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Participation and Influence in Urban Development: Does City E-Participation Strategy Matter?

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Abstract

Most cities have introduced digital participatory tools. They, however, introduce these tools in different ways and for different reasons. This chapter investigates the impact of the e-participating strategies of Madrid, Melbourne, and Oslo upon local activist participation and influence in urban development. Data gathered from a survey of local activists in the three cities, shows that they often combine different participatory channels: formal and informal and digital and analogue. The data also unveils differences in the ways these actors participate, a variation that cannot be understood in the light of city e-participation strategy. The authors argue that institutionalized practices and a culture of citizen participation are more important. The data furthermore indicates that activists that combine many different participatory channels believe they have more impact on urban development than those using few channels. The study therefore reveals that the introduction of many participatory channels tends to create super participants, which is further accentuated by the introduction of digital participation tools.

Keyword

  • Digital participation
  • E-governance
  • Participatory governance
  • Super participants
  • Participatory divide

Introduction

Cities increasingly use ICT and new media to inform, consult, and involve citizens (Bonsón et al., 2015; Gilman & Peixoto, 2019; Lidén & Larsson, 2016; United Nations, 2020). Cities, however, adopt and implement e-participatory tools for different reasons (Royo et al., 2014; Silva et al., 2019), and in different ways (Bolívar et al., 2019; Simon et al., 2017; United Nations, 2020). The e-participation strategies of cities therefore differ. Some cities introduce e-participation to expand citizen participation opportunities. Others use digital technologies to digitalize existing participatory channels. Some cities invite citizens to participate in digital channels which only provide the opportunity to consult with the government, and others use digital tools to involve citizens in co-producing policies or services. Most cities choose to implement one comprehensive and multifunctional digital platform. Some cities, however, implement issue-specific and monofunctional platforms (United Nations, 2020). Some cities replace existing participatory channels with digital channels, and others use digital tools to complement existing channels.

Digital participation is introduced by cities that already have institutionalized practices of citizen participation and city-citizen communication (Touchton et al., 2019). Digital channels coexist with analogue city participatory channels, such as public forums and town hall meetings, and with informal channels of political participation, such as lobbying and traditional media. The role of digital channels must therefore be understood in terms of their position in this broader ‘political ecology’ (Smith, 2019, p. 579) or institutional context (Steinbach et al., 2019).

There is a substantial body of research on the reasons why cities adopt and implement e-participation at different paces and in different ways (Steinbach et al., 2019). The effects of digitalization are, however, contested (Gilman & Peixoto, 2019). We, for example, lack knowledge on how city e-participation strategies impact citizen choices of participatory channels, and the effect of different channels on citizen influence.

The aim of this chapter is to investigate city e-participation strategies, the way in which they affect local activist participation in government-induced channels, and the level of influence local activists can achieve in urban development issues through these channels. Activists can be members of community or local interest organizations, official or unofficial representatives of such organizations, or individuals who are particularly involved in the urban development of their neighbourhood. We, inspired by the literature on the political participation of interest groups and civil associations (Uhre & Rommetvedt, 2019), assume that local activists participate in order to impact urban development, and that they make conscious choices on their participation based on which channel they believe yields greatest impact. Activists may shop between channels (or venues) (Baumgartner & Jones, 1991) or combine a number of channels (Gaventa & Barret, 2012). Their behaviour therefore says something about a digital channel’s position in the city’s broader political ecology.

We furthermore and more specifically ask the following questions: How do local activists participate? How do the most influential activists participate? Are city e-participation strategies and activist behaviour and influence interlinked?

We have compared use and assessment of participatory channels by local activists in the three cities of Madrid, Melbourne, and Oslo. These cities were selected according to a ‘diverse cases’ strategy (Seawright & Gerring, 2008): the three cities represent different multi-level democracy models (Sellers et al., 2020), differ in terms of citizen trust in local government, and the relationship between civil society and city government. Data obtained from surveys of local activists in these three cities were used in this study.

We, in this chapter, first present arguments for whether and why digital participatory tools impact the participation and influence of activists, and then explain our choice of methods. This is followed by a presentation of our findings, and then a discussion of how our study contributes to the literature on digital participation and democratic innovations.

E-Participation in a Multi-Channel Context

E-participation or digital participation refers to the use, by citizens, of information and communication technology and of new media, to engage with public affairs and democratic processes (Sæbø et al., 2008). The literature on e-participation and other forms of democratic innovations acknowledge that such innovations are introduced into systems, where multiple channels for citizen-city communication and political participation already exist. It also acknowledges that we lack knowledge on how such innovations function in such a multi-channel context (Smith, 2019; Spada & Allegretti, 2020).

Spada and Allegretti (2020) claim that there is a consensus among researchers that a diversity of participation venues is always a good thing, because it provides more people with greater opportunities to impact development. They, however, question this idea, arguing that there is a need for studies of how democratic innovations interact in practice with other participation channels. We distinguish between formal city-induced participatory channels and informal citizen-induced channels. Local activists can move between channels. Their activity in one channel may, however, support or weaken activity in other channels (Bussu, 2019; Spada & Allegretti, 2020). In this chapter we examine the impact city’s e-participation strategy has on local activist choices of participatory channel.

City E-Participation Strategies

We focus on three relevant dimensions: First whether the cities have introduced e-consultation or e-decision-making, second whether they have implemented a single multifunctional digital platform or use several issue-specific platforms and tools, and third whether they use digital platforms to replace existing participatory channels or complement existing city channels.

We, in this study, investigate local activist use of participatory channels in the promotion of their views on specific urban development issues. Our assumption is that local activists who want to impact city government decisions on specific issues, prefer channels that allow them to take part in decision-making, and not channels that only allow consultation. Narrow monofunctional platforms exclude cases outside the platform’s domain. Multifunctional platforms can, however, give activists greater opportunities to front their case. A digital platform that replaces other participatory channels might also be more frequently used than digital platforms that complement existing participatory opportunities, simply because alternative channel options may, in the replacement strategy, have disappeared.

E-Participation and Participation Divides

Proponents of e-participation argue that there are fewer barriers to digital participation, at least in cities in developed countries, where mobile phones and internet connection are broadly distributed. E-participation costs less time and effort than attending physical meetings (Effing et al., 2011; Fung et al., 2013), and demands fewer network resources and less competence and self-confidence of participating citizens. E-participation is therefore assumed to reach out to more people, and to more effectively reach new groups of people than conventional ways of participation, including formal channels such as town hall meetings and workshops, or informal channels such as direct contact with elected or employed officials, protest actions, and media.

Channel differentiation can allow a larger number of citizens and some ‘difficult to reach segments of population’ (Spada & Allegretti, 2020, p. 42) to be reached. A diversity of channels can, however, create an ‘oligarchy of super participants’ (ibid., p. 46) who have the resources required to be simultaneously present in numerous channels and spaces. Groups that have the time, interest, and other resources required, can exploit the diversity of different channels and venues. They can shop between venues, try another venue if they fail in one (Baumgartner & Jones, 1991), or can blend different channels or venues (Spada & Allegretti, 2020). Blending is particularly important, as being simultaneously present in numerous channels increases the chances of success in multichannel systems of participation (Gaventa & Barret, 2012). Those without the time and other resources required for this are, however, forced to commit to primarily one channel. Differentiation can therefore create participant losers and winners.

We are interested, in this study, in investigating whether the introduction of digital tools contributes to the creation of a layer of ‘super participants’. We compare this in cities that implement a complement strategy and a replacement strategy. Digital participation is implemented to complement existing participation channels in a complement strategy, but is implemented to displace the pre-existing model of participation in a replacement strategy.

Why City E-Participation Strategies Might Not Matter

The expectation that city e-participation strategies impact citizen behaviour leads to the hope that digital participation will involve more citizens, and to the fear that it can deepen a participatory divide. The literature on political participation and participative governance points to, however, a number of grounds for expecting that a city’s participation strategy will have no effect. One is that activists believe informal or invented spaces are more effective channels of influence than formal city channels. For example, Rättilä and Rinne (2017) argue that local resident activists in Finland found the official participatory opportunities to be formal and staged rather than real and effective, and so do not trust and rarely use them. Local activists can also find invited channels to be unattractive, because government actors do not listen, or because they are invited to have a say on only minor yet tangible issues, or what Fung (2015) calls ‘the park bench problem’. It is the privilege of elected politicians in representative democracies to make final decisions (Klijn & Koppenjan, 2016). Therefore, informal channels that link activists to elected politicians can be the most effective, irrespective of whether these are lobbying channels that connect activists directly with elected politicians or channels that impact public opinion, which elected politicians are accountable to.

Local activists can find analogue channels more attractive than digital channels, because digital platforms can wipe out the position of local activists as ‘middlemen’ and as mediators between citizens and city government. Digitalization promotes ‘thin’ participation, and therefore involves the risk that some citizen groups can overturn the participatory processes at the expense of other groups, including groups that may be more knowledgeable and more affected (Spada & Allegretti, 2020, p. 45). Local activists, and other representatives of interest organizations or civil society groups, may therefore prefer venues that open for ‘thicker’ participation, such as arguing and bargaining. The arguments or knowledge they bring to the process, and the number of members and supporters they can mobilize, enable these groups to influence policy solutions (Rommetvedt, 2017).

Finally, institutional context arguably affects city e-participation strategies and how resident activists participate in and influence city decision-making processes. There is limited knowledge on how institutional context impacts the results of city e-participatory strategies (Steinbach et al., 2019). We, however, point to two institutional factors that may constrain or promote the use of digital tools by local activists and city governments, and briefly describe how this differs between the three cities.

First, citizen trust in government. Studies show that trust in government is a fundamental element in the understanding of the willingness of citizens to participate (Klijn & Koppenjan, 2016; Lowndes et al., 2006, p. 287). Citizens that do not trust city government, and its ability or will to listen to citizen input, have no reasons for engaging with the city through the formal city channels of participation, whether digital or non-digital (Reichborn-Kjennerud et al., 2021). Most Norwegian citizens have high levels of trust in government, including in local government. Citizen trust in Australia is in the middle of the scale (Pew Research Center, 2017), and citizens of Spain have low levels of trust in the Spanish government, especially after the financial crisis of 2008 (Mayne & Nicolini, 2020, p. 3).

Second is the relation between civil society and city government (Sellers et al., 2020). Some systems give individual citizen participation priority, others give priority to organized groups and associations. Systems that give priority to privileged local associations, and systems that give access to the plurality of organizations and groups, can furthermore be distinguished between. Individualistic cultures may facilitate digital participation, as digital tools promote individual participation. Digital participation may be constrained by corporatist cultures.

Local-level citizen participation arrangements in Australia are usually oriented towards individuals or communities, and not towards organized interest groups (Christensen & McQuestin, 2019). Norway and Spain are, however, part of different corporatist-oriented cultures (Sellers et al., 2020). Neighbourhood associations were, in Madrid, given privileged access to city and district government. The city government of Oslo focuses, however, on cooperating with organized interests and resident groups (Reichborn-Kjennerud & Ophaug, 2018), the growing plurality of organizations therefore competing for access to decision-makers (Rommetvedt, 2017).

Methods and Data

We, in this chapter, report the findings from a comparative case study. We selected cities that are a part of different multi-level governance systems (Sellers et al., 2020), to ensure variation in city and system contexts, and to allow us to explore how digital participation plays out in different institutional contexts.

We used different methods of data collection. Data on city strategy was gathered through interviews and archival research, 77 individuals being interviewed, 48 in Oslo, 11 in Melbourne, and 18 in Madrid. The individuals were elected officials, public administrators, activists, and other relevant actors, such as platform providers. We also collected relevant documents such as policy papers, internal reports and evaluations, and minutes from council meetings that relate to the adoption and implementation process of e-participation initiatives in each of the three cities. The interviews were coded and analysed using a thematical approach.

We also conducted an online questionnaire that we replicated across the three cities. The questionnaire was distributed to residents and organized interests in the central city districts of the three cities, in the first half of 2020. We targeted active citizens, to investigate their participation and their perceived influence on the issues they engaged in, within their local community. The respondents often represented organized interests, which are broadly understood to include civil society groups such as neighbourhood associations, business associations, sporting organizations, and management boards of housing cooperatives and social housing blocks. There, therefore, was no predefined population, and we could not apply a uniform strategy to the identification and reaching out to respondents.

The respondents in Oslo were recruited through contacting NGOs, neighbourhood organizations, parents’ representatives in schools, posts on local group and city-district Facebook pages, and contacts made through fieldwork. The questionnaire was distributed online to 322 recipients in the central city districts of Oslo. 188 respondents answered.

The questionnaire was distributed, in Madrid, to the 212 associations included in the official register of neighbourhood and business associations of the city of Madrid. All were asked to disseminate the link to their members. The answers of the 219 respondents who claimed a connection with the central districts of Madrid, which is understood to be districts within the M-30 ring road, are used in this analysis.

We combined a number of recruitment methods in Melbourne: e-mails to publicly available e-mail addresses, snowballing through known contacts, and advertisements in the media and on research centre websites. The snowballing method (initial recipients being encouraged to distribute the questionnaire link to their contacts) was the most effective. The total number of people or organizations reached by snowballing is, however, unknown and a response rate cannot therefore be determined. The target group were residents and organized interests in seven inner city Melbourne councils. 100 respondents completed the survey.

The differences in methodology are in many ways inevitable, given the institutional contexts and registration practices of each city. Whether and how these differences affect our findings are discussed in the concluding sections of the chapter. There are, however, only marginal differences between the cities in whether and how often respondents tried to influence the development of their local community, and in respondent age and gender. Differences in education and trust in local government are as we had expected based on our knowledge of the residents of the three cities.

We present the questions and response alternatives with the findings. The questions map activist use of different participatory channels, and their influence, and were linked to just one specific issue, selected by the respondent. This enabled us to explore whether and how local activists combine different channels and spaces in their endeavours to exert an impact on this specific issue. In Oslo, issues related to housing, services directed to neighbourhoods, and community development dominated. In Melbourne, it was issues related to the protection of green areas, environment and climate, and in Madrid rights of and services to vulnerable communities.

The attentive reader will probably note the absence, in the analysis, of background variables such as gender, age, education, and trust in politicians and civil servants. This is because the low number of respondents, particularly in Melbourne, restricted our ability to control for the effects of such variables in multivariate analyses. We have, however, run bivariate tests that show these variables to be only weakly and statistically insignificantly correlated with activists use of participatory channels and their perceived influence.

City E-Participatory Strategies

We briefly, in this paragraph, present the three cities’ e-participation strategies.

Madrid

The city of Madrid implemented a single digital, multifunctional platform (Decide Madrid) that opens for e-decision-making. It was designed to encompass all major participatory processes at the city-wide level, so allowing citizens to participate in multiple ways: collecting signatures for initiative referendums, engaging in participatory budgeting, voting on policies proposed by the government, and in consultations on government plans and proposed regulations. The city government does not have the legal authority to hold binding referendums but commits voluntarily to implementing the results of participation processes.

Madrid also primarily chose to implement a replacement strategy. The previous participation model, which was based on neighbourhood associations, was partly dismantled and replaced by a model based on digital and individual participation. Decide Madrid was initiated by a left-wing alliance that won the 2015 municipal election and was, as described in more detail in Chapter 3, introduced to strengthen the role of individual citizens, enhance mass participation and direct democracy, and to limit the influence of local neighbourhood associations.Footnote 1 The introduction of the digital platform was accompanied by a reorganization of local forums at the district level, to allow individual residents to participate on an equal footing with association representatives.

Melbourne

All 31 municipalities that make up the metropolitan area of Melbourne have implemented community engagement platforms, or have integrated community engagement functionalities on their websites. One example is the Participate Melbourne platform in the City of Melbourne. Another is My city, my voice in the City of Maribyrnong. These are multifunctional consultation platforms, which citizens can use to express their opinions on plans and projects proposed by the city government, via online surveys and participatory budgeting. Citizens can also use these platforms to contribute to government actions through crowdsourcing tools. Community engagement managers in the municipalities of Melbourne and Maribyrnong, explained that these platforms were established to open new venues of participation that complement existing channels of analogue participation. They were not implemented to replace them. The platforms are open to all residents. An important rationale for this introduction of digital technologies was to attract busy, middle-class residents who do not have the time or interest to attend physical participatory processes (see Chapter 7).

Oslo

E-participation initiatives in Oslo are smaller and more fragmented than those in Madrid and Melbourne. Oslo has adopted a number of different platforms for more specific purposes. All the platforms are, however, examples of e-consultation that digitize existing participation channels, such as for consultation in planning or the right to petition the local government. Digital participation was not implemented in Oslo to challenge existing participation venues, but to complement and improve them through enhancing accessibility or increasing the participation of ‘silent voices’. These platforms are described in more depth in Chapter 3.

Findings

We start by presenting our findings on the way in which local activists engage; whether they engage with formal city-induced participatory channels or informal participatory channels, and thereafter which formal city channels they use. We then turn to the question of whether and how different channels are combined, and end with an analysis of super participants and perceived influence.

How Local Activists Participate

Most activists in all three cities answered that they used city-induced participation channels (abbreviated here to city channels) to a great or very great extent, to engage in urban development issues. These channels are the most widely used form of participating in both Melbourne and Oslo (see Fig. 2.1). Some informal channels are also widely used, particularly by activists in Madrid. They use social media and petitions more often than they use formal city channels. Contacting elected politicians is the most popular informal channel in both Melbourne and Oslo.

Fig. 2.1
figure 1

Ways local activists engageFootnote

To measure the ways resident activists engage, we asked those who confirmed they were engaged in urban development issues, to identify how they engaged for a specific issue. They were asked to assess to what degree they engaged in the following ways: (1) city participation channels, (2) contact politicians, (3) organize/participate in protest actions, (4) contact traditional media such as TV, radio, and newspapers, (5) lobby local business, (6) initiate/organize petitions, (7) lobby local developers and (8) use social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The response alternatives varied from 1 (to a very small degree) to 5 (to a very large degree) (a five-point Likert scale).

(% that to a large or very large extent engage) (N = 285–323)

Source Own elaboration

We also asked resident activists to tell us to what extent they used the seven different city channels listed in Fig. 2.2 when engaging in urban development issues. The activists most frequently e-mailed city offices and attend public meetings, fewer using the city’s digital platforms, city’s social media site, or city’s web pages.

Fig. 2.2
figure 2

Local activists use of seven different city channelsFootnote

We asked them to estimate to what extent they used the following city participatory channels: (1) digital platforms (‘Decide Madrid’ in Madrid, “such as ‘Your city, your voice’ in Marybyrnong” in Melbourne and ‘Si din mening’, ‘bymelding’ or ‘min sak’ in Oslo), (2) city or city district social media sites, (3) city or city district web site, (4) e-mail to city organizations, (5) public meetings arranged by city or district government, (6) input via research report/advisory groups/participative budget forums, and (7) via a digital application mapping of the use of an area. Response alternatives were on a five-point Likert scale from ‘to a very little extent’, to ‘to a very large extent’.

(% that use them to a large or very large extent) (N = 303–316)

Source Own elaboration

Activists in Madrid (somewhat surprisingly) did not use the Decide Madrid platform significantly more frequently than activists in Melbourne and Oslo used their city platforms. This indicates that Madrid’s replacement-oriented e-participation strategy did not result in local activists using the digital platform instead of using traditional formal and informal participatory channels.

Combination of Different Participatory Channels

Activists in Madrid combined a number of informal ways of engagement and formal city channels, more often than activists in Melbourne, and even more than activists in Oslo. Figure 2.3 shows the proportion of ‘super participants’, those frequently engaging in four or more ways, and those using four or more city channels. The difference between Madrid and Oslo in city channel use is particularly high. There is also a strong correlation between the number of ways of engagement and the number of city channels in all three cities, thus indicating that those who engage in a number of ways also use a number of city channels. (In Madrid r = 0.57***, in Melbourne r  = 0.53***, and in Oslo r = 0.42***). The city-internal variation is, however, largest for activists in Melbourne, some respondents using no space or channel to a great extent, others using many.

Fig. 2.3
figure 3

Proportion of ‘super-participants’ in the three cities. % of respondents using four or more city channels and four or more ways of engagement to a large or very large extent (N = 331/338)

Source Own elaboration

The results suggest that the replacement strategy of Madrid has not led to a lower proportion of ‘super participants’ than the other two cities. It also indicates that the complementary strategy of Oslo has not led to a higher proportion of ‘super participants’ than the other cities. The largest number of ‘super participants’ was in Madrid, the fewest in Oslo.

Respondents in Madrid did not, however, engage more frequently than respondents in Oslo and Melbourne.Footnote 4 There is a strong correlation in Melbourne between frequency of engagement, number of channels, and the ways they are used. This therefore indicates that there are few ‘super participants’ in Melbourne that engage often and through a number of channels, and that there are quite a few respondents that only engaged infrequently and through few channels.Footnote 5 The correlation is weaker in Oslo, indicating that those who engage most frequently tend not to use many more channels than those that engage less frequently. The respondents in Madrid are in a middle position.

There are substantial differences between the three cities, in the contribution of digital platform use to the emergence of ‘super participants’. In Melbourne, the digital platform is frequently used by the most active, and to a lesser degree by the least active participants. The digital platform, as expected in a city with a complementary strategy, strongly contributes to the emergence of super participants. Finding a similar tendency in Madrid was also not surprising, as the digital platform in Madrid has not substituted the use of other city channels and participatory spaces. The tendency is weakest in Oslo, activist choice of how to participate being more specialized. The digital platforms in Oslo are important participatory channels, even for respondents that rarely use other channels. The Oslo city strategy of targeting specific city channels at specific groups of citizens can therefore explain why the digital platforms in Oslo contributed least to the creation of ‘super participants’.

Local Activists’ Influence Over Urban Development

We turn to analysing the relationship between how activists participate and their perceived influence upon urban development. The activists in all three cities on average neither agreed nor disagreed that they could influence urban development in their area. The influence they believe they can gain through city government participatory channels is slightly lower than the influence they believe they have irrespective of the channel they use. There are no significant differences between the three cities.Footnote 6 Local activists in all three cities that used the largest number of informal and formal participatory channels, perceived themselves to have most influence (see Table 2.1). The number of channels each activist used is therefore important in all three cities. How often they participate is, however, only important in Oslo. The most active in Madrid and Melbourne have most influence because they combine a number of channels. The most active in Oslo are more influential than the least active, irrespective of how many channels they use. Both measures of ‘super participation’ are, however, of importance in Oslo. Our data therefore indicates a strong relationship between being a super-participant and perceived influence, irrespective of city e-participation strategy.

Table 2.1 Resident activist perceived influence by number of engagement ways or channels that are frequently used and how frequently they participate (OLS-regression, standardized regression coefficients)

Finally, an analysis of the relationship between local activist use of different city channels and the perceived influence they gain through the use of these channels, unveils interesting differences between the three cities. There is a relation between use of digital platforms and perceived influence in Oslo and Melbourne, but not in Madrid.Footnote 7 The most important factor in Oslo and Melbourne is the use of digital platforms, followed by attending public meetings. In Madrid, the most effective approach is to attend public meetings, followed by e-mailing city officials/offices. Use of the digital platform in Madrid is not statistically related to perceived influence. Direct contact with politicians is considered to be the most effective informal channel in all three cities. Elected politicians in all three cities agree with this. They consider direct contact with politicians to be the way in which citizens can have the greatest impact on urban development (unpublished results), civil servants in Melbourne and Oslo also agree with this (see Chapter 4).

Discussion

Our findings indicate that the introduction of digital participation tools has affected local activist participation and influence differently in the three cities. City e-participation strategies can only explain some of these differences. None of the three dimensions (e-decision-making vs e-consultation, multifunctional vs monofunctional platforms, and replacement vs complement) can, furthermore, explain the differences between the cities in how often activists use digital platforms or their perceived influence.

The digital platforms imply added participatory opportunities in all three cities. The replacement strategy of Madrid is not all encompassing, as the Decide Madrid platform is combined with physical meetings at local forums and with a number of other city-invited participatory opportunities. The active in both Madrid and Melbourne combine this added digital participation opportunity with other channels. In Oslo, however, digital platforms provide participation opportunity even for actors not active at other channels. Our study therefore informs the question raised by Spada and Allegretti (2020): Adding more participatory channels may enable some cities to reach out to new groups of citizens and may contribute to the creation of super participants in other cities. Our findings indicate that whether this is true may depend on the city’s participation strategy. The city government of Oslo targets channels at different groups of citizens, despite participation through most city channels being based on self-selection (Bertelsen, 2020). The digital platforms in Madrid and Melbourne are, however, implemented to promote mass participation.

There is another important difference between Oslo and the other two cities. The si din mening platform in Oslo, as described in more detail in Chapter 3, invites both individual citizens and organizations to participate, and to participate by arguing for their position. The platforms of Madrid and Melbourne, however, invite participation from individual citizens, and often by just indicating their preference on a predefined question. Local activists may prefer ‘thick’ forms of participation, which allow for arguing and bargaining on behalf of their members and supporters. This might explain why the monofunctional and consultative platforms of Oslo are as frequently used by local activists as the multifunctional platforms of Madrid and Melbourne.

Previous studies have concluded that local activists and organized groups prefer informal ways of participation, and even avoid using formal city channels (Rättilä & Rinne, 2017). It is common for the activists in all three cities who answered our survey, to combine formal and informal channels. A broader spectrum of our data indicates, however, that it is the informal channel of direct contact with politicians that is most effective in gaining influence in urban development matters. Activist use of formal city channels contributes very little to perceived influence in urban development, and none at all in Oslo.

The duality of the findings from Oslo can be explained by city government inviting citizens to have a say on minor and tangible issues, such as the colour of park-benches (Fung, 2015), and that the decision-maker often listens to citizens voices in these cases. This is not the same as giving citizens the opportunity to gain influence over the urban development of an area. This applies to the experiments in participatory budgeting via digital platforms conducted in Melbourne and Oslo, citizens being invited to allocate only a small sum of money.

The three cities are representative democracies. Decisions on more substantial issues are therefore taken by elected politicians, participatory arrangements complementing and subordinating the representative system (Klijn & Koppenjan, 2016). It is therefore not surprising that many resident activists try to directly influence elected politicians, or indirectly influence politicians through influencing public opinion. Our data sources indicate that direct contact with politicians is the most effective way of participating, which furthermore tells us that elected politicians are to some extent responsive and listen to the arguments of local activists (see Bertelsen, 2020; Hovik & Stigen, 2022). This form of participation requires, however, a knowledge of how the political-administrative system works and network resources.

Contacting politicians is the participation form that makes a difference. We cannot, however, conclude that it is unnecessary to engage in other ways. It could be presumed that the other ways of participating, when not combined with lobbying politicians, are not effective. Lobbying may, however, also be less effective when not combined with promoting a case through formal channels and supporting it by mobilizing fellow citizens. The findings we present in this chapter support this interpretation, as they indicate that combining channels is effective. The formal city channels, including the digital platforms, therefore contribute to some extent to the creation of a layer of ‘super participants’ (Spada & Allegretti, 2020), contribution being greatest in Melbourne, and least in Oslo.

A city’s institutional context can elucidate why digital tools give different results. Neighbourhood associations in Madrid previously had privileged access to district and city officials through local and sectoral councils. Respondents in Madrid are representatives of local organizations and associations, many preferring public meetings and e-mail contact, which can be interpreted as being path dependent behaviour. Low levels of trust in city government can promote a culture of activism, which can explain their preference for informal channels such as petitions, protest actions, and social media. Using many participatory spaces and city channels can, furthermore, be interpreted as being an indication of uncertainty, created by the previous city government’s ambition to transform the city’s participatory governance, and to replace existing participatory channels with a digital platform. As representatives of local organizations, they are likely to have the resources and knowledge required to use many participatory spaces and city channels. The digital platform does not, however, stand out as being one of their most preferred alternatives, their preference being to participate through channels that allow for arguing and bargaining. Those who frequently have direct contact with politicians, who frequently attend public meetings and e-mail city officials are those who themselves believe to have the strongest influence on urban development. This indicates that traditional channels have not been replaced by the digital platform. Activists can still access the decision-makers through the traditional channels.

Civil society–city relations are dominated in Melbourne by individualistic and informal linkages. Influential business interests and citizen groups are, however, often incorporated at the local level in such civic localist multi-level governance systems (Sellers et al., 2020, p. 117). Participatory channels and spaces seem to be dominated by activists who have the time, knowledge, and network resources to participate, others being hardly present in any channel or space. These ‘super participants’ are active even on the digital platforms, and the use of these platforms being linked to perceived influence. Digital platforms complement an individual-based participatory culture, and seem to reinforce existing participatory divides.

The system of participatory governance in Oslo is founded on cooperation between city government, organized interests, and resident groups. Citizens in Oslo have high levels of trust in city government, and there is a tight net of linkages between citizens and city government, a combination that can explain the low use of protest actions and other activism. Resident activists can gain access to decision-makers through many different channels, which can explain why perseverance (how often they engage) seems to be a source of influence in Oslo. It can also explain why digital platforms can provide the less active resident activists with some influence.

We cannot rule out that digital platforms have a different effect on individual citizen participation than on local activists. The Decide Madrid platform has reached out to a larger proportion of Madrid’s citizens than Oslo’s and Melbourne’s digital platforms (see Chapter 8). Digital platforms, despite other channels and spaces being more effective for local activists, may provide greater opportunities to individual citizens to impact decision-making processes.

Conclusion

The digital platforms in all three cities are added to existing participatory opportunities, and local activists often combine these and other city-invited participatory channels, with informal ways of participation. This combination of different participation channels, furthermore, seems to be effective, as those who believe they have influence also tend to be those who use several channels. The introduction of digital platforms therefore seems to reinforce a participatory divide, rather than reduce it.

There are, however, some differences between the three cities, our findings showing how the effects of city e-participation strategy are conditioned by institutional context. In Melbourne, introducing digital platforms complements an individualistic participatory culture, the platforms being primarily used by the most active local activists. This seems to contribute to the reinforcement of an existing participatory divide. In Oslo, digital platforms complement a tight net of participatory channels, and seem to enable the city to reach out to new participants, digital platforms being used by even the least active activists. The e-participatory strategy in Madrid aimed to transform and replace existing channels. The institutional context, however, constrained its effect, local activists preferring traditional participatory channels such as public meetings.

The level of trust in city government seems to contribute to these effects. Low trust in city government in Madrid, leads local activists to use informal channels and join protest actions. High levels of trust in Oslo can explain activist use of city channels and direct contact with politicians, and their little use of protest actions. Institutional context therefore creates path dependent responses to a city’s e-participatory strategy. Activists continue to initiate and join protest actions in cities where trust in government is low, and they prefer meeting decision-makers face to face in all three cities.

Notes

  1. 1.

    The Decide Madrid platform changed after the conservative parties won the 2019 election. Our survey was conducted shortly after the change in government (and before any consultations or votes had taken place on the platform). The responses in our survey therefore reflect the experiences of activists during the left-wing period from 2015 to 2019.

  2. 2.

    To measure the ways resident activists engage, we asked those who confirmed they were engaged in urban development issues, to identify how they engaged for a specific issue. They were asked to assess to what degree they engaged in the following ways: (1) city participation channels, (2) contact politicians, (3) organize/participate in protest actions, (4) contact traditional media such as TV, radio, and newspapers, (5) lobby local business, (6) initiate/organize petitions, (7) lobby local developers and (8) use social media such as Facebook and Twitter. The response alternatives varied from 1 (to a very small degree) to 5 (to a very large degree) (a five-point Likert scale).

  3. 3.

    We asked them to estimate to what extent they used the following city participatory channels: (1) digital platforms (‘Decide Madrid’ in Madrid, “such as ‘Your city, your voice’ in Marybyrnong” in Melbourne and ‘Si din mening’, ‘bymelding’ or ‘min sak’ in Oslo), (2) city or city district social media sites, (3) city or city district web site, (4) e-mail to city organizations, (5) public meetings arranged by city or district government, (6) input via research report/advisory groups/participative budget forums, and (7) via a digital application mapping of the use of an area. Response alternatives were on a five-point Likert scale from ‘to a very little extent’, to ‘to a very large extent’.

  4. 4.

    We asked: How often did you engage in city/local community development processes? The alternatives and frequencies were ‘one or few times a year’ (36 pct), ‘one or few times every six months’ (20 pct), ‘approximately once a month’ (21 pct), ‘approximately once a week’ (12 pct) and ‘more or less every day’ (12 pct). The frequencies did not vary between the cities.

  5. 5.

    For Melbourne the pearsons r = 0.52, for Oslo r  = 0.16, and for Madrid  r = 0.26.

  6. 6.

    The questions were: ‘I have been able to influence the urban/local development in my area’, and ‘I have been able to influence the urban/local development in my area through the city government’s own participatory channels’. The response alternatives were: ‘strongly disagree’ (1), ‘somewhat disagree’ (2), ‘neither agree or disagree’ (3), ‘somewhat agree’ (4) and ‘strongly disagree’ (5).

  7. 7.

    For Oslo, the standardized regression coefficient is 0.22, in Melbourne 0.34 and in Madrid 0.04.

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Hovik, S., Legard, S., McShane, I., Middha, B., Reichborn-Kjennerud, K., Ruano, J.M. (2022). Participation and Influence in Urban Development: Does City E-Participation Strategy Matter?. In: Hovik, S., Giannoumis, G.A., Reichborn-Kjennerud, K., Ruano, J.M., McShane, I., Legard, S. (eds) Citizen Participation in the Information Society. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-99940-7_2

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