Participation and Democracy in the Digital Age in Cities

In the face of the growing ubiquity of new technologies and digitalization, cities across the globe are experimenting with new ways of governance tools for civic engagement. Digital transformation offers the ability to reach a higher number of people and interact with them in innovative ways. Cities and municipalities are taking advantage of these opportunities to develop new instruments to enhance civic participation and public consultation in planning, decision-making and implementation processes.

Online platforms, web portals, social media, among other digital tools, can facilitate and improve how city managers engage with citizens, creating new forms of participation, transparency and proximity. Can technology improve democratic participation and foster good government?

Participatory Democracy

Participatory Democracy refers to the process of collective decision making, where government and citizens cooperate and co-create policy-making, maximising the participation of citizens in the public decisions. This form of participatory model or civic engagement is especially interesting at the urban level. As the closest form of government to the people, cities are well positioned to mobilize citizens, innovate and experiment.

This participatory two-way communication between city dwellers and the local government can be done both offline, for instance through neighborhood assemblies, or online, through different digital platforms. The development of new digital tools has allowed for more agile and open approaches to participatory democracy, making the ability to reach out to citizens easier, cheaper and more effective than ever before. As a result, feedback channels from citizens to local managers have multiplied in the past decades, with many technology companies designing new open source tools to facilitate decision-making and participatory democracy.

Digital Platforms for Civic Engagement

The number of digital platforms for civic engagement and participatory democracy range from citizens’ notifications or reporting apps, to open consultation, collaborative policymaking, participatory budgeting, or electronic voting.

For instance, many cities around the world have created different city reporting apps, through which people can report problems such as garbage collection issues, potholes in the streets, traffic lights problems, or streetlight damages, directly to the city government. Some examples include the “Find it, Fix it” of the city of Seattle, or the Johannesburg’s “Find and Fix” app.

Additionally, cities are developing a range of online platforms for public consultation on local planning and policy-making. Online platforms such as MeinBerlin, Decidim Barcelona, Participate Melbourne or Decide Madrid, allow the public to participate directly in government, by collecting ideas and suggestions for the future of the city and voting on them. Sometimes, citizens can also contribute to the city’s strategic plan.

Lastly, another important tool for civic engagement are Participatory Budgets. Participatory Budgets (PB) are a form of democratic process in which citizens can decide directly how to spend a part of a public budget in their communities. The city of Porto Alegre in Brazil was the first municipality implementing a full participatory budget process in 1989. Today, more than 1,500 cities around the world have implemented some form of participatory budget, including New York, Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, Reykjavik or Taichung. Community members can propose and vote on projects such as the improvements of schools, parks, public housing, community spaces, etc.

Source: Flickr/Daniel Latorre

Challenges Ahead

The abovementioned new digital tools for citizens’ participation in cities can improve government decision-making; increase accountability, transparency and policy legitimacy; enhance citizens’ trust and political inclusion; and become more effective by reducing the costs of participation.

However, they can also present a number of challenges. First, there is a need to obtain sufficient citizen support and participation, since these tools do not automatically increase the number of participants or make it easier to contribute. Second, overcoming the digital divide and making sure that traditionally disadvantaged groups of society, such as low-income people or the elderly, are not left behind. Third, processing and analyzing the resulting huge amounts of data, information and public input in an effective way. Lastly, overcoming issues of lack of technical skills of public officials, by teaching them how to deal with these new digitals tools.

Therefore, having a strategic plan and a clear vision of what to do with all the data and information provided by the citizens, and selecting the right tools to achieve the city’s strategic objectives, is key for an effective implementation of these new models of participatory democracy.

Do you think that these new approaches on citizens’ participation have the potential to increase and improve democracy in our cities? Are our local governments ready for an effective implementation of these new digital models of participatory democracy?

About Ana Isabel Duch

Ana Isabel Duch is a research collaborator at IESE Business School. She holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI) and a bachelor’s in Business Management and Administration from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF). Before joining IESE, she worked on research and consultancy projects related to socio-economic development and international trade at the European Commission (DG Trade), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed) and at ACCIÓ Berlin (Government of Catalonia). Her areas of research interest include sustainable development, global and local governance and international political economy.

About Joan Enric Ricart

Joan E. Ricart, Fellow of the SMS and EURAM, is the Carl Schrøder Professor of Strategic Management and Chairman of the Strategic Management Department at the IESE Business School, University of Navarra. In this school he has been Director of the Doctoral Program (1995-2006), Associate Dean for Research (2001-2006), and Associate Director for Faculty and Research (2006-2014). He is also Vice-president of the Iberoamerican Academy of Management. He was the Founding president of the European Academy of Management (EURAM) and President of the Strategic Management Society (SMS). He was the academic director of the EIASM and member of the research committee of the EFMD. Joan E. Ricart holds a Ph.D in Managerial Economics, Northwestern University; Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya; and Ph.D. in Economics and Business Administration, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. He has published several books and articles in leading journals. He is Director of the Center for Globalization and Strategy, co-academic director of IESE Cities in Motion and academic director of the UN center of excellence of PPP for Cities. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Future of Urban Development and Service Initiative of the World Economic Forum. His current work focuses on cities, business models, and general management.

6 thoughts on “Participation and Democracy in the Digital Age in Cities

  1. Very informative blog. No doubt, digital transformation strengthens citizens’ participation which in turn leaves larger impact on democracy across the globe. It has also emerged as a greater challenge to local governments for an effective implementation of these new digital models of participatory democracy. Thanks

  2. technology always helps in one way or another to these to excel their problems economically and socially, a very important and informative article, thank you very much.

  3. Extremely enlightening web journal. Most likely, advanced change fortifies residents’ interest which thus leaves bigger effect on majority rule government over the globe. It has additionally risen as a more prominent test to neighborhood governments for a viable execution of these new advanced models of participatory vote based system. Much obliged

  4. I totally agree with the post and Development must take place in Digital times
    Great Post keep on sharing this kind of post. Thank you.

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