Will people make policy digitally?

The seamlessness of the governance is one of the focuses of the e-Governance Conference this year. We welcome you to investigate the seamless options of citizen engagement in policy design and participatory practices.

Giovanni Allegretti, senior researcher and coordinator of the PhD “Democracy in the 21st century” at the University of Coimbra (Portugal), has worked for over 20 years on citizen participation in budgeting and territorial management. And despite more inclusive models of decision-making date back to three decades ago, digital tools can prove a valuable ally in making them more effective. Here is how crowdsourcing, matched with technology, can enhance and amplify people’s voice in the halls of policy design.

Crowdsourcing, explained

First, a few words on the origins of the word. Crowdsourcing, intuitively, is a mix of the words crowd and sourcing. “That means we’re asking people to do part of the job that usually is attributed to institutions. The difference with outsourcing is that the latter refers to normally a small number of experts in a specific topic that substitute the government in, for example, delivering a service or creating a policy,” Allegretti begins with.

“The big difference is that, in crowdsourcing, we are giving back to citizens an active role, since they are also the beneficiaries of policies. It’s a process of going back and forth, including those that need to be taken into account in policy formulation. Because they are also those for whom said policies or projects are designed,” Allegretti says.

The practice of crowdsourcing has taken one of its most notable shapes in participatory budgeting. 30 years ago, when it was first experimented and introduced in Porto Alegre (Brazil), it represented a significant novelty. “From a symbolic point of view, politicians had decided to not keep entirely to themselves the ultimate decision about money. Otherwise, they could have been involving citizens in the sharing of ideas, but they would have remained the gatekeepers of decision making,” Allegretti continues.

The collective returns of participatory practices

Since then, participatory budgeting has come a long way. Examples in the world are many, from Brazil to Iceland, including Estonia itself with Tartu as the city that pioneered it in the country. Among the benefits, we can observe greater transparency and accountability of the public sector, fairer public spending, increased levels of residents’ participation. All advantages and paradigm shifts that come from a redistribution of powers, aimed at reincluding in processes also excluded citizens and marginalized groups.

“I remember the title of the first participatory budgeting in Venice, Italy. It was called “Rovesciamo il Tavolo” – literally let’s flip the table, reverse it somehow. So, the idea was that participatory budgeting was reshuffling the balance of powers in society, although partially of course,” Allegretti recalls. “Participatory budgeting carries with it a certain vision of social justice and redistribution, which permeates its history, and now contributes to fuel people’s expectations towards the practice,” he says.

How digital tools make participation more effective

Despite of some of the dominant narratives of digitalization in the public sector, such as those related to cost containment and spending optimization, crowdsourcing seems to go in the opposite direction. “Often the driver behind using technology is to reduce costs. But you can intervene on two types of costs: that of the mechanism of participation, and/or the production of policies,” Allegretti says.

Concerning the latter, “Participatory budgeting serves to make space, where politicians step back a little bit in their monopoly of power. So, what crowdsourcing has generated is empowered citizens, more responsible, because part in the construction, delivery, and management of services. Politics, here, gain from people’s engagement not only to the end of decision making, but also with regard to projects’ maintenance and co-management,” Allegretti highlights.

Technology, in this context, may have a double impact. First, “It can massify such playing field, allowing for more and more people to participate.” Secondly, then, “Technology gives advantages in order to synthetize effectively the results of such participation. Technology could serve as a simple calculator, adding up individual preferences and determining who wins and who doesn’t – in this case, duplicating representative democracy. Instead, more complex algorithms could be refined to better take into account how people decide based on the formation of prejudice or solidarity, how they create and negotiate compromises,” Allegretti concludes.

Join Giovanny Allegretti at the e-Governance Conference in the discussion on ‘Next step: “Will People Make Policy Digitally?’. The aim of the session is to learn how crowdsourcing works and which are the digital tools to put it into practice.