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Over the past few years, Spanish city Madrid has become the center of bottom-up citizen participation, mostly through its development and use of innovative open source tool CONSUL. In this three part series, NetDem’s Rimma Samir explores the inner workings of Madrid’s progressive use of technology in democratic processes. Part 1 explored the history of e-democracy in Madrid, part 2 focused specifically on the online participation platform Decide Madrid. In this third and final article, we report on the yearly conference CONSULCON in Madrid, exploring the latest developments in e-democracy. The 2018 edition took place on November 22-24.

Written by Rimma Samir

Why do we still not make use of the wonders of digital technology in our politics?

Introduction
Seeing a large amount of negative news coming at us from all corners as soon as we open our eyes in the morning can be highly debilitating. In fact, constant exposure to negative information about the state of the political landscape makes people lose faith and trust in their governments. For instance, Eurobarometer reveals that more than two-thirds of Europeans do not trust their governments and this number is increasing. In addition to that, we have entered a period in human history in which we have to deal with unprecedented challenges to our survival collectively – but how can we do that with outdated institutions and decision-making/action processes? We can see that technology can greatly optimise many processes. The question then is, why do we use innovative technologies only on a personal level? Why do we still not make use of the wonders of digital technology in our politics? Although it has not yet spread all over the globe, many countries across five different continents employ innovatory digital tools in order to crowdsource public policy, the concept behind it is dubbed as Crowdlaw (*) and it is widely practiced in Madrid.

During the CONSULCON18 conference, experts from all over the world – official authorities, civil society organisations, think-tanks, and faculties of various universities – gathered to share their collective intelligence and experience in the field of e-democracy. Their main goal: an improvement and innovation of the current political landscape. What united them was the shared belief in the Consul platform, developed in Madrid, which has become the foundation of many citizen participation platforms, spread over more than 100 institutions in 33 countries across Europe ad Latin America, with North America and Africa planning to join soon.

The Platform
In order to understand how it was possible for a tool like Consul to spread over the world in the short period of four years we need to look into exactly what it is and how it works. According to the official site, ‘CONSUL is the most complete citizen participation tool for an open, transparent and democratic government’. Developed in Madrid in the aftermath of the anti-austerity movement, which we have talked about in a previous article, Consul is a free open-source software which includes features such as user creation of debate threads, proposal-making, participatory-budgeting, voting, and collaborative legislation. Due to the fact that it is digital, it opens up the possibility of use among citizens; allowing them to directly participate in agenda-setting and decision-making on a mass scale that is unprecedented. Due to the fact that Consul code is open-source and free, it can be further developed and used collaboratively. Any institution, be it a government or a company, can freely take the Consul code and use it in any way they want it. The team that developed this project also helps those who want to install Consul with the initial steps. The reason why this project is so special is that it has so far been uncommon for governments to build and use technology together with civil society organisations in different countries. This platform has not only become a tool that different countries share, it is also a bond that unites knowledge, expertise, and the experience of digital democracy optimisation in several international contexts.

The Highlights and Lessons from CONSULCON18
22-24 November 2018

Over the three days of CONSULCON18, knowledge and expertise of governments, civil society organisations, activists, and researchers was shared and discussed in the halls of Medialab Prado. The spirit of hope and belief in building resilient citizen participation platforms in order to innovate and develop the society could be felt in the air, and it was impossible to not notice the shared excitement of being able to convene with the similarly-minded. Netwerk Democratie’s Josien Pieterse spoke on the first day of the conference, sharing the experience of the E-Dem project. In this project, NetDem collaborated with three partners – including Consul – to introduce open-source software to municipalities in the Netherlands. As a result of this project, ten Dutch municipalities are now working and experimenting with open-source software. In a similar fashion, many other founders of civil society organisations from all over the world recounted their experiences with digital tools within their localised context.

Although the ways in which Consul is being implemented varies from country to country, one shared dynamic became very clear – countries have this bottom-up flux that demands such tools to be implemented. This signals that the general population wants to be included and heard in a meaningful way, which is something to be happy about: where there is demand there is always going to be supply. However, this blank demand space could easily be taken up by for-profit tech conglomerates. For this reason, many researchers and activists, Beth Noveck, Stephen Lewandowsky, Richard Stallman among others, have urged in favour of the open-source technology as the way to ensure transparency, collaboration, and engagement. Insistence on the importance of development and maintenance of tools such as CONSUL because they are based on free and open-source software, was shared across the board. Since algorithms are biased, it is important to prime ones that are biased in a positive direction.

What also became obvious after hearing about all the experiences of the use of CONSUL and other digital tools in various contexts was that the system is not always as efficient as it could be. This is why it is crucial to experiment with and research further the use and effect of such tools in order to optimise them.

A Movement

We are not making use of the knowledge and the experience of the majority of the population.

We still live in the world that for the most part is built upon organisations and institutions that are not working to their most effective capacity due to problems such as opaqueness, excessive bureaucracy, and unproductive agencies, which are not agile. According to Beth Noveck of GovLab: ‘We lack public institutions – a participatory bureaucracy and open parliamentary processes – that know how to tap into the collective intelligence of our communities, and draw power from the participation of the many, rather than the few.’ Due to the fact that within the current political paradigm, expertise in political decision-making is only attributed to a relatively small amount of professionally trained politicians, we are not making use of the knowledge and the experience of the majority of the population. Participatory technologies can play an important role in changing this inefficient and inequitable state of affairs. Although it may at times seem that the future of democracy is doomed, the fast diffusion and proliferation of digital tools such as Consul point to the contrary. The difficulties we face in the process of innovating representative democracies ought not to discourage us, since a growing number of actors from all over the world are joining forces to contribute to this development. To be continued.

(*) Definition of the concept of Crowdlaw from the GovLab manifesto: “CrowdLaw is any law, policy-making or public decision-making that offers a meaningful opportunity for the public to participate in one or multiples stages of decision-making, including but not limited to the processes of problem identification, solution identification, proposal drafting, ratification, implementation or evaluation.”