What does a comparison of inclusiveness in these models show? We unfortunately do not have reliable data from Oslo or Melbourne on the number or type of participants. We have indicators, however, from Madrid that allow us to give good answers to this question. The ‘digital first’ of Madrid’s direct democracy model seems, in terms of absolute mobilization numbers, to have paid off. The platform in early 2019 had more than 450,000 users, and was visited over 11 million times (ParticipaLab, 2019, p. 23). This is reaffirmed by the data that as many as 20 per cent of the Madrileños in 2019 had recently participated in a consultation held by the municipality. This figure rose from 6.4 per cent in 2012, three years before the introduction of the direct democracy model, which indicates a quite stunning level of mobilization. We show this to be a strength of this model in Table 8.1, on the inclusiveness dimension. The table summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of all three models relative to the democratic dimension of citizen participation.Footnote 4 The age, gender and place of residence of participants in 2019 were representative of the general population. Participants, however, had higher incomes and education levels than the average citizen. Citizens with immigrant backgrounds were underrepresented. Does this mean, as the most pessimistic theories predict, that the online direct democracy model amplifies inequalities in political participation? No. The model seems to just copy the inequalities that existed prior to its implementation. The profile of the participants remained the same, despite Decide Madrid surely animating more citizens and bringing new groups of citizens to participate between elections. The model is therefore vulnerable to pre-existing inequalities in political participation.
Do the bricolage and the crowdsourcing models fare better in this respect?Footnote 5 One of the main advantages of these models is that they are not married to the idea of digital participation being the main channel for reaching the general population. Planners in Oslo often use digital tools to target what they call ‘weak voices’ such as children, youth, the elderly or people with migrant backgrounds. The ad hoc nature of Oslo’s model furthermore gives the flexibility to target, which is its main strength on this dimension. A particularly interesting example is a district that used paid ‘ambassadors’ to encourage hard-to-reach citizens with migrant backgrounds to participate on its online platform. This mobilized twice as many participants as analogue engagement methods (Melbøe, 2021). Our survey, however, indicates that there still is a tendency in Oslo for those that engage in digital channels to be from the same privileged layers as those who mainly engage in analogue channels. The weakness of the ‘weak voices’ targeting strategy is that it does not seem to work for the city as a whole, but only in isolated cases.
The crowdsourcing model in Melbourne is based on a similar belief that engaging different types of citizens requires different methods of participation. This means that it shares similar strengths and weaknesses. Officials at both the state and local level are aware that ‘digital will only ever get to a certain group’Footnote 6 and that a comprehensive community engagement strategy that combines the digital with face-to-face processes is required to ‘cover the variety of cultures and cohorts’.Footnote 7 Melbourne’s digital and analogue participants have, however, higher levels of education and a more non-migrant background than the average population, as in the other two study cities. This is despite extensive efforts to use a combination of digital and analogue methods of engagement to reach broad segments of the population. The model is therefore vulnerable, as pointed out in Chapter 3 to privileging online users and to reproducing existing inequalities.
How do the different models perform on the deliberative dimension of citizen participation? Oslo’s bricolage and Melbourne’s crowdsourcing models both avoid using digital channels for deliberative tasks. They instead assign these tasks to face-to-face forums that involve small groups of citizens. A lack of faith in the use of e-participation tools for deliberation stems, in Oslo, from negative experiences of dialog on social media and in large public meetings. Both tend to be dominated by white middle-aged and middle-class males, and to be highly biased and polarized discussions. The similar domination of e-participation processes is therefore a fear. The city’s planners therefore use small face-to-face workshops or more creative methods to facilitate deliberation among ‘weak voices’, such as in the co-designing and co-construction of public spaces. The strength of this approach is that it avoids some of the problems of online deliberations. The weakness is that the spaces in which deliberation occurs are fragmented and inaccessible to the general public, but accessible and coherent to a few selected participants.
Public administrators in Melbourne are highly influenced by Australia’s strong standing in the field of deliberative democracy. They are also firm believers in using mini-publics as opposed to online deliberation. This is emphasized in the crowdsourcing aspect of their model, crowds normally being seen as a source of experiences and opinions, but not as the deliberating entities (Howe, 2006). Digital and analogue crowdsourcing is therefore often used to provide input to citizen deliberations that make up the mini-public. Digital tools were, for example, used in the City of Melbourne to receive proposals for a citizens assembly called ‘Future Melbourne’, and which were deliberated on when formulating a 10-year local government plan (Katsonis, 2019). Similar assemblies of randomly selected citizens have also been introduced by other councils. The strength of this approach is that any citizen has the chance of being picked for the citizen assembly. This, when combined with open crowdsourcing processes, furthermore allows all citizens to provide input to these deliberations. The weakness is that such citizens assemblies are used so rarely that very few inhabitants have a chance of being involved in them. Different forms of crowdsourcing are therefore still the dominant method of engagement. These, however, are mostly in the form of a predefined survey, the government therefore sets the agenda and citizen input. The room for citizen collective will formation in these spaces is therefore severely restricted.
Madrid’s direct democracy model took the opposite route and promoted online deliberations on its platform as an alternative to discussions in social or traditional media. This is reflected in the first two features on the platform being debates and proposals through which citizens could discuss among themselves and launch, defend and gather support for their own policy initiatives. The level of activity was impressive. Users had, by early 2019, left more than 25,000 proposals that received more than three million votes of support, and 5630 debate threads that generated around 193,000 comments (ParticipaLab, 2019, p. 23). The platform did not, however, deliver as well as the government hoped. In a critical self-evaluation, Medialab Prado concluded that most platform users were only involved in ‘thin participation’, simple interactions such as voting and clicking and not extensive deliberations. Most users came to the platform only to read, vote or support a proposal. Those who posted content usually did so only once. The majority of debates and proposals were created by the thousands of superusers, who were the most frequent visitors to the platform and generated most of the content (ibid., p. 40). Another challenge was information overload. This resulted in likeminded citizens not finding out about each other’s proposals, so disabling them from gathering enough support for proposals that were very similar. The government therefore decided to establish a randomly selected citizen panel, the Observatorio de la Ciudad, to deliberate over the most popular online initiatives and to see whether they could be passed on to the city council. The reliance on insufficient technical solutions to achieve online deliberations highlights the weakness of this model. The model’s strength is, however, that it establishes a transparent space in which citizens can access relevant discussions and bottom-up initiatives not predefined and controlled by the government.
There are notable differences between the opportunities for citizen participation in the urban decision-making process provided by the different models. Oslo’s and Melbourne’s models primarily use digital channels to inform and consult citizens. The direct democracy model, however, centres on involving citizens directly in decision-making. In Oslo, input from both digital and analogue consultations may or may not be taken into consideration by the elected politicians, who have the final say in deciding the city’s policies. The description provided on the city’s main participation portal for planning issues, Si din mening (‘Give your opinion’), is telling. It emphasizes that opinions voiced through the portal are sent to those who propose plans (private entrepreneurs or public entities) or the planning authorities, and that it is their privilege to ‘decide whether they will take the opinions into account or not’ (Plan- og bygningsetaten, 2020).
The crowdsourcing model, of which the City of Melbourne is a good example, is similar. The rhetoric on the city’s engagement platform, written by the municipality, states that citizens can ‘join the conversation to influence the plans’ and that resident opinions and ideas ‘help shape Council’s decisions’. However, it furthermore explains that comments, ideas and suggestions are collected and used to ‘inform Council decision making processes’ (City of Melbourne, 2020, our emphasizes), officials said that it is up to the administrators to decide whether and in what way the input from online engagement is used. It is therefore ultimately the city council that makes the decisions on most projects put up for consultation. This was put well by a former chief community engagement manager, who said ‘if you are looking at a [citizen participation] spectrum it sorts of [fits] very well into the consult area’.Footnote 8 This is also true for e-participation at the state level and the other councils we studied.
The weakness of both the Oslo and Melbourne models is therefore that developers, bureaucrats and politicians can discard the input received at will. A strength they have in common, on the other hand, is that citizens are often consulted on quite significant developments and issues (of much greater significance than the ‘park benches’ they are allowed to decide directly over). For example, citizens in Melbourne could, using state-level e-participation tools, vote and decide directly on minor issues such as the content of a gift package given to new-born babies or relatively small community funds. They are, however, also consulted on much bigger issues such as redevelopments of social housing estates, hospital plans or large infrastructure projects. Citizens in Oslo have also been invited to take part in participatory budgeting to decide very small community funds. The municipality is, however, obliged to consult citizens on all plans proposed by both government and private developers, which explains why our survey still shows a positive relation in both Oslo and Melbourne between the use of digital platforms and the influence community activists perceive they have. One notable difference between Oslo and Melbourne is, however, that the open feedback solution chosen by Oslo (of using the website Si din mening instead of sending an e-mail) requires citizen expertise in understanding the cases they are to provide feedback on, and skills in formulating meaningful feedback to the planning authorities. Melbourne uses much more accessible tools such as polls and surveys, which makes it potentially possible for ordinary citizens without such resources to exert a degree of influence. We again, however, emphasize that this influence is within the predefined parameters set by the government.
The direct democracy model represented by Madrid marks a deviation from the broader pattern of e-participation being limited to information and consultation. The strength of the model was that participating citizens in Madrid were directly connected to the political process. For example, between 2015 and 2019 more than 346 million euros of investment was reserved by the city council for allocation by citizens through the digital platform. Two citizen initiatives gathered enough support, through the platform, to initiate a binding referendum, and the city government initiated binding votes on other issues, including refurbishment of parks and squares and traffic ordnances. The connection to the political process was upheld by the government, which did not have the legal authority to hold binding votes or referendums, but voluntarily committed to implementing the results of the processes. This e-decision-making seems to be endorsed by public opinion. In 2012, before the introduction of the model, 26 per cent of the general population and 47 per cent of those that had been consulted believed that the municipality facilitated citizen participation in its decision-making processes. These proportions had, however, increased in 2019 to 57 and 81 per cent, respectively. A weakness of the model is, despite this, the government only allows citizens to decide on minor projects, compared to the size of the budget and the major developments taking place in the city. The investment projects were small, and the decisions made by platform users related to renovation of parks and squares, and the public transport ticket system. This is admittedly more due to the city’s limited authority over urban development processes and public services. It does, however, illustrate that it is perhaps easier to give citizens decision-making authority in minor projects than for large budgets or strategically important urban planning.