens will benefit. By displaying the benefits of all aspects of open government, for both the institutions and their citizens, to even the most adamant of sceptics, we can increase transparency and accountability at EU level – as well as hopefully sparking the development of open policymaking, open data commitments, and other projects. This should in turn increase the number of number and diversity of partners, citizens and organisations involved with open government programmes within the EU. Not only does open policymaking rely on citizen engagement, but if the EU institutions lead from the front and encourage a move towards these practices, nation, regional and local government can follow.

Alongside working directly with European Union institutions, the OGNfE will cultivate a network of citizens, governments and especially civil society organisations, allowing members to link and extend their open government initiatives, to create new projects using the network as a platform, and to move towards a common agenda for the development of open government and citizen participation across Europe. This will be achieved though events such as town halls with political leaders, thematic fireside chats, peer learning opportunities, networking events and in-depth technical workshops, as well as online spaces and dialogues, support and connections.

If you want to get involved in the Open Government Network for Europe, or find out more about the work we are doing you can contact Beth at beth@demsoc.org, visit our website here or find us on twitter @opengoveurope.

You can find out more about Open Government Week 2019, and look back over the activities that took place here or see what else the Open Government Partnership are doing here.

The Greater Manchester Democracy Hub: Helping people connect

Generic image of group of people holding up papers to cast votes.

We recently helped co-host a Greater Manchester Democracy Hub event with The Politics Project. These hubs were started by The Politics Project in London to break down silos and bring together people who are trying to improve democracy from a range of angles. We had a really interesting mix of people take part. You can hear more about what some of these people are working on through the short interviews below that we recorded during the event. Before going any further we’d also like to say a big thank you to The Federation for the use of their fantastic events space. There have now been a number of hubs run between both London and Manchester and so we’re taking the chance to review how well these are working for people. Details of how to share your views on this are below.

The Presentations

We started off the evening with a handful of presentations about projects happening in the local area. Helen Pidd gave a compelling presentation on her Walkride GM campaign which was started after a spate of muggings of cyclists along the Fallowfield Loop late last year. With a new transport infrastructure budget in the pipeline, her campaign is all the more important for making sure the voices of pedestrians and cyclists are heard alike.

We also had pitches by Katie Finney from Jam and Justice who is working with Demsoc currently on the Space in Common project which is concerned with planning in Greater Manchester. Moreover, Nicola Waterworth from Happen Together discussed their exciting projects for International Women’s Day. And we also heard from Hattie who discussed The Politics Project’s collaboration with the People’s History Museum for Peterloo commemorations in 2019.

Discussions on Collaboration

Group of participants around table discuss collaboration
One of the groups discussing collaboration.

Following this there was a chance for people to talk to each about the theme of ‘collaboration’ – including what they are looking for from collaborations, and what makes a good collaboration work. This sparked lively discussions about the benefits and challenges of collaboration. For example, one group emphasised the importance of a shared goal for harmonious collaboration but highlighted the drawback of competition for funding between organisations.

Interviews

During the event I interviewed four hub attendees on why they decided to come to the event, what projects they are working on, what has been successful so far, and lastly how their projects can be followed on social media which I’ve compiled into a short podcast.

During the event I interviewed:

  • Dr Andy Mycock from Huddersfield University about his ‘Voting Age Project’ research project which brings together past and present arguments for lowering the voting age to 16. Follow on Twitter @andymycock1
  • Eve Holt who is a Labour councillor and cofounder of Happen Together CIC which encompasses many campaigns addressing a range of issues including #DivaManc which focuses on encouraging gender balance in Greater Manchester leadership. Follow on Twitter @evefrancisholt.
  • Gary Hart who works for the Houses of Parliament as a Senior Education and Engagement Officer. Follow UK parliament on Twitter @YourUKParl  and get involved.
  • Alice Toomer McAlpine, a member of the Jam and Justice action research project which aims to bring new voices into decision-making in Greater Manchester; and the Meteor, an independent alternative media outlet in Manchester Follow on Twitter @JamandJustice and @mcrmeteor.

There have now been a number of hubs run between both London and Manchester and so along with The Politics Project we’re taking the chance to review how well these are working for people. Are these a good way of helping people connect up? Is there something else that would be more useful, like a shared events calendar, an online directory of local groups and individuals working on democracy, or a mailing list about local activities. If you have views about what would be most helpful for you, and what you’d like to get involved with, please get in touch via mat@demsoc.org

Antwerp’s consensus-based Participatory Budget

Introduction

As part of our work developing the use of digital participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland, Demsoc is showcasing innovative approaches to Participatory Budgeting, particularly where people use digital tools as part of their PB process. Antwerp is doing amazing things, using small, face-to-face group discussions to create consensus. But they have also experimented by using digital tools to support their process.

Hanne Bastiaensen was the project lead and key creative force behind Antwerp’s Participatory Budget. When she joined our team at Demsoc, we couldn’t pass up the chance to ask her about what she’s done in Antwerp. Here she tells us how Antwerp’s PB process works, and reflects on Antwerp’s experiment with digital deliberation, including how they’ve harnessed digital tools to draw people in to their consensus-based process. This post follows up a shorter audio interview with Hanne.

A head and shoulders photo of Hanne
Hanne Bastiaensen

Interview

Why did the city start using PB and what were the aims of the process?

At the start of the process, there were five important objectives:

1. Citizens develop mutual understanding of each other’s needs. We assume that different people have different needs. One of the objectives is that people understand what the needs of the others are and can take this into account. This means that people have to talk to each other. The process itself is therefore important.

2. The district apportions its resources in a participative way. As a principle, it is important that citizens get a say in how the funds are spent.

3. The district uses its resources as efficiently as possible. Citizens have a very good knowledge of the local needs in a neighborhood. We therefore assume that if citizens spend part of the resources themselves funds will be spent more efficiently.

4. Creating support for the spending of resources. In the PB, participants must determine priorities with limited resources. Besides, they get an idea of ​​the cost of different choices. This objective starts from the idea that if people have to make their own choices with a limited budget, they will understand that policy makers also have to do this. In this way, there is support for the choices made by local government.

5. Increased satisfaction with participation. In the past there was sometimes disappointment about forms of participation, where it was unclear whether something had happened with the input of the participants. When participants are given a clear decision-making power on the spending of resources, in a transparent manner, satisfaction about participation will increase.

How does the process work?

The PB of the district of Antwerp has different phases. In a first phase – called ‘start meetings’ – the participants choose which themes they consider important for the district. In a second phase – the district forum – they distribute €1.1 million on the most popular themes. In a third phase, residents can submit projects for the actual spending of this budget. It is also the residents who subsequently determine which projects are being carried out effectively.  

  1. Start meetings
  • Participants decide which themes they consider most important for the entire district.
  • Each table of 6 participants selects 5 themes from 93 themes by consensus.
  • The 12 most chosen themes advance to the district forum.

The goal of these start meetings is that each table of 6 participants reaches consensus on the choice of 5 themes that they consider important. At these start meetings, participants start from what they find important and what they want to focus on the following year. Each participant goes briefly through the points that are important to him or her. Afterwards, participants are asked to select a maximum of 10 ideas that everyone around the table can agree about. In this first round of discussions, it becomes clear where possible agreements lie and where the participants should seek consensus.

In the final round of the start meeting, participants must think more strategically. Participants get the option to choose 5 themes per table. They choose these themes from a set of 93 themes that together include all the competences that the district has. These themes are abstract enough that participants are not arguing for concrete projects on their doorstep; but concrete enough to really mean something. For instance, the theme ‘green issues’ would be too general. Instead, within this policy domain you can opt for ‘pop-up parks’, ‘more trees in streets’, ‘better maintenance of parks’, and so on.

At the start meetings, priorities have to be determined. More investment in youth work? Or in better cycle paths? To be able to make this choice, participants get as much information as possible – to help them make decisions. Not only do they get – in general terms – the budget as it looks without the 10% that will be determined by the PB. They also receive the costs involved in each theme. Each theme has a card with the price on the back. In this way, the participants learn how much a tree in the street costs (including working on the pavement), or they learn that the renewal of the pavement costs €120 per metre.

2. The Forum

  • Each table of 8 participants distributes €1 million by consensus
  • The money is divided among the 12 most popular themes from the start meetings
  • The final result is arrived at by averaging across all tables

In the second big step, the forum, participants can distribute 1.4 million euros over the 12 most chosen themes from the start meetings. Each group of 8 participants can distribute circa €1 million by consensus. In this stage, too, discussion and argumentation is important. To distribute this money, they have to work together and convince each other. The distribution of this money happens in game form. Each participant at the table receives 12 poker chips in his own colour, each worth €10,000. The 12 themes chosen during the start meetings are on the table for the players. Each participant may use their poker chips on the themes they want to invest in. But there are two important rules. A theme is only valid if at least four different participants put some of their money on this theme. Moreover, the money is also only allocated to a theme if at least €60,000 is given to it. In this way, the participants are encouraged to work together and provide arguments to focus on a theme.

Different coloured poker chips placed in a grid representing different themes
Poker chips used to vote for different themes. Image from Antwerp council’s website

The amount applied to a theme not only depends on where the priorities of the participants lie, but also on how much it costs to achieve something meaningful under this theme. Good information is crucial here. Participants receive not only extensive information about what a theme costs but also, for the 12 remaining themes, they receive the budget as planned, including all projects that are already planned. In this way, participants can estimate how much is desirable to additionally invest in that theme. The result of this forum is calculated by averaging across all the tables that participated. In this way, 12 concrete themes will receive money.

3. Ideation

  • People and organizations can submit projects within the chosen themes and budgets
  • The projects are tested for feasibility

In the third stage of the PB process, residents of the district of Antwerp have the opportunity to submit projects within the themes and budgets defined in the previous rounds. All residents of the district can submit projects. The proposers link their project to a theme that has been given money at the district forum.

In addition to submitting on this online platform, project labs are organised. In these project labs people come together who want to work together on ideas. There are people with an idea who need help with the development of the idea, and there are people who would like to help reflect on the idea of ​​others.

Both online and offline, people have to answer seven questions about their project. In addition to what the project entails, these cover added value, pitfalls, and a step-by-step plan. In addition, proposers must decide whether the project is being carried out by the district or whether they will carry out the project themselves.

Later, all submitted projects are tested for feasibility. This mainly concerns whether projects are within the district authority, whether they fit the theme and whether the total budget allocated to a theme is not exceeded by the project.

4. PB festival

  • Residents of the district of Antwerp decide which projects are carried out

The final step of the PB process is  the PB Festival. In this step, participants choose which submitted projects are executed with the available resources of €1.1 million. Every project has a realistic budget. Residents in small groups discuss the projects. Each table selects what they think are the five most valuable projects per theme. Afterwards, all selected projects are presented per table. The project that is at the top of the ranking within a theme – once the votes of all tables have been recorded – is selected to be carried out. Participants choose projects within a theme until the money allocated to this theme runs out.

All projects are carried out within the timeframe of one year. Meanwhile, the new cycle is being started for the next edition of the PB process.

Impacts

What has the process been able to achieve?

One of its main achievements has been to bring diverse people together to talk about the future of their city. The offline discussions encourage people to listen to each other and reach consensus, and it’s great to see really different people deliberating together at a table. As we’ve gone along, we’ve monitored who has taken part with the help of a local university. Where we’ve found sectors of the population who are missing we’ve specifically targeted these people, collaborating with groups who work with these residents to get them involved. After five years our participants were as diverse as the city itself.  We get about 1,200 to 1,500 people taking part in these offline events, out of a population of about 500,000.

Experimenting with digital deliberation

You experimented with digital deliberation within the PB process. How did this process of online deliberation fit in to the wider process? What did it involve?

There were online discussion groups. People could discuss the different themes in discussion groups of 30 to 40 people for two weeks. Together they could argue why they considered a theme important or not important to put money on. Participants could respond to other arguments or provide new arguments.

After two weeks of discussion, the participants were presented with the most discussed themes per discussion group. Then they could vote by indicating their top 5. Just like on the offline tables, the online discussion groups were able to give 5 themes 1 vote. Each online discussion group therefore had as much say as an offline table.

Why did you decide to do this?

On the one hand, we wanted an online version for people who could not easily make time when there were face-to-face meetings. Even though we planned the various meetings – on week-day evenings during the week, during the day, during the week and during the weekend – it is not easy for everyone to make a lot of time for this. On the other hand, we wanted to preserve the deliberative character of the Antwerp PB. That is why we looked for a way in which we could keep the deliberative character online. Working with discussion groups was therefore a logical choice.

What kind of things did you have to think about to make this work?

There are few examples of online deliberative processes. So we had to start from scratch. Moreover, we wanted to preserve the character of the PB process. This means that it must be decisive and in some way compatible with the offline participation process. So we had to think about how we could count the results of the online process with the offline process.

Furthermore, we had to think about the deliberative nature. With how much people do you have to be in a discussion group to keep a group alive? How can we ensure that people enter into debate with each other? How does moderation work? How can we encourage people to return more than once, to see how the debate is proceeding? How do we make this online process transparent? How can we give enough explanation about the PB process without people having to read many pages of text?

What happened in practice?

About 100 people signed up every year to take part  in the online start meetings. The course of the discussions went reasonably well. We did see, however, that it took a lot of effort to ensure that people really started to discuss. We had to send an email regularly with an encouragement to make people look at the platform again. There was also a fear of being the first to post something. Here too, encouragement was needed. The quality of the discussions was ok, but not fantastic. Many people gave their opinion, but it was more difficult to let people react to each other’s arguments. In general, we can say that it went ok, but did not have the quality of the discussions offline.

Why did you stop using this online process?

We did not know how to deal with this online process. On the one hand, we felt it was important to have an online process for people who could not come to a face-to-face event. On the other hand, we did not want to advertise too much. We did not want people who would otherwise come in person to instead join online, because the quality of the discussion was so much higher offline. Because we did not want to fully promote this, we decided to stop it. Instead, we started looking at better ways to use online in the process.

Other ways of using digital

So how else have you used digital tools to support the process?

After we stopped using the online deliberation, we started looking into other ways to use online. Instead of trying to translate a good offline process into an online process, we started looking at other objectives. What we still lacked in the process of the PB is a small commitment. People who wanted to participate had to be able to free themselves for hours to discuss with strangers. This is an important barrier. Online is very suitable for a small engagement.

So we created a very simple voting process online. Residents could use this to easily vote for their favourite projects. But these online votes were given only a limited weighting compared to offline votes for determining which projects get funding. Online votes collectively are given a weighting of 20% for deciding what is funded, versus an 80% weighting for offline votes.

The idea was to give people an easy way into the process, but use this to push people towards in-depth discussion offline. In this way, the online voting process was designed as a stepping stone for offline participation. And it worked. After the introduction of online voting, we saw that the number of new participants in the offline PB events had increased.

Of course we also used online tools in various other aspects of the process. For the promotion of the PB we used digital newsletters, but we also had a website and used Facebook ads. Participants could also register online for the different stages of the process. For communication about the results, the chosen projects, the implementation of these projects, etc, people can go to the website, and read digital newsletters.

Finally, the projects and ideas are presented on a specially designed platform. During the ideation process, people can see which projects have already been submitted and respond to them.

Were there any challenges you’ve had to overcome to use tools in this way?

A first important challenge when using online tools is always the same: how do you involve people who are not so digitally educated? In Antwerp, for every online step there is an offline alternative or people can get help. So people can also call to sign up, they can come over to insert their idea on the platform, …

There is also the challenge: How do you ensure that you get sufficient control over who participates and how do you take into account privacy and sensitivity to fraud without making the process so heavy or inaccessible that people drop out? This is a challenge for every online voting process. On a case-by-case basis, it must be considered what the possible risks are and how best to tackle them.

Are there other ways of using digital tools you’d have liked to explore?

There are many inspiring examples from abroad that are interesting. The one that attracts me the most is the interesting ways to map realized projects. Over the years many hundreds of projects have been realized with the PB. It would be nice to have an overview of all projects that have already been realized in a clear way, such as an interactive map, where you can follow the implementation. For example, you should be able to follow the status of each project, and when there are interesting events of a project, important milestones… When people are very strongly involved in the execution of the projects, it will keep the process alive. Moreover, the realized projects give a nice overview of what is possible and this is in itself a promotion to take part in the participation process.

If you’d like to know more about this topic you can contact Hanne on Hanne@demsoc.org or to find out more about our work on digital PB in Scotland you can get in touch with us on: scotland@demsoc.org

Participatory Budgeting podcast: balancing online and offline voting in Antwerp

As part of our work developing the use of digital participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland, Demsoc is shining a light on some of the innovative ways other people across the world use digital PB. We recently shared a blog post about digital PB in New York City. This time we’re doing things a little differently and have an interview with Hanne Bastiaensen about her work on Antwerp’s Participatory Budget.

What’s interesting about Antwerp’s PB?

A lot. Antwerp’s Participatory Budget is built around offline discussions in which members of the public have to reach consensus to make their voice count. Over time they’ve carefully monitored who they are reaching, and used targeted activities to include those who are missing.

Last year, they took the step of including an option to cast a vote online. This addition is designed to be as straightforward as possible. The idea is that it gives people an easy way to get involved and find out more, and hopefully from here they’ll go on to take part in the offline consensus-building events. The online vote is given only a 20% weighting against an 80% weighting for votes cast collectively through offline events to push people towards these discussions. And it’s worked – the addition of this step has brought new people along to offline events where they sit down with their neighbours and trash out what projects should be prioritised in their city.

How was Hanne involved?

Hanne was project lead for Antwerp’s PB process, from first designing the process in 2013 to delivering it for the next four and half years. Last year she joined our team at Demsoc and is now the Country Manager for Belgium and The Netherlands. Annie Cook has taken the opportunity to ask her a bit more about Antwerp’s process and how a digital vote was used within this.

What’s in the interview?

The first part of this short interview focuses on how Antwerp’s process works, before looking at the addition of an online vote in the second half. With the interview carried out over the internet between Scotland and Belgium the quality has suffered in a few places, but there’s some great insight nonetheless.