The 17th edition of the Better cities - the role of digital technology series deals with strengthening local democracy through digitization.
In 1339, Ambrogio Lorenzetti completed his famous series of six paintings in the Town Hall of the Italian city of Siena, entitled The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. The above excerpt refers to the characteristics of good government: putting the interests of citizens first, renouncing self-interest, and integrity. But also developing a vision together with all those involved, transparency, justice and efficiently carrying out its many tasks.
In this article, I will discuss citizens’ involvement in government. The complaint is widely heard that democracy is reduced to voting once every few years and even then, it is not clear in advance what the policy of a new (city) government will be, due to the need to form coalitions. Digitization can substantially strengthen the citizen's input.
Being well-informed: the foundation of democracy
Digital channels are an excellent way to inform citizens, but digital disinformation and deepfakes are also on the rise. In this regard, YouTube has become notorious. Political microtargeting via Facebook has an uncontrollable impact and ruins the political debate. On the other hand, the 'Stemwijzer' app is a well-respected tool of informing citizens. Meanwhile, this tool has been adopted by a number of countries.
There are many other valuable digital sources of information, which increase the transparency of politics, for example by disclosing petty bribery, 'creative' accounting and preferential treatment. Prozorro (Ukraine) is a website that takes tenders away from the private sphere, My Society (UK) is an extensive collection of open source tools to hold those in power to account, Zašto (Serbia) is a website that compares statements of politicians with their actions and Funky Citizens (Romania) exposes irresponsible government spending, miscarriages of justice and forms of indecent political conduct.
Every time I am amazed at the fumbling with huge ballot-papers that then must be counted by hand. Estonia is leading the way here; people vote digitally from home without security risks. If this is not possible in other countries, then I have my doubts about the security of other digital applications
Estonia is the best example of far-reaching digitization of public and private services. Not only the usual municipal services, but also applying for building permits, registering for schools, health affairs, banking, taxes, police, and voting. All these things happen via one digital platform - X-road – that meets the highest security requirements. Data is stored in a decentral way via end-to-end encryption using blockchain technology. Citizens manage their own data.
More than voting
There is a widespread desire among citizens for greater involvement in political decision-making. This includes referenda and popular assemblies, which still take place in Swiss municipalities. But there is little room here for the exchange of views, let alone discussion. Moreover, several authors try to improve direct democracy by bypassing the role of political parties. In his book Against elections (2013), the Flemish political scientist David van Reybrouck proposes appointing representatives based on weighted lottery. A lottery alone does not yet provide a representative group, because never more than 10% of the chosen people respond to the invitation. What remains is a predominantly indigenous group, over 50 years of age with higher education, interested in politics.
The strength of citizens' forums is that they enable deliberation between independent citizens rather than representatives of political parties, who are bound in every way by coalition agreements.
Van Reybrouck’s ideas have been adopted in different ways and in different places, but always as a complement to representative democracy. Citizens' forums have achieved good results in Ireland. There are also several examples in the Netherlands. The biggest bottleneck has been the acceptance of the results by established political bodies. In April 2021, a committee led by Alex Brenninkmeijer advised positive about the value of citizens' forums in climate policy in an advisory report to the House of Representatives.
Another interesting option is liquid democracy. Here, like direct democracy, citizens can vote on all issues. However, they can also transfer their vote to someone else, who they believe is more involved. This person can also transfer the received mandates. With secure IT, this is easy to organize. Examples of useful apps include Adhocracy (Germany), a platform for participation, collaboration and idea generation, Licracy, a virtual people's parliament, Sovrin, an open source decentralized protocol for any kind of organization. Insights Management Tool is an application for converting opinions of a large amounts of citizens into 'insights' that can benefit politicians. I will add a few more applications, which are mainly intended for cities: EngageCitizens (many South European cities including Braga, Portugal), an application that enables citizens to submit ideas and discuss them in virtual discussion groups, Active Citizens (Moscow), an application where residents can participate in referendums, CitizenLab, a medium for citizens to discuss ideas about local issues. Finally, I refer to the comprehensive applications Decide Madrid and Decidem (Barcelona), which I have discussed elsewhere.
All these apps increase the involvement of part of the citizens in government. These are usually highly educated. Meetings are held in Madrid and Barcelona to let underprivileged residents also make their voices heard.
Due to the many and complicated tasks that city authorities must deal with and the often equally complicated decision making in the city council, it is not easy create room for decentralized citizen participation. Several cities try to improve citizen participation in political decentralization. The establishment of city districts with their own administrative bodies often leads to power struggles between central and decentralized politicians, without residents gaining more influence.
According to Jan Schrijver, the centralized administrative culture of Amsterdam the city’s ideals of citizen participation often clashes even though the impressive amount of policy instruments to promote participation: Initiating a referendum has been made more accessible, social initiatives can be subsidized, and confirmed in neighborhood rights, including the 'right to challenge' and neighborhoods have a budget of their own.
Very recently, a 'mini-citizen deliberation' was held under the leadership of Alex Brenninkmeijer on the concrete question of how Amsterdam can accelerate the energy transition. This meeting was very productive, and the participants were satisfied with the progress. It will become clear soon whether the city council will adopt the proposals.
A city of commons
Democratization is mostly conceived of as a decision-making process, the result of which the municipal organization carries out. The ultimate step of democratization, after decentralization, is autonomy: Residents not only decide on, for example, playgrounds in their neighborhood, they also ensure that these are provided. Increasingly, the latter is formally established in the right to challenge. For example, a group of residents demonstrates that they can perform a previously municipal task better and often cheaper themselves. This is a significant step on the participation ladderfrom participating in decision-making autonomy.
In Italy this process has boomed, and the city of Bologna has become a stronghold of urban commons. Citizens become designers, managers, and users of some municipal tasks. Creating green areas, converting an empty house into affordable units for students, the elderly, or migrants, operating a minibus service, cleaning, and maintaining the city walls, refurbishing parts of the public space and much more.
From 2011, commons have been given a formal status. The most important instruments in this regard are cooperation-pacts. In each pact, city authorities and the parties involved (informal groups, NGOs, schools, entrepreneurs) lay down agreements about their activities, responsibilities, and power. Hundreds of pacts have been signed since the regulation was adopted. The city provides what the citizens need - money, material, housing, advice - and the citizens make their time, skills, and organizational capacity available. In some cases, commons also have a commercial purpose, for example the revitalization of a shopping street by the entrepreneurs established there. In that case, they often unite in a cooperative.
Only a limited number of people feel attracted to talk along the lines of politics, but many more people want to do something. This is at the roots of the success of the commons-movement. This explains the success of the commons-movement in Italy and elsewhere.
Democracy after the commons
The commons-movement might influence urban governance in the longer term. The Italian political scientist Christian Iaione predicts the emergence of a city of commons. Here, all most urban tasks are performed by commons and cooperatives. The city is a network of both, decision-making is decentralized and deconcentrated.
A similar idea The city as a platform has emerged in the US coming from a completely different direction. Instead of simply voting every few years and leaving city administration to elected officials and expert bureaucrats, the networked city sees citizens as co designers, co-producers, and co-learners, according to Stefaan Verhulst, co-founder of GovLab. In the city as a platform residents look individually and collectively for new and better ways to meet their needs and enliven public life. These may be neighborhood-based initiatives, for example the redevelopment of a neighborhood or city-wide initiatives, for example cooperative of taxi drivers, competing with Uber.
Without saying it in so many words, everyone involved sees both the city of commons and the city as a platform as an opportunity to make citizens the engine of urban development again instead of multinational companies. But in view of the (financial) power of these companies, it could also turn out that they appropriate the city. We have already experienced this once when a sympathetic and democratic sharing platform such as Airbnb grew into a multinational enterprise with a far-reaching impact on urban life. For the time being, therefore, city administrators can best focus on enabling and supporting citizens' joint action to make cities more beautiful, liveable, and sustainable.
The above builds on two essays included in my e-book Cities of the Future: Always humane, smart if helpful. The first essay Strengthening Urban Democracy – The Well-Governed City elaborates on the concepts of direct democracy, decentralization and autonomy and describes digital applications for both improving services and urban democracy. The second essay Citizens' Initiatives – City of the Commons extensively examines activities in various places in the world to increase the involvement of residents in their place of residence, and in that context discusses in detail the idea behind 'commons'. The e-book can be downloaded by following the link below.