Engaging Through Online Platforms

INTRODUCTION

Throughout the world for many years, local bodies have been involved in deliberation of local issues, decision making within their capacities and choosing their leaders. The idea of citizen engagement in public affairs has been long prevalent (GCPSE, 2016). Similarly, the idea that computers and digital technologies can help us improve city in diverse ways, isn’t new either (Bollier, 2016). However, in the recent years there has been an increase in the number of citizen engagement activities and a shift is taking place from the top-down governance to a more horizontal process (Garrigues, 2017). With the changing trend, the policy makers have started looking for active citizen feedbacks to have a better sense of people’s priorities and to decide the need & shape of the public policy (Bollier, 2016; IPAT, 2015). The National Smart Cities Mission also identifies the importance of citizen engagement in the formation of a policy and actively works in applying it at different levels. In our previous newsletters we have discussed the strategies of citizen engagement taken up by different cities and a possible framework of process that can be implemented.  This article reflects on different case-studies around the world that initiated citizen engagement models on an online interface. It also reflects on their procedure and how they managed to derive an order in a situation of complexity.

Out of the SCPs of the 20 lighthouse cities there are many cities that understands the importance of using online platforms as an effective way of engaging citizens. Jaipur has come up with an online grievance redressal system app where the citizens can register any issues in their area. Surat has come up with many initiatives at different levels to ensure a comprehensive approach towards citizen engagement. Out of the many objectives, they have also developed an online citizen engagement platform for getting citizen’s feedback in decision making. Pune has created an ecosystem of around 400 partners to support the growing entrepreneurial culture and at the same time integrate the local stakeholders. Ahmedabad involves different groups of people, societies, working class to practice citizen consultation exercises for their inclusion.  There are many more examples to share.

FRAMEWORK OF OPERATIONS

Any citizen engagement process broadly involves three actors (GCPSE, 2016). They can then be further categorized according to their specialization:

  1. Decision makers – The politicians who aggregate the preferences of the citizens and facilitates the citizen’s expectations by deploying the resources and governance.
  2. Mediators – The public officials who deliver the public services to the citizens and implement the strategic direction of the policy decided by the politicians.
  3. Citizens – In a sort of ‘social contract’ with the politicians; gives the authority to the politicians and expects good public services in return. This also includes the local businesses and entrepreneurs.

The concept of citizen engagement requires an active dialogue between the citizens and the decision makers; it is not entirely similar to citizen participation (Garrigues, 2017). In citizen engagement, cities (or social systems) directly involve the citizens in the decision making process, it is a more formal structure that is organized by the public officials or the government. They do it by providing tools to consult and access public information, discuss with the elected representatives and monitor the implementations (Garrigues, 2017). Citizen engagement creates a sense of citizenship and educates the public in many ways (IPAT, 2015).  For an effective engagement process the public officials play an important role in mediating the preferences of the citizens and developing a network among the citizens with common interests. It is also very important the development model and the whole process is transparent. This is where an online platform can be of many utilities. Through the different case studies around Europe, we can develop an understanding on how they work.

INSIGHTS FROM THE CASE-STUDIES IN EUROPE

1)      ZO!city

The model was implemented in Amstel III which is the south-eastern neighborhood of Amsterdam. Post-2008 financial crisis, the area once had 25-30% vacant spaces (Beer, 2014). The existing stakeholders had limited contact with each other and cohesively lacked a sense of ownership.

The fragmented stakeholders were the key strength of the neighborhood. However, to setup a collaboration among them was the main challenge. The implementation of the model, initiated by Saskia Beer, was a step-by-step process:

  1. Analyse the neighborhood and identify the main strategic points where smaller interventions could’ve made a lot of difference.
  2. Informal meetings with the local stakeholders were held, which included real estate owners, companies, business associations, community organizations, etc. to understand the priorities, their willingness and their capacities to invest in the development model.
  3. Using metaphorical and non-technical language, the mediators created a manifesto that triggered the stakeholders to envision their own ideas and make the planning process seem more accessible to the citizens and the stakeholders.

Fig 1 – The three interconnected pillars of the development model

This was done by deliberately using a ‘light-hearted and positive’ campaign over a rather serious vision (Beer, 2014). The development model works on three interconnected pillars. The municipality simultaneously had its own objectives for the development model.

Saskia Beer initiated ‘glamourmanifest’ following the model of co-operation and co-creation with a collective instrument of interventions and investments. Implementing an adaptive practice to adjust to the changes and the opportunities that come along the way (Beer, 2014).

By collecting the ideas and the demands of the users, an urban vision was then synthesized. Initiatives and desires of the stakeholders were located on a map and overlapped. ‘High energy zones’ were identified where a lot of ideas and stakeholders overlapped.

It was realized that to establish an effective network of co-operation between the stakeholders it was very important that the information regarding the various initiatives is provided to them at ease. At the same time, a sense of transparency and availability of information is always required, to accommodate this need an online platform was launched and ‘glamourmanifest’ changed its name to ‘ZO!city’.

Fig 2 – The online interface of ZO!city

Fig 3 – On clicking the pins, the description of the ideas shows up

Response 

Anybody using the website has the liberty to suggest an initiative which is then opened for public voting and sources of funding. The initiatives are geo-located on a map which are also classified and colour-coded on the basis of its functionality. The ideas are then openly scrutinized by the other users and is up-voted if it develops similar interests. When the project gathers enough response, it is then made open for public funding. By the use of the database and understanding the priorities of the stakeholders, the companies and their capital has started to come together. Most of the initiatives are proposed through the interface. In many cases, the investments are done by the private stakeholders, this reduces the dependency on the municipality and generates a state of financial self-reliability. The progress of the project can be tracked and users can directly give their feedbacks. As on 2017, the initiatives has kick-started the following projects:

  • Parking space sharing by ParkU
  • Electric bike sharing by Urbee
  • Ubuntu stadtsuin (city garden) by Empowerment co-operative Amsterdam (ECA)
  • E-car charging stations by Gemeente (municipality), Amsterdam
  • Co-working space by Carteblanche (Status-completed)

2)      Madame Mayor, I have an idea!

In Paris, a new participatory budgeting scheme was piloted by the mayor Anne Hidalgo in 2014. Unlike ZO!city, the ideas here were not crowd-sourced, instead the city administration proposed ideas which were then brought upon to the citizens for discussions and voting. In the initial years, the process concentrated on encouraging the citizens to initiate a discussion for the proposals.

After a few years of initiations by the city authority, the participatory budgeting process is now online and fully active (Simon, Bass, Boelman & Mulgan, 2017). The citizens of Paris can now directly propose an initiative by themselves. Currently, the process has five phases distributed (Simon, Bass, Boelman & Mulgan, 2017):

  1. In January and February, the proposals are made online which are supported by many neighborhood workshops.
  2. From March to May, a co-creation process takes place which brings the representatives of similar proposals together.
  3. Over the next few months, the ideas are shared online for public review. Selected by an election committee, these ideas meet the minimum criteria such as, public benefit, technical feasibility, the financial feasibility, etc. During this period, an elected committee assists the people in promoting and campaigning their idea.
  4. In September, the citizens are then allowed to vote for the most desired proposals.
  5. By December, the successful ideas are selected. The implementation and the budget is allocated in the following year.

The progress of the projects can be then tracked through various means such as on online platform, geo-located and overlapped on google maps and by infographics created by the teams.

Response

Since the year of inception, the project has seen substantial growth. Currently, it is considered as one of the biggest citizen engagement programs in practice (Simon, Bass, Boelman & Mulgan, 2017). In 2014, the project received around 41000 votes for various proposals, the number raised to 67000 votes in the next year and then 160000 in 2016. The number of projects selected for implementation also increased from 9 to 219. The transparency of the process, political support and the continuous citizen engagement are the main reasons for the success of this initiative.

Fig 4 – The comparison of the selected projects and the participation of the citizens over the years.

Although, the process of these models are highly inclusive to the context of the neighbourhoods or cities, but still, similar projects in their own capacities have started emerging all over the world. For example, Madrid has ‘Decide Madrid’, which tracks proposals, debates, participatory budgeting and sectoral processes. Jakarta has initiated its share of citizen engagement from ‘Qlue’ which has different interfaces for different activities. Reykjavik, Finland has ‘Better Reykjavik’ working on similar grounds.

KEY TAKE-AWAYS

In the context of a neighborhood, the number of the stakeholders present are never specific and to define the style of interaction among them is rather complex. Even if the decision-making process is spontaneous and time consuming, the objectives can be clearly laid out and a definite process can be put in place. It is equally important to identify the stakeholders and understand their needs and ideas for urban transformation. According to their desires and the ambitions of the stakeholders, a proper network between them should be created. An online interface comes of many uses, a database of the existing stakeholders and their interests can be created. The database can also be created on the basis of the proposals and feedback of the users, at the same time it can also work as a source of information for them. The whole development model is highly transparent and allows the users to track the progress of the projects they are interested in. A possible framework can be summarized in the figure – 5.

Fig 5 – A summary of the possible framework of using an online interface for better citizen participation. (Source – glamourmanifest)

Indian cities has always had diversified actors with multiple interests. Identifying similar interests and developing a network among them can be a complex challenge and also an opportunity. An online interface can help the mediators and the decision makers to derive a sense of order in the complex network of interests and develop an incremental order in the development process.

SCP of Indian cities has considered many initiatives for citizen engagement, for example, Mygov has a forum which actively asks citizens for feedback and discussions, but, a similar model is hard to find. There are many takeaways from the above case-studies that Indian cities can use to develop an effective citizen engagement process. Implementing a similar model can help the decision makers in foreseeing a long-term urban synthesis and develop a sense of trust among the stakeholders.