How can technology tap into the collective intelligence of the public and improve the quality of lawmaking? That’s precisely the focus of CrowdLaw, a movement, which originated from The GovLab, and consists of a group of researchers and practitioners from around the globe.

We were present at the third CrowdLaw gathering in Barcelona and are happy to share our key takeaways of an exciting day full of good discussions and thought-provoking talks. Here’s what you definitely have to keep in mind when implementing your citizen participation project:

1. Start from the beginning

Citizen participation is increasingly popular amongst governments and institutions, but how do you actually get started? This all depends on your initial assumption on what ‘success’ means for a first participatory process. On the one hand, it should show the value to colleagues and other stakeholders within the organization of opening up the decision-making process to citizens. On the other hand, you have to engage these first citizens in such a way that they’ll be willing to come back on future occasions and ideally even motivate other citizens to do so. The policy cycle can be a helpful framework in this regard.

Beth Noveck (Director at The GovLab) indicated, based on her experience with the US Congress and many participatory initiatives around the globe, that the initial focus should be on the agenda-setting part of the policy cycle. This element allows citizens to indicate what their main issues are and what they entail. You can thus inspire citizens to come back and participate more by involving them in finding and implementing solutions to the issues they brought up themselves.

Furthermore, colleagues and other stakeholders should find value in the fact that new issues are identified and that the current prioritization of issues gets reshuffled based on citizens’ real needs. An excellent way of tapping into this part of the policy cycle in your first project is, for instance, by encouraging or facilitating citizen initiatives.

2. Know who matters and why

Who can actually participate in the project? This question may sound like an easy one to answer: “All officially recognized citizens within our jurisdiction” or applying additional restrictions such as “above the legal voting age”. But is it really that simple?

José Luis Martí, associate professor of Law at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, points out in his research that in some cases the answer is more nuanced. Do you want to tackle air pollution in your city? Why not involve external air pollution experts in the crowdsourcing of solutions? Or why not involve citizens from neighboring cities? One way to deal with this, as pointed out by José, is to look at who is impacted. Are you planning new public transport in your city? It could prove to be useful to also engage tourists, who make use of your public transportation system in a completely different way.

Another way forward could be to split the participatory process into steps and define per step who is allowed to participate. This way, the air pollution expert can be involved in helping to map potential solutions, but as she doesn’t live in your city, she can’t vote on which of these solutions should be put in practice. In short, it makes sense to consider well upfront about who to involve and why, as sometimes it will prove valuable to go beyond your own constituents.

3. Forget the output, focus on the outcome.

The act of opening up the decision-making process to your citizens is one thing; ensuring it’s done in a qualitative way is another. To start ensuring ‘quality,’ you need a clear definition of what that entails. The context, of course, determines a big part of this definition. Yet, an extensive analysis by Christiana Freitas from Universidade de Brasília of 526 Brazilian participatory initiatives showed that there are some general rules one could follow.

  • The output: potential results like guidelines and recommendations for specific policies or legislation;
  • The outcome: output turned into real government actions or public policies.

When evaluating the quality of a past participatory process, one should ask whether or not it resulted in tangible actions or policies. Even more so, when designing a new participatory process, your North Star should be the intended or expected outcome rather than the output (e.g. the number of people reached or the number of ideas collected). Making a clear distinction between these two is key when measuring the impact of your project.
But there is more… the same research found 4 key factors that significantly increase the chance that your participatory project will yield such a tangible outcome:

  1. Gather sufficient political support and legal certainty;
  2. Have a well-defined strategy upfront;
  3. Combine digital participation with face-to-face deliberation (read more on this here);
  4. Use a process that ensures accountability, political inclusion, responsiveness, and social equality.

Need more inspiration? Latinno provides an extensive overview of Latin-American cases based on this framework.

4. Institutionalize for continuity

As the case of Madrid shows, elections and the following changes in political constellations risk to undo or block ongoing participatory processes. Hereby, you risk losing the engaged community of citizens you’ve so carefully built. Moreover, that community will be disappointed and discouraged by the discontinuity, meaning they will be even more difficult to convince the next time. A key question to consider for anyone involved in launching or running a participatory process is thus how to ensure the process can survive a political shift?

Beth Noveck highlighted it’s key to ‘institutionalize’ citizen participation. This wording refers to encapsulating what you’re doing in the ‘genes’ of who you are and how you operate. Your genes are what’s in your city’s strategic plans, in your code of conduct and in your day-to-day practices. There are three aspects that you could institutionalize to foster participatory processes in your law-making:

  • The process itself: “Our city will open up 5% of its yearly budget to the citizens’ priorities.” 
  • The process methodology: “Our city will continuously use a digital participation platform to gather the issues our citizens are experiencing.”
  • The process objectives: “We want to increase public trust in our institutions by opening up all our new policy to public scrutiny.”

Did you also become inspired to learn more about CrowdLaw? Feel free to contact us to get involved in the network, check CrowdLaw’s explainer videos, or explore their catalog with initiatives from around the world.

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