Written by Rimma Samir

Spanish city Madrid became the center of bottom-up citizen participation through its development and use of innovative open source tool CONSUL. As we have learned from the previous article in this series – Madrid, Part 1: E-democracy hub of Europe – this whole process was started as the post-financial crisis austerity measures inspired social media-organised protests all over the country. In this part of the Madrid series, we are going to zoom in on one of the most successful implementations of the CONSUL tool: the platform Decide Madrid. Decide Madrid was realised with the goal of increasing the transparency of political processes and public engagement in the city’s decision-making. What are the inner workings of this platform? And what are the results, after the first three years of its function?

The Functions of Decide Madrid
As of today, there are four main functions of the platform. Those are:

  • Proposal-making and voting on those proposals
  • Participatory budgeting
  • Debating
  • Citizen consultations

1. Proposal-making
Firstly, the site allows the citizens of Madrid to make various law proposals and vote on them. This feature was created in order to allow the citizens to directly decide on what they want in their city, both in terms of laws and projects. According to Pablo Soto, Councillor of Citizen Participation, Transparency and Open Government at Madrid City Council, and Miguel Arana Catania, Director of Citizen Participation and the Decide platform, this feature has the biggest potential of having a considerable impact on the politics of the city. The process of the proposal feature is relatively straightforward. Any citizen registered on the platform can submit a proposal, which then goes into the first voting stage. If the proposal receives the support of around 1% of the population of Madrid over the age of 16 then it advances to the decision face. Once a proposal enters this stage, along with other popular proposals, it is given 45 days to be deliberated and discussed upon. After this time period is over the final voting stage, during which any registered Madrileño who is older than sixteen and is verified in the municipality can vote either for or against the proposal.

It must be noted that even if any given proposal reaches the voting threshold it would not be automatically executed because of the prohibition of binding referenda in the Spanish constitution. The feasibility, legality, and cost of successful proposals is analyzed and assessed by the Madrid City Council within the next month. By the end of this stage, a comprehensive report is published on the platform and a decision is made according to the result of the municipal examination into the proposal.

2. Participatory budgeting
The second highly important use of the platform is participatory budgeting. Although Madrid is not the first city in the world and even not the first city in Spain that employed this method for political decision-making, its use of information communication technologies in the processes makes its case unique and unprecedented. What is participatory budgeting and how does it function one might ask. Let us explain to you the overarching idea behind the method, addressing the process in detail straight after. According to Eurozine participatory budgeting [PB] can be defined as “a decision-making process through which citizens deliberate and negotiate about the distribution of public resources”, more specifically, this system allows for the citizens to have a direct impact on the allocation of a certain amount of the public budget. In Madrid, the PB process is done through six steps. The first step is the project proposal step, in 2017 there were made 3300 project ideas. Afterwards, the proposals are filtered on the account of two main criteria, whether the municipality is competent to carry them out, and whether they are feasible to complete within a year. This stage takes a month and a half. In this stage, similar proposals are singled out and, if their creators consent, are synthesized into one. The next step of PB which lasts 15 days is the period when citizens can rank the proposals according to their importance and prioritize the ones they care about the most.

In the fourth step, every proposal that has achieved support is analyzed by the municipality department responsible for the matter. Now, the technical servant from the department checks the proposal for technical feasibility and legality, along with whether there are resources available for the carrying out of this proposal and whether the public space can be used for it. Finally, its economic price is calculated. It is the technical personnel of the respective department that makes the report and publishes it on the site of Decide Madrid, thereby making decision-making processes more transparent than before. Notice, a special attention is paid to publishing the report in understandable language and clear arguments why the project is feasible or not. In the next step, citizens have, in turn, their right to disagree about the analysis of any project and at times they overturn the analysis by presenting more details about the project. This stage lasts for a week. The last step of the process is the voting stage which goes on for a month and a half from the middle of May to the middle of June. The final participatory budget for the next year is decided upon in July. And this is where the real work starts. According to the municipal data, in the first year of the existence of the PB in Madrid two hundred projects were proposed, of which 50 were finished, and the rest are in development, with one not possible to be done. Citizens get continuously updated on the development of each project on the site.

3. Debating and citizen consultations
The third and fourth functions of the Decide platform are online deliberation and citizens consultations. Through online deliberation opinions, knowledge, and ideas of the citizens are shared. These online debates foster a more direct connection between the local government and the citizenry by providing the government access into the public’s opinion on a variety of topics. In addition, this way the citizens can educate themselves on the projects that are going on and how others perceive them. Through the consultations feature the citizens can provide their opinions about council proceedings and subsequently vote on them. When citizens voice their views on the site, city officials can comment back and debate with them creating a forum for direct communication between the government and the citizens.

For the citizen consultations the city looked at its four year plan and studied which plans are interesting for citizens to decide upon. In this way the municipality of Madrid decided to do citizen consultations on the redevelopment of eleven squares in eleven different districts. The consultation process starts with setting out a questionnaire to ask residents how they think about redeveloping the square and what aspects they find important. Next, this information is used as the basis for opening up a contest for designers to come up with new designs. The result is open, but it should take into account what citizens requested via the questionnaire. The two best designs are picked out by a representative committee of the stakeholders around the square and put online on the website. In the final stage citizens can vote whether they want the square to be redeveloped or not, and whether they chose plan x or plan y. Citizens could vote digitally via the Decide Madrid platform as well as offline with ballot boxes in the street. With their votes Madrileños decide which squares are built.

What has already been done?
As of May 2018, two proposals that got to the voting stage got approved. The first proposal was Make Madrid 100% Sustainable. This proposal consisted of 15 measures that were written in a form of a manifesto co-created by a platform of more than 400 organizations of civil society. This platform wanted to make Madrid the greenest city on the Planet, which, in current times is a very supported endeavor that got the support from more than 90% of the voters. After the proposal got approved the government had to transform each of the 15 measures into specific direct actions that would make the city-wide sustainability – reality. An example of one of those measures was having greener transportation, which translated into the acquisition of two hundred electric buses. The second proposal that won the referendum was made by an anonymous citizen who proposed a single ticket for all types of transportation. The proposal was very well-received on the website and gathered big traction without the need for a campaign, public gathering of signatures on the street. It was just put on the website, then went through the aforementioned process, in the end, winning an 88% yes in the voting phase.

Next to this, an impressive use-case is that Madrid allocated 100 milion euros from the city budget to be distributed by means of participatory budgetting every year.

What are the problems that Decide Madrid has encountered?
“From the outside, it looks like a bigger challenge than it is. Generally, to put this in place and into action inside the government, inside the institution, to make the city hall and the public servants work in a different way, looks like a huge challenge that is going to take generations to happen. It is not, the biggest challenge is the politicians.” – Pablo Soto

One of the biggest challenges to the realisation of the Decide Madrid project was the politicians. The people who have worked for the traditional municipal system and are used to the bureaucracies that are in place were the hardest to get on board with the project. When we interviewed Soto and Arana, both agreed that classical politicians and civil servants do not like giving up their power. This is the case because bureaucracies tend to be resistant to any type of change. For instance, at the beginning of the participatory budgeting process, civil servants were adamant about not liking it. What were the reasons for them not liking it? Firstly, the extent of accountability changed when the civil servants started having all citizens as bosses instead of one department leader. The second reason for them resisting the change was the fact that it entailed extra work within a lesser period of time. However, after the two years of practice, their mentality has radically switched. According to Sousa Santos, “the PB process has radically changed the professional culture of the technical staff of the executive”. Public Budgeting, along with other Decide features, causes a switch from a technobureaucratic culture within the executive to a technodemocratic one. 

The second challenge to the Decide Madrid system is the minimum threshold of signatures that a proposal needs before getting to the referenda, which is 1% of the voting census (meaning 27.000 people need to vote for a proposal for it to get to a referendum). While it is understandable that a government would want to make sure that solely popularly supported and viable proposals can reach them, DeJohn argues that the hurdles that each proposal must go through “are proving a significant obstacle”. DeJohn further argues that the fact that only two proposals have come to the final voting stage suggests that there exists a serious flaw in the Decide system that could potentially deter citizens from participating in the future. One solution that Madrid is looking into is combining the online feature of sending in proposals with a randomly selected people’s jury who can evaluate the most supported proposals, decide if they should be voted on, or choose to improve the proposal with the help of experts. Afterwards, the modified proposal can be taken to be voted on.

It [now] is a special time, this is the time to do it. If a government wants to be a modern government, a cool government, it has to employ direct democracy, participatory budgets, and digital tools in place. – Pablo Soto

During CONSULCon 18, from November 22 till November 24, the City Council of Madrid and CONSUL are organizing a collaborative working conference around the CONSUL tool in order to exchange knowledge and expertise about methods of participatory democracy and the worldwide use of participatory technologies. Netwerk Democratie will participate in the panel on ‘Participation and Democracy in Europe’ and share the highlights of the event in the third part of the Madrid series. Stay tuned!