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