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Displacement and Citizen Participation: A Comparison of the Enactment of E-Participation Platforms in Oslo and Madrid

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The growing digitization of citizen participation has been accompanied by the concern that e-participation technologies will displace traditional forms of participation and representation. This chapter contributes to the discussions on ‘hybrid’ and ‘multichannel’ participation, by arguing that the relationship between e-participation and traditional, analogue forms of citizen participation is uneasy. The level of conflict and displacement caused by the introduction of e-participation technologies depends on how they are enacted. This chapter compares the introduction of e-participation platforms in Madrid and Oslo, and finds that the new technologies in Madrid deprived traditional channels of citizen participation or their role, but in Oslo were used to complement existing forms of analogue participation. This chapter uses technology enactment theory and an inductive case-study approach, to develop the hypothesis that e-participation technologies can both be enacted in ways that add something to an institutional environment, but also to achieve drastic change and that this is the outcome of agency.


  • E-participation
  • Technology enactment
  • Multichannel participation
  • Neo-corporatism
  • Urban development

A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything. (Postman, 1993, p. 18)


As time passes, it becomes increasingly evident that most larger cities in democratic, and even in autocratic countries, have begun to use e-participation technologies as part of their citizen engagement repertoire. A recent UN survey of one hundred major cities around the world, showed that two thirds had adopted digital tools that allowed residents to share their opinions with the government. Nearly half had web portals with deliberation features, around one third conducted land-use planning and participation budgeting online, and 17 per cent opened for electronic voting on policy issues (United Nations, 2020).

Madrid and Oslo, two of the cases in this book, are a part of this trend. Madrid launched an award-winning platform for citizen participation called Decide Madrid in 2015, and Oslo inaugurated a consultation website in the urban development area in 2017. A few Oslo districts began, during the COVID pandemic, to also use community engagement platforms. These initiatives were, in both cities, preceded by other initiatives such as the e-petition tool in Oslo, the ad hoc consultation website Madrid Participa, and the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to engage citizens in political processes.

The growing digitization of citizen participation has not just been welcomed as a beneficial development. There have also been concerns about digitization, including that low-cost ‘slacktivism’, such as clicking a like or vote button, will replace long-term involvement and commitment to social, environmental, or political issues (Morozov, 2011). Another concern is that such platforms privatize engagement, and erode the mediation required to achieve a functioning public sphere (Urbinati, 2014). Implicit in this is the fear that this instant, individualized, and direct form of participation facilitated by digital platforms, will displace the traditional forms of participation that we associate with democracy, such as long-term commitment to a cause, deliberation, and representation.

The deterministic view that technological development automatically erodes previous forms of political engagement is not one that this chapter shares. This chapter instead takes Latour’s view (1986, p. 267) that the introduction of technological innovations such as e-participation platforms into a new environment, is in ‘the hands of people’ who do not simply open the door to anything but ‘act in many different ways, letting the token drop, or modifying it, or betraying it, or adding to it, or appropriating it’. To be more precise, the introduction of e-participation technologies into a new environment is enacted by people who are embedded in specific cognitive, cultural, social, and institutional structures, who therefore have a tendency to reproduce them (Fountain, 2001).

I use this perspective in this chapter to inductively develop the following hypothesis: The relationship between e-participation and traditional, analogue forms of citizen participation is uneasy. The level of conflict and displacement caused by the introduction of e-participation technologies is, however, dependent on how they are enacted. The empirical basis is a comparison of Madrid and Oslo, the establishment of Decide Madrid in Madrid depriving the traditional channels of citizen participation (the neighbourhood associations) of their role, the introduction of e-participation platforms in Oslo complementing existing forms of analogue participation. If the implication of this hypothesis is true, then there is nothing necessarily dangerous or radical about e-participation technologies. They can therefore be accommodated and adapted to a range of different settings, depending on how they are enacted.

Theoretical Perspectives

The Danger of Displacement

There is a narrower discussion within the broader debate on how digitization affects democracy of the potential benefits and dangers of introducing new participation channels, especially digital channels, into existing systems of citizen participation.

Most cities now have, according to the literature, ‘hybrid’ or ‘multichannel’ systems of participation (Borge et al., 2009; Monnoyer–Smith & Wojcik, 2012; Won et al., 2016). ‘Hybrid’ channels are single participation combinations of offline and online forms of engagement such as, for example, participatory budgeting that uses both physical meetings and online voting. ‘Multichannel’ systems combine a number of different methods and venues of participation, some purely digital, others hybrid or analogue. Spada and Allegretti’s (2020) view is that one benefit of this can be that ‘hybrid’ or ‘multichannel’ systems attract more participants than single venues. This is often referred to as the mobilization hypothesis, and is based on the premise that groups such as youth or parents with small children, that do not normally participate in public affairs, will be encouraged to participate by the availability and attractiveness of new technologies (Tai et al., 2020). Such systems can gain efficiency by sharing knowledge and resources across channels, and through participants having more freedom to choose which issues and fields they wish to involve themselves in.

The introduction of new channels can, despite these potential benefits, also backfire. Spada and Allegretti for example are concerned that one or more channels in a system might displace other channels, a central and relevant risk being competition between and within channels. Channels of engagement may therefore compete for active participants, leading to the demise of some channels. They can also compete for funding, resulting in the cannibalization of resources, which could weaken the functioning of the system. Competition between channels also increases the likelihood that participants choose channels that offer the best return for the least effort. This is a ‘form of soft free-riding’ that can undermine the system’s legitimacy (Legard & Goldfrank, 2021). Adding and combining different participation channels, some of which entail more effort but also provide greater privileges, also ‘increases the probability that a selected group of people that has the time and interest will monopolize such channels’ (Spada & Allegretti, 2020, p. 46).

This is related to the so-called reinforcement thesis, which suggests that online political participation amplifies the social exclusion of the digital divide (Min, 2010). Research in Brazil has shown that ‘people with university-level education participate in online initiatives roughly five times more [often] than those with primary education’ (Sampaio et al., 2011, p. 498). This does not have to mean anything other than that different segments of the population choose to use different channels, but does become a problem where online participation outweighs the participatory venues that involve physical presence. There have been examples in Italy of participatory budgeting processes in which lower-class citizens participating offline were ousted by middle-class citizens participating online, and also examples of young online participants overwhelming the results of the votes of senior citizens (Spada & Allegretti, 2020).

Enacting Technology

The extent to which new forms of digital participation displace previous, analogue forms of participation is not only determined by the unintentional consequences of introducing these new participation forms, but also by how they are designed and placed within the environment. Discussions about the impact of new technologies on democratic participation are often dominated by either technological or social determinism, and do not capture the dimension of agency (Chadwick, 2006, p. 18). This dimension is, however, seized in what Orlikowski and Iacono (2001) call ‘ensemble views’ of technology, and more specifically the ‘Technology Enactment Framework’ formulated by Jane Fountain (2001).

Fountain distinguishes between ‘objective’ and ‘enacted’ technology, objective technology referring to artefacts such as the Internet, software, and digital devices, and enacted technology referring to the actual use of these within a specific context. Her focus is on enacted technology, because the material capabilities of technology have little practical value if not utilized. How individuals and organizations define and use IT in subjective ways, is therefore of great interest. Municipal organizations in different cities may, for example, use identical objective technologies in dramatically different ways. Both cities in this chapter used rather similar e-participation technologies, but these were, however and as I will show, perceived, designed, and implemented in ways that had different consequences for the existing channels of analogue participation.

The Importance of the Context

Individuals are not, however, completely ‘free’ to enact technologies in any way they desire. Enaction is embedded in cognitive, cultural, social, and institutional structures, the individuals enacting new technologies tending to reproduce the rules, routines, norms, and power relations that define their context. The routines, scripts, frames, and patterns that constitute the typical set of responses to an environment in an organization, are therefore maintained. This corresponds with other perspectives, and highlights the stability of specific modes of participation in specific places. According to, for example, Baiocchi (2005) modern societies are made up of state-civil society regimes, or of stable patterns of interactions between the state, and the institutions, practices and the networks of voluntary life which we call civil society. The ways in which societal demands are recognized by the state are the defining feature of such regimes. This can follow a number of logics ranging from a more mediated model of interest group representation, such as in neo-corporatism (Schmitter, 1983), to more customer-oriented views of citizens in managerial models of urban governance (Pierre, 1999).

Baiocchi points out that changes in state-civil society regimes are often path-dependent, stating that every new turn in state-society interactions ‘reflect[s] the balance of power and legacies of previous turns’ (ibid., p. 19). These regimes will naturally limit the realization of some possibilities. Savini (2011, p. 962) similarly argues that new participatory endeavours tend to ‘reproduce heuristics of dialogue and interaction that have been historically consolidated between municipal governments, third-sector agencies and voluntary organizations’. The regime and embeddedness perspective stresses stability. It does not, however, preclude change. Fountain stresses that change may occur through unintended consequences, the technologies inserted to uphold a regime ultimately undermining it, due to unforeseen events. Another type of change is the gradual change that occurs through making numerous subtle modifications to accommodate new technologies. These changes can lead to more dramatic shifts in social structures and social relations. A third and more rapid type of change occurs in a crisis, where there are salient alternatives to the status quo that can replace it.

The Inherent Logic of E-Participation Technology

There is a certain dynamism to the Technology Enactment Framework. One weakness of the framework is, however, that it overlooks the disruptive potential of specific technologies in specific contexts. The framework, instead, views the technologies as objective and therefore neutral, and the people who implement them as biased and subjective. As Langdon Winner (1980) however points out, technologies can be political and therefore also subjective in two different ways. One way is in how they are used for political purposes in a specific environment. The other is in the technology appearing to require compatibility or being compatible with specific types of political relationships. This is also echoed by other scholars, such as Postman (1993, p. 13) who notes that ‘embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another’.

So, what kind of political relationships are compatible with e-participation technologies? I propose, inspired by Baiocchi and Ganuza (2017) that e-participation technologies, despite the great variety of such tools, have two coordinating principles in common. The first is individualized participation. E-participation technologies are based on individual users being connected to the platform through stationary or mobile devices. They are also typically of a privatized character, individuals voting, ranking, clicking, and adding comments under limited interaction with other users. Second is direct and unmediated engagement. The data or input from the citizenry is connected directly to the administrative or political apparatus of the municipality. There are no mediating organizations negotiating the results with the government. E-participation technologies therefore share fundamental characteristics, that may be more compatible with political relations within some contexts than within others. The main concept in this chapter is therefore that individualized, direct, and unmediated civic engagement opposes the mediated and indirect engagement found in the traditional forms of civic engagement of many representative democracies. I will, in the remainder of the chapter, show how the enactment of e-participation technologies played out in two state-civil society regimes that applied many of the same mediated and indirect forms of engagement, and will discuss why this ended in displacement in Madrid and completion in Oslo.

Data and Methods

The comparison of Madrid and Oslo follows a divergent case approach of maximum variation on the dependent variable (displacement/completion), but a similar independent variable (state-civil society regime) (Seawright & Gerring, 2008). The aim is to identify other potentially explanatory variables that account for the divergence of the dependent variable. I do not test whether specific theories explain the difference in outcome, but proceed inductively to develop a hypothesis that can account for the difference. This resembles what George and Bennett (2005) call a heuristic case study.

The data comes from two sources. One source is documents, reports, and secondary literature that describe the implementation of e-participation technologies in the two cities. These are important to understanding the cases as a whole. The other source is interviews with the public administrators who were responsible for implementing these technologies in the two cities. According to Steinbach et al. (2019), there are few studies of the micro-level processes that shape e-participation practices. They therefore recommend a focus on how managers within public administrations make decisions on the introduction of e-participation technologies, and the factors that influence their decisions. This is particularly pertinent, as we know that public administrators play a crucial role in initiating and developing public sector innovations (Røiseland & Vabo, 2020, p. 3), and can even be considered to be vanguards in democratic innovations (Warren, 2009). It is therefore highly likely that this is transferable to the field of e-participation (Steinbach & Süß, 2018; Wilson, 2020).

The data for Oslo consists of interviews with 10 administrators from city-wide agencies such as the Agency for Urban Planning, the Agency for the Urban Environment, and the central administration of the city government. The district level has also been seminal in implementing e-participation tools. This chapter therefore also uses data from interviews with 5 administrators from a district that is responsible for an area-based initiative (ABI). The data for Madrid includes interviews with 7 administrators from the Area of Transparency and Citizen Participation, who were responsible for the implementation of the Decide Madrid platform. This platform became the main e-participation platform in 2015–2019, when it was developed and adopted. The interviews were transcribed and then coded using the NVivo qualitative analysis application.


Similar State-Civil Society Regimes…

The two cities both have a history of representative and interest-based forms of citizen participation in urban development. Oslo has historically had a strong corporatist model of urban governance. Madrid has what Tomàs (2005) calls a neo-corporatist governance model at the regional level. Urban planning has historically been dominated by neighbourhood associations at the city level, which is the main concern here.

Oslo’s urban planning associations and their representatives play a prominent role in participatory processes, albeit not exclusively. National legislation furthermore requires municipalities to consult all ‘affected interests’ or ‘affected parties’ before adopting or altering zoning plans. Research on participation processes in the planning of Oslo shows that participants mainly are representatives from civil society organizations or public entities, for example, neighbourhood associations (velforeninger), migrant associations, sports associations, parents’ groups, schools, religious groups, local business associations, councils of the elderly and youth, district politicians, developers, and various municipal agencies. This does not mean that there are no open processes in which residents can take part based on being an individual citizen living in or nearby the zoning area. Organized interests are, however, also significantly represented in these open processes by attendance (Kommunerevisjonen, 2019; Schmidt et al., 2011).

It is important to note that Oslo also has seen a rise in participation methods that are less based on the representation of formal organizations, and more on the direct involvement of groups that have hitherto been under-represented in the planning process. This includes workshops of different kinds, digital mapping, design of temporary installations, and wide-ranging dialogs that engage residents directly in their capacity of being individuals affected by proposed plans, and not as representatives of formal associations. Such methods are also recommended by the planning authorities (Oslo kommune, 2019).

Neighbourhood associations have, in the urban governance model of the city of Madrid, a distinct and formalized place in urban governance and planning that dates back to resistance to the Francoist dictatorship, and the transition to electoral government (Pearlman, 1983). Marti (2012) has mapped the ebbs and flows of these associations, and their relation to the government. The movement initially had, after the fall of the dictatorship, a corporatist relationship to the metropolitan government. This took the form of negotiations both with public officials and with professionals such as planners, lawyers, and architects a relationship that was increasingly regularized and formalized throughout the 1980s, and that led in 1992 to local legislation in Madrid on citizen participation. Interest in the neighbourhood associations was renewed during the communitarian turn that took place in the 1990s, which was partly inspired by the Rio de Janeiro conference on sustainable development that introduced Local Agenda 21. This resulted in local community plans in neighbourhoods that either established or reinforced existing associations.

Madrid has a sub-municipal governance structure and a small district government administration, the role of the neighbourhood associations being institutionalized in this structure through territorial councils. The associations were therefore informed, consulted, and permitted to suggest measures and negotiate with the city government on local issues. A certain tension has however, over time, been growing between this representative model and new direct participation mechanisms. This was particularly true in the 2000s with the introduction of measures such as citizens initiatives, and consultations being conducted with other parties than the established organizations. The local legislation on citizen participation, despite this development, does still privilege neighbourhood and sectoral associations (Ayuntamiento de Madrid, 2004, article 35).

…Yet, Different Enactment of E-Participation Technologies

Oslo and Madrid have, despite these similarities, introduced digital tools for citizen participation very differently. In Oslo they were carefully crafted within the existing logics of participation. They were designed to improve existing institutions, for interest groups and individuals, or to enhance the representation of ‘weaker voices’ within corporatist and representative arrangements. The Decide Madrid platform was introduced in Madrid as an alternative, and even in opposition to the corporatist-associational model of participation. I will briefly describe what type of e-participation technologies were introduced in the two cities, and then demonstrate these differences by showing how the public administrators perceived, designed, and implemented e-participation technologies, these being the three central aspects of Fountain’s technology enactment.

Digitalization of citizen participation in Oslo has mainly followed three pathways. One is in urban development in general, specific digital tools being introduced to achieve the representation of groups that normally do not participate politically. Another is in urban planning, the government developing a website called Si din mening (‘Give your opinion’) to allow citizen input in planning processes. Area-based initiatives and municipal agencies have, at the local level, used digital tools to engage children or the elderly in specific physical upgrading projects or to get their input on the broader community development (Hagen et al., 2016; Vestby et al., 2017, 2020). An online platform from the company CitizenLab was also introduced in two disadvantaged neighbourhoods in 2020 (Lokalstyret Områdeløft, 2020).

The municipality of Madrid launched the platform Decide Madrid in 2015, and quickly won recognition for being one of the most active and innovative digital participation platforms in the world at the time.Footnote 1 Data shows that it was, in the first months of 2019, visited more than 11 million times, 26,227 proposals being added, which received more than 3 million votes. The 452,823 registered users also created 5630 debates and 193,000 comments (ParticipaLab, 2019, p. 23). A total of around 91,000 people participated in the 2018 participatory budget, 53,891 voting online on a total of 702 final proposals, and 2191 voting offline at voting stations. The platform does, however, have precedents. The municipality distributed an electronic consultation in 2004 to around 130,000 residents in the central district. Only about nine hundred people responded, and it is unclear how the results were used by the city administration (Scytl & Accenture, 2004). The experience was a pilot and was discontinued. Decide Madrid was the project of the left-wing coalition Ahora Madrid that governed the city from 2015 to 2019, the conservative government that took over from Ahora Madrid continuing to use the platform. The period I discuss in this paper is, however, before the transition in 2019.


The view of e-participation technology of the public administrators in the two cities differs drastically. The technology is seen in Oslo to be a tool for including the perspectives of hitherto under-represented groups into the administrative and political process, or to increase the accessibility of existing participation instruments. It is seen in Madrid, on the other hand, to be a tool for obtaining mass inclusion of citizens into the policymaking process, and to achieve a type of direct democracy centred around individuals and not representatives.

The approach of public administrators in Oslo to digitalization and inclusion is captured in a quote by a digital communication officer from the Urban Environment Agency, who says that digital mapping is used ‘to get the old and young into the game, precisely because they are the weakest groups represented’. The reason behind the adoption of the CitizenLab platform is similarly to ‘involve groups that normally do not speak up publicly about their neighbourhood’, and to reach more people (Lokalstyret Områdeløft, 2020, p. 2). The main perception, at the city level, is that digitalization increases the transparency and accessibility of existing participatory instruments, the aim of the Si din mening website being to ‘make it easier for people to not have to remember case numbers and addresses and things like that. And that one can find out what was going on relatively early’.

The public administrators in Madrid, in contrast, perceived digital tools as a way of achieving mass participation. This is framed as being the opposite of analogue participation, which normally only mobilizes a fraction of the population. As the director who oversaw the development of Madrid’s platform said in an interview:

[If] you don’t have a digital platform, the chance of having an inclusive participatory process is basically zero. Without digital platforms it’s basically impossible for you to reach the population.Footnote 2

The administrators in Madrid furthermore greatly value the direct and individualized character of e-participation, and emphasize that it lowers the threshold for public participation, unlike long and tedious public meetings:

We work with the direct and individual system, because it has the great benefit that any citizen can participate in public affairs without having to systematically attend meetings that take hours, and that at any moment a citizen can make a proposal on how to improve the city or can vote in the municipality’s consultations, comfortably sitting in front of their computer.Footnote 3


Public administrators in Oslo have not been actively involved in the design of instruments other than Si din mening, a website commissioned and developed by the municipality’s IT service. The data shows that it was consciously designed to accommodate the engagement of both associations and individuals. The website firstly allows feedback not only from individual users, but also from organizations and voluntary associations. The designers linked the platform with the national population register (of individuals), and also the register of legal entities. This allows feedback from representatives of organizations, and also from individual persons, to be verified.

Second, the developers focussed, during the design process, on making the feedback mechanism not look like a plebiscite but more like prior consultations. There were internal discussions during the site’s development of whether to include preformulated questions, as in a survey. This was, however, seen as something that could create a bias of numbers in the feedback process, and therefore skew the Agency’s perception of citizen input. It in other words would put individuals and associations on the same footing. They therefore chose not to insert survey questions, to avoid ‘weight of numbers’ trouncing ‘quality of arguments’. This was expressed by one of the developers as follows:

Some think that we have concrete questions in there, but I am one of those who think that we should not have concrete questions, because that makes it seem more like a vote. And if 450 people say one thing and 130 say another thing, it does not mean that the 130… they may have a better point than the 450.Footnote 4

Design in Madrid used an open software project approach, hundreds of coders and activists from around the world contributing to the platform. The main decisions on development were, however, taken by public administrators from the municipality of Madrid through the Consul-foundation, making this primarily an in-house project. The graphic design of the platform (unlike that of Oslo) however immediately signalled that this was a tool for allowing Madrid inhabitants to decide over policies, which was further conveyed by slogans such as ‘In Madrid, you decide’. This is mirrored in platform functions that allow users to vote, rank, formulate their own proposals and gather support, and by this being conducted in full transparency. The implications of these designs are significant. They firstly make it clear that platform users are going to make decisions (vote), and that they can prioritize between different options and not merely signal their preference for a specific option. It was also designed to allow citizens to submit their own proposals and gather support for them, the municipality therefore becoming not the only actor in the process, and opening for initiatives from users. Finally, and importantly, the design only facilitated individual users, collective entities not being given access:

The novelty is the participatory system that we work with. It wasn’t just a novelty in Madrid to have a participatory system in which individual citizens take public decisions, but also in all of Spain.Footnote 5


The e-participation technologies were not only perceived and designed differently in the two cities, but were also implemented differently, which tells a great deal about their differences. The technologies in Oslo were used to strengthen the consultations carried out in the urban development area, and to include previously unrepresented groups in the policy process. Feedback sent by users through Si din mening is either sent to the developers or the planning authorities, who then decide whether to take this feedback into account and whether it is important enough to modify plans. The other digital tools are directed at engaging the local population in a particular disadvantaged area, and targeting population segments that are normally not heard in public participation. Digital mapping tools are specifically aimed at children and senior citizens in the drawing up of new plans by the authorities. The CitizenLab platform in Oslo’s districts also paid ‘ambassadors’ to reach hard-to-reach citizens with migrant backgrounds, and through this mobilized twice as many participants as the previous engagement methods (Melbøe, 2021), many speaking little Norwegian. The e-participation tools were therefore not used to replace previous channels of engagement, but to make them more accessible or to mobilize new groups into them.

Decide Madrid was, in contrast, implemented to reach all the city’s inhabitants, not just specific segments, and to let them decide on and not just consult them on political issues. Participation numbers were high. Only a minority of citizens, however, used it. Of Madrid’s 2.7 million voters, 12% were registered as platform users, 8% voted in referendums, and 3.3% participated in the participatory budget. These participants were however, according to the municipality, representative of the population’s age, gender, and residential distribution. These numbers are, when compared with other cities, still conspicuous. So too is the decision-making authority the government delegated to the platform users. Participants in 2015–2019 decided on 346 million euros in investment, two proposals gaining sufficient support to initiate referendums. The government also held votes on other issues, such as citywide votes on the refurbishment of the central square Plaza de España, traffic in the shopping street Gran Vía, and the remodelling of public spaces in a number of city districts. The government used it to regularly consult the population. It was, however, the direct and unmediated connection with the political process in the city council that stood out. Neighbourhood associations were, through this, bypassed by a mass of individuals, government officials understanding that this created a conflict, but one which they in many ways saw as desirable:

The Local Forums don’t like Decide Madrid, because it strengthens direct and individual participation and weakens the control the forums have over citizen participation.Footnote 6

Discussion and Conclusion

E-participation in Oslo was, as I have shown, perceived, designed, and implemented to complement existing participation channels. It was, however, indirectly and directly enacted in Madrid to displace the pre-existing model of participation. It is difficult to assess the effects of these differences, particularly as Oslo’s introduction of e-participation technologies did not really change anything except add new participation tools to the environment. In Madrid, however, the neighbourhood associations and the political opposition reacted negatively to the complete change that the government had attempted to bring about through the introduction of Decide Madrid. They protested, in particular, against equal weight being given to proposals from unorganized individuals associations that represent hundreds of residents or more, and that the government attempted to transform the local territorial councils into open forums that put individuals on a par with the neighbourhood associations.Footnote 7 The effects are also seen in Chapter 2 of this book, activists and associations reporting that they have some kind of influence in Oslo over policies via digital participation channels. This effect was, however in Madrid, very small and statistically insignificant. This is probably explained by organized interests in Oslo using Si din mening as collective entities, organized interests in Madrid being drowned out by the many other users on the e-participation platform.

This chapter’s main concern, however, is not the consequences of the technology enactment, but why it was enacted so differently in the two contexts. The similarities between the state-civil society regimes arose before the advent of e-participation, this suggesting that the technology enactment would produce similar results, given that administrators tend to reproduce rules, routines, norms, and power relations when enacting new technologies. What can, however, explain the divergence? Fountain provides an answer to this at one level. She emphasizes that technologies can change the environment in which they are enacted, if there are salient alternatives to the status quo. This pinpoints what took place in Madrid. The e-participation perceptions of the central public administrators who enacted Decide Madrid were shaped by the Spanish Indignados-movement, the movement occupying squares and parks in cities and towns all over the country in the wake of the global financial crisis. The Ahora Madrid-coalition grew out of this movement, and was elected on a platform of letting ‘all citizens’ ‘intervene in the definition, administration and development of fundamental policies’ (Ahora Madrid, 2015). The tech activists and the direct democracy promoters who populated the department responsible for citizen participation, rose out of this movement.

Another advantage of the technology enactment perspective is that it emphasizes the role of agency. Technology is not something that simply happens to an environment. It is, as illustrated by the Latour quote in the introduction, enacted by people. The agents that I focus on in this chapter are public administrators, and were seminal in both cities in the enactment of the e-participation initiatives. There are, however, important differences between them. In Oslo, the administrators were essentially low-ranking officials in the planning agency and city districts. They therefore adapted platforms to the broader plans of the municipality, and digitized existing services. Their position did not provide them with any room to enact the technologies in a way that broke with the practices of the context in which they were situated. The administrators in Madrid were, on the other hand, given room by the political mandate to establish a system of citizen participation that would challenge existing political institutions, including those of citizen participation. The administrators developed reciprocal relationships with the politicians, these activists turned bureaucrats proposing designs to the politicians, the politicians ratifying them and pushing for more. The mayor ‘was always a total fan of democracy and she always said “more, more, more” to everything we can do’, said a senior official in an interview, and added: ‘We were lucky because the political will was one hundred per cent in favour of these kinds of channels’.Footnote 8

The regime perspective of Baiocchi (2005) and Savini (2011) leads us to expect that the individualized, direct, and unmediated character of e-participation platforms would clash with the existing logic of participation in both cities. This was, however, not the case in Oslo, so identifying a problem with the regime perspective. The perspective implicitly assumes that the institutional field of state-civil society relations is a totalizing phenomenon. This is, however, rarely the case. As Hardy and Maguire (2008) point out, such fields are normally riven with inconsistencies and conflicts, which provides opportunities for both perseverance and change. Pierre (1999), in his work on models of urban governance, similarly notes that not all models of governance, and their associated modes of citizen participation, are mutually exclusive, and that one city can contain more than one model at any time. This is because municipal governments are made up of actors that push for different agendas, that solve different problems, and respond to different pressures. E-participation technologies were introduced in Oslo in a similar vein as other New Public Governance instruments were introduced, and alongside other and more representative modes of participation—without one displacing the other. One reason for this difference is that they serve different purposes, e-participation in Madrid invading the associations’ turf.

What are the lessons we can learn from comparing Oslo with Madrid? This comparison adds one contextual factor to the list of factors in the e-participation literature that affect the uptake of e-participation technologies in cities. Previous studies have identified factors such as the degree of democracy and political freedoms at the national level (Jho & Song, 2015), characteristics of the political culture (Aichholzer & Allhutter, 2009; Williams et al., 2013), value systems (Khan et al., 2014; Zhao, 2013), public administration styles (Royo et al., 2014), the design of political institutions (Zheng et al., 2014), attitudes of political and administrative leaders (Aikins & Krane, 2010; Carrizales, 2008; Feeney & Welch, 2012; Hofmann, 2014), and power structures (Chadwick, 2011). Pre-existing forms of citizen participation are, however, rarely discussed as a factor that affects the adoption and implementation of e-participation practices. This dimension is added by this study.

It also contributes the following argument to the displacement discussion: The relationship between digital forms of participation and its individualized and unmediated logic, and some traditional forms of analogue participation of mediated and indirect engagement, is uneasy. The potential displacement they can cause not only, however, depends on their unintended side-effects, but also on how they are enacted. Postman (1993) claimed that the introduction of new technologies always entails a war with old practices. One thing that this chapter, however, clearly shows is that the technology needs soldiers to wage such a war. E-participation technology in Madrid had soldiers who were prepared to actively assault the old institutions. Oslo, however, only had doctors that used the technology to improve or remedy problems with the old bodies. E-participation technologies can, depending on agency, be enacted in ways that add something to the environment, and in ways that attempt to change everything.


  1. 1.

    In 2018 the municipality of Madrid was one of the UN public service award winners (, last accessed 06.12.2021).

  2. 2.

    Interview with WP1MABP11, Project Director for Citizen Participation, online interview 14.03.2019.

  3. 3.

    Interview with WP1MABP3, General Director of Citizen Participation, Madrid 07.05.2019.

  4. 4.

    Interview with WP1OSBP2, Head of Unit, Agency for Planning and Building Services, Oslo 24.01.2019.

  5. 5.

    Interview with WP1MABP3.

  6. 6.

    Interview with WP1MABP2, Deputy Director of Citizen Participation and Volunteering, Madrid 07.05.2019.

  7. 7.

    This is reported in additional interviews with WP1MARA4, President of La Corrala Neighbourhood Association, Madrid 07.05.2019, WP1MARA5, President of Las Cavas y La Latina Neighbourhood Association, 08.05.2019, WP1MABP7, Councillor from Ciudadanos (Liberals), Madrid 16.05.2019, and WP1MABP10, Councillor from Partido Popular (Conservatives), Madrid 17.05.2019.

  8. 8.

    Interview with WP1MABP11.


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Legard, S. (2022). Displacement and Citizen Participation: A Comparison of the Enactment of E-Participation Platforms in Oslo and Madrid. 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.

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