Awareness about the value and importance of citizen participation is gradually spreading across the globe. As a result, we’ve got some very exciting news to share: CitizenLab is launching in Chile!

CitizenLab is officially launching in Latin America. We’ve joined forces with local partners Pablo Valenzuela and Magdalena Gatica Monteiro to implement citizen participation in Chile. But who are our partners, and what drives them? What’s the Chilean political context? And which projects are the first ones to launch in this new market? Introducing: CitizenLab Chile.

Our local partners in Chile

“I’m a lawyer with a passion for designing collective solutions to development challenges to achieve dignity, justice, and well-being for all,” says Pablo Valenzuela. Pablo has been working on social projects for over 15 years, and has supported indigenous groups, vulnerable young people, informal settlements and many other marginalised groups.

Working with social challenges brings the realisation that wherever there’s an injustice, there’s also an unequal distribution of power. In order to change a social process, one needs to analyse who’s making the decisions, and how these decisions are shaped. For Pablo, this is no different. “From very early on, I understood that, in order to address social challenges and evolve as a society, the question of power and participation is fundamental.

While working on participatory projects, Pablo realised that the technology in this area was outdated. Among other things, this made processes less transparent and harder to track. He joined forces with Magdalena to develop a tool to streamline citizen participation. They named it “adengun”, which means “a meeting of roads” in the indigenous Mapuche language. But after doing the necessary research, they discovered CitizenLab.

Pablo and Magdalena, our local partners in Chile

Some historical context

As you may know, Chile was in the tight grip of Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship between 1973 and (ca.) 1990. And as is common in authoritarian regimes, Pinochet’s government was organised in a particularly centralised and top-down way. This made it hard for citizen initiatives or other democratic movements to develop.

After Pinochet’s power trip ended with a referendum in 1988, the country was steered by a democratically elected government consisting of Patricio Alwyn’s Christian-Democrats and the Concertación, Chile’s centre-left coalition. But even though Pinochet had left the building, his legacy remained relatively intact for a long time. The anti-democratic barriers and systems that Pinochet’s regime had put in place blocked democratic evolution and innovation for years.

In 2010, power was transferred to the centre-right coalition Alianza. Students across the country started raising questions about the education system and demanding solutions to make it fairer and more equal. The social movements and street protests they initiated soon inspired other areas of life, and ultimately became an intrinsic part of Chile’s public agenda. In 2011, citizen participation finally found its spot in the Chilean law, and councils started taking citizens’ voices into account in policy-making.

The rise of democracy in Chile

Pogrebinschi, Thamy. (2017). LATINNO Dataset. Berlin: WZB.

With the re-election of Concertación in 2014, democratic innovation has peaked in Chile. This new government, headed by President Bachelet, actively promoted citizen participation, collaborated with various parties (such as civil society organisations) and launched participatory innovations such as participatory budgeting

In this article, we find some interesting statistics about citizen participation in Chile. The numbers date from 2017, but give a clear perspective on the recent surge of citizen participation projects and the new democratic system in Chile.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go. To build a true democracy, the Chilean government has to keep placing citizen participation and inclusion at the top of its priority list. But it’s safe to say that Chile is a country in a state of democratic rebirth. And for us, there is no better time to join forces with local partners to enable local citizen participation.

But what is the biggest difference between civic tech in Europe and South America? Which parts of the political context make this such an interesting collaboration? “I believe that both continents have the right people, initiatives and projects. But in South America, we need to work harder to convince those in power that introducing technology into governance is not just valuable, but fundamental.” Whereas the use of civic tech or e-democracy tools is gradually becoming common in Europe, Chile and South America still have more potential for growth.

The first launches in Latin America

So far, the CitizenLab launch in Chile has been successful. With 3 active platforms, the first steps towards a more participatory policy-making have been taken. Currently, CitizenLab Chile is collaborating with a large commune in the capital, the National Youth Institute, and a cluster of NGOs running social programmes across Chile’s Metropolitan Region.

Peñalolén, a melting pot commune in the capital

The commune of Peñalolén is currently consulting its citizens in a participatory budget.

Peñalolén is a large commune in the Chilean capital of Santiago. It counts over 200,000 inhabitants and is known for being a melting pot: it’s a representative mix of all the different socioeconomic groups in Chile. So far, the platform of Peñalolén has already launched a project concerning the wellbeing of the elderly and an open idea box. Recently, the commune also launched a participatory budgeting project with CitizenLab.

Injuv, The National Youth Institute

CitizenLab Chile is collaborating with the National Youth Institute to give young people across Chile a voice. On the Injuv platform, the youth of Chile can propose ideas to improve the areas where they live, learn and grow.
They receive the help of a mentor, who also manages the Injuv platform. The Injuv project had a quite successful launch, because there are currently 5000 users on the platform.

Conectados, a cluster of NGOs

Conectados is a new participation platform built for a group of NGOs. These organisations receive funding from a mining company in order to build social programmes in 8 Chilean communes. The platform is now gathering ideas from neighbours on how to improve these programmes. One of the obstacles this project faces is that the people in rural areas or from less privileged social backgrounds often don’t have high levels of digital literacy. But the participation project also works as a driver for the NGOs to empower these people and help them overcome this barrier.

The future for citizen participation in Chile

Chile has a very different political and social context than the European countries who have already adopted digital democracy. It’ll be interesting to see how the implementation of digital citizen participation and the inclusion of different layers of society evolves over the next few years.

Above: Street art in the Chilean city of Valparaíso says “magnify the world, make it beautiful, and make sure it misses you when you are gone.

In the next five years, we want CitizenLab to be the main digital democracy and civic tech tool in the region,” says Pablo. “South America is an incredible continent that, besides from friendly giant Brazil, is united by a shared language and similar cultural aspects. In my opinion, the expansion in Latin America will be very successful, simply because it’s necessary.”

Do not hesitate to get in touch with Pablo & Magdalena for more information about CitizenLab, now available in Spanish.

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