Next-Generation Engagement Platforms, and How They Are Useful Right Now (Part 1)
Inspiration for remotely engaging your constituency
The COVID-19 pandemic rather abruptly eliminated some of our traditional methods of engaging large groups of people. Canvassing, rallies, and large public events have either been taken entirely off the table or drastically reduced in size. The long-established contours of board meetings and public hearings have been ground down by distancing and remote participation, and governing bodies like Congress are struggling to adapt. Not even the fiercest Team Digital advocates ever sought this aggressive a shift to online channels. Our campaigns, governments, and civil society institutions will soon suffer from the lack of face-to-face conversations, if they aren’t already.
This, of course, isn’t preventing people from staying in touch with those they already know. On The Energy Gang podcast, clean energy advocate Katherine Hamilton recently commented that in Washington, DC, lobbyists with existing relationships are still getting time with members of Congress to communicate their message, but that it’s a very hard time for someone trying to build new relationships to do so. Our collective space for new conversations and relationships has been severely curtailed while we figure out how to use videochat to fill that hole in our civic lives.
How do I engage a constituency right now?
Like many others in our field, I’ve been thinking about how digital public engagement platforms can promote more responsive and accountable governance. Today’s radically altered context opens the opportunity to see if they might help. If there is ever a time to to learn what works for remotely engaging a constituency, this is it. I’ll present a handful of next-generation platforms here and discuss how they might help share power, debate, and arrive at meaningful consensus, even when we can’t look each other directly in the eye.
Engagement platforms have always been designed to engage the public at large, like governments might seek to do. They’re the bread-and-butter of what many people mean when they talk about “civic tech,” and can be used by organizations, campaigns, and governments to engage their staff, membership, or constituencies. All of the examples I’ll discuss here are available for civil society and political campaign uses as well.
These platforms are almost purpose-built for our socially-distanced times. They work asynchronously, so people can participate when their schedules allow. They also work over short or great distances.
When I call them “engagement platforms,” I mean these platforms truly engage people. Social media metrics have diluted our idea of engagement, just like the platforms diluted our idea of friendships. The platforms here enable behaviors that go beyond “likes.” Their designers have connected their software features to real-world levers of power, so that when they talk about empowerment, they really mean someone gets power as a result of the process.
I refer to them as ‘next-generation’ engagement platforms because they’re constantly pushing the envelope of how people can engage over digital means. Any app can bolt on upvoting, comments, and polls. These platforms use AI to help parse huge volumes of feedback without obfuscating the original messages posted by participants. They use nudging behaviors — small design choices that add up to improved outcomes — to ensure those on the powerful end of a relationship actually respond, and complete the loop with the constituent. They’re experimenting with ways to let a petition signer validate their address as a constituent without exposing that data to authorities.
Some of these platforms have been up and experimenting for over a decade, so they’ve been through several waves of crowdsourcing fads, and honed in on what truly motivates institutions to be more responsive.
In this post, I’ll cover a set of open source engagement examples that have been developed by civic technologists in partnership with governments. In the next post, I’ll present examples developed by for-profit social benefit corporations. The open source platforms are a good solution for governments, organizations, and campaigns with access to technical staff, because installing, hosting, maintaining, and updating one of these platforms usually requires a fair amount of technical skill.
Smaller groups and campaigns without strong technical teams might benefit from some of the private platforms, which are hosted software-as-a-service solutions. The annual cost of most private sector platforms is significantly less than the salary for a single software engineer in many labor markets, and usually includes hosting, some level of help and support services, and automatic updates and improvements.
Why use these platforms in the first place?
Each of these engagement platforms seeks to improve constituent consultation and agenda-setting processes. The platforms’ developers promise beneficial outcomes like:
- Broader reach to more people than analog engagement processes, by virtue of longer, asynchronous feedback periods, all at a lower cost than traditional outreach methods (which are now off the table, anyway);
- Feedback from a more diverse and statistically-representative range of residents (and methods to ensure it);
Improved understanding of constituent feedback, through user validation, filtering tools, content moderation, and artificial intelligence techniques to synthesize large volumes of communication;
- Better ongoing communication with participants, like automated follow-up messaging to keep people informed on the issues and initiatives in which they displayed interest, or the ideas they submitted;
- Simplified administration of the consultation process for administrators, allowing you to conduct more frequent consultations with faster turnaround times.
The value proposition is that these features will lead to:
- Better informed and more innovative decision-making, by inviting more perspectives earlier in processes;
- More responsive organizations and campaigns, through improved communication flows, feedback loops, and public pressure;
- Stronger buy-in on the decisions that are made, by offering constituents the opportunity to be heard earlier in processes;
- Increased leadership legitimacy, through increased transparency, improved decisions, and more widespread feelings of political efficacy, or the feeling that your voice is meaningful.
There are two maxims to keep in mind when selecting an engagement platform, that even the founders of these technologies profess:
1. A technology product will accomplish nothing on its own without accompanying political processes and pressures.
Tiago Peixoto and Jonathan Fox made this argument quite persuasively in their 2016 background paper for the World Bank, When Does ICT-Enabled Citizen Voice Lead to Government Responsiveness?: Merely making it easier for citizens to have voice, without ensuring that government authorities have reason to listen, is not sufficient.
2. Software tools for democratic activities are opinionated, this post’s examples included. The design decisions behind each feature were driven by a diverse set of philosophies on the role of citizens and stakeholders.
By now, it’s cliche to point out that technology design is not neutral. The platforms included in this assessment were designed by people with their own philosophies, biases, and cultural expectations. These values are often reflected in design decisions in the production of the digital engagement platforms, and manifest as affordances in the software. The power of apps to enable or restrict our actions has been written about in many places, including Howard Gartner and Katie Davis’s The App Generation (2013).
One way to evaluate the assumptions baked into a given tool is to ask yourself, which roles are easy to play on the platform? Which behaviors are simply not possible?
Some design decisions, such as what happens to your thoughts once you submit them, are hard to evaluate from a user perspective. This is another argument in favor of transparent engagement processes and open source code.
The ’empowerment’ word
There are many, many tools that let you communicate, in some way, through digital means. Whether that speech goes anywhere and achieves any change in the world is a long-simmering debate in the civic tech realm, with everyone from Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light to Malcolm Gladwell to the aforementioned Peixoto and Fox weighing in.
It would be all too easy for governments or other powerful actors to host a digital engagement process to display a veneer of responsiveness that doesn’t actually exist. So, in considering public engagement platforms, it’s worth considering the extent to which they actually empower constituents, and the means by which they do, instead of simply enabling “participation theater.”
One way to evaluate the platforms is to invoke the International Association for Public Participation‘s oft-cited Spectrum of Public Participation. The Spectrum introduces a shared language that, like civic engagement platforms, holds up a goal of improved decision-making that more accurately reflects the interests and concerns of potentially affected communities. Their scale was developed with broad international input to help ensure its values cross national, cultural and religious boundaries.
It’s important to note that this scale isn’t meant to suggest that every platform should seek to fulfill all five goals. There are times where informing is the most important work, and there are times where an engagement platform driving collaboration would harm offline work in the same vein. It’s included here simply to bring structure to how we consider the roles opened or closed by tech options.
Based on interviews, desk research, and an analysis of engagement features, I scored each of the digital public engagement platforms below based on the public participation it promotes on the IAP2 spectrum. The subset I’m sharing here perform well on this scale, but not even all of these platforms truly empower their users under more rigorous definitions of the word.
The first three platforms we’ll go over were developed by civil society groups with government partners and/or by governments themselves. They are generally open source projects, which allows greater transparency than proprietary code and algorithms. They are:
An open source project hosted by CONSUL DEMOCRACY Foundation
Price: Free. The project comes with an automated installer, documentation, and a large technical community that makes setup easy, by web app standards.
Example installations: CONSUL is used by the City Council of Madrid, which originally led the platform’s development, and New York City’s Participatory Budgeting program, among many others.
CONSUL and Decidim are open source digital engagement portals designed to shift power to engaged citizens. They were each started in Spain: CONSUL in Madrid, and Decidim in Barcelona. Together, they are two of the more exciting developments in locally- and openly-developed engagement platforms in recent memory.
CONSUL’s hometown instance is branded Decide Madrid (“Madrid Decides”). The platform lets residents collaboratively draft, comment, and vote on legislative proposals, submit and vote on participatory budgeting projects, and debate in forums.
Most notably, citizen proposals that reach a threshold of 26,000 votes on the platform (1% of Madrid’s registered voters) are put up to a public vote (by post, poll, or online). If the proposal wins a simple majority in this vote, it is considered binding. The City Council then has a month to consider the logistics and legal standing of the proposal and report back. In this way, Decide Madrid is able to approximate a version of direct democracy in line with the existing state law governing Madrid.
Over 130 institutions and cities in 33 countries have adopted CONSUL, with some of these groups contributing to further developing it. This critical mass of adoption and in-kind technical support is key to the sustainability of the open source project, and offers confidence that the platform has a strong future.
Public software advocates are excited about CONSUL because it’s shown that by working together to co-develop free and open source software, civil society groups and even city governments are able to engage citizens without expensive recurring subscriptions to private software vendors. Anyone with sufficient technical expertise can inspect the code to see how the platform makes decisions. For example, if the placement of someone’s proposal on an engagement website is an important factor in how much support it receives (or doesn’t receive), an open source platform allows anyone capable of reading the software’s code to verify that all proposals are treated equally.
As we’ve said before, the answers to the questions of who funds, who builds, and who uses digital engagement platforms are key to evaluating their political meaning. Projects like the CONSUL platform begin to shift the locus of power back to the grassroots populace.
In addition to the potential to pass legally binding resolutions, the participatory budgeting element of Decide Madrid itself is directly connected to €100 million of the city’s budget. This is a powerful link between online engagement and offline results through formal mechanisms.
With a wide range of features that can directly link to real-world legal mechanisms, CONSUL performs well on the Spectrum of Engagement.
In Madrid, elected representatives participate on Decide Madrid. This allows residents to directly communicate and engage with them, and experience responsive government at the interpersonal level. According to an email from the CONSUL team, there are currently over 500,000 Decide Madrid users, or 20% of the 2.5 million people living in the city who are also old enough to participate on the platform (over 16 years old).
CONSUL emerged from a strong protest movement. In Madrid’s 2015 municipal election, left-wing parties formed a coalition, Ahora Madrid, and gained power for the first time in decades. The party itself was created by Ganemos Madrid, an open, participatory movement that operated by and advocated for direct public participation as part of its broader municipalist ideology. The municipal election immediately preceded the development of the CONSUL platform; it was designed and built by these same direct democracy advocates. When they won power, the digital public engagement platform enjoyed an abundance of official municipal government support, including an executive champion in former Mayor Manuela Carmena, that few other civic tech projects have enjoyed.
From 2015-2019, CONSUL appeared to answer the perennial question asked of so many grassroots civic tech projects: If this work is so important, why isn’t the government itself doing it? CONSUL benefitted from being an official project of Madrid, including paid staff developers and an evangelist. But when conservative José Luis Martínez-Almeida took power in Madrid’s 2019 City Council election, he proved to be no fan of CONSUL, direct democracy, Madrid’s Low Emission Zone, and other efforts initiated by the left.
While the project has fallen out of favor in Madrid City Council, the CONSUL platform is still democratically governed by the CONSUL Democracy Foundation, a network of international civic tech non-governmental organizations that includes civic engagement NGOs from The Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Germany, Sweden, and the United States.
As with the other digital platforms, CONSUL alone did not and will not magically generate ongoing public engagement. The key is that the cities of Madrid and Barcelona have each devolved some amount of formal power to their platforms’ digital engagement methods, and linked these digital channels to formal mechanisms of political power.
It’s also important proof of the ability of globally diverse, digitally-connected civic technology communities to reliably compete with for-profit government technology vendors. This trend is gaining steam, with the Foundation for Public Code linking a network of municipal peer partners and the Beeck Center’s just-launched State Software Collaborative looking to improve US states’ procurement processes, in-house tech development, and inter-state sharing.
How to get started using CONSUL:
- Try a demo
- Join or browse the CONSUL Community to learn about events and current topics
- Check out the documentation that outlines how to fork CONSUL’s code on Github to use for your own instance
vTaiwan is a collaborative project run by civil society volunteers in concert with Taiwan’s administrative branch. A volunteer community called g0v facilitates vTaiwan.
Price: All of the products used are free and open source, or offer free tiers.
Like CONSUL in Spain, the vTaiwan process was born out of Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower protest movement. This activist community achieved a degree of formal power with the appointment of Audrey Tang, a prominent hacker and member of the g0v community, as a Digital Minister in the country’s executive cabinet.
Tang brought with her radically transparent methods of conducting government business, including open public consultations. Departments within the Taiwanese national government can choose to call a vTaiwan process; so far, 36 consultations have helped address conflicts over regulation of UberX and online alcohol delivery, as examples. Put simply, vTaiwan blends digital engagement platforms with in-person meetings to resolve tricky regulatory questions.
It’s a popular example because it has reimagined what is possible with online deliberation. In 2016, Liz Barry wrote an excellent profile of the process in these very pages. Micah Sifry has also documented how the vTaiwan process works in greater detail here.
The vTaiwan process is a great example of how you can daisy-chain a group of different tools together to achieve what your group actually needs, rather than relying on a single platform to provide the full suite:
- HackMD, an open document program, is used to document the entire process, from meeting minutes to hackathon events.
- Discourse forum discussion software, to collect and articulate opinions, if there appears to be strong consensus. (Discourse is free and open source but gets more expensive if you need to pay for a hosted instance).
- Pol.is argument-mapping software to collect opinions and identify overlapping areas of consensus, if there is disagreement. On Github.
- Sli.do, Typeform, LimeSurvey, or other traditional questionnaire systems are used to gauge stakeholder opinions.
- Slideshare and GitBook, for documenting in-person and online meetings.
- YouTube or other livestream provider for live video.
What makes the vTaiwan process innovative is that it’s uniquely designed for the fundamentally democratic work of bringing divergent views together. The process administrators invite expert stakeholders to contribute data and statements to establish a body of baseline information for the dialogue parts of the process. Participants get recruited from key stakeholder groups. In the case of regulating UberX, this included Uber drivers, taxi unions, company representatives, academic experts, and consumers.
These participants work to discuss the issues in relation to this body of information, and interpret the case in front of them with a variety of digital tools as organizing aids. These tools are used to extensively document the processes and bridge the communication gap between various levels of stakeholders:
The decision-making process is extremely well-documented so that it can be followed and understood by public observers, and even re-opened at later points in time when the need to interpret the regulations arises. (Imagine if we had this kind of record-keeping for some of the governmental precedents that still govern aspects of our lives.)
The Pol.is tool being used as part of the broader vTaiwan process
The most unique step of vTaiwan process, to me, is how it employs Pol.is to encourage participation while simultaneously leveraging that expression to identify areas of unexpected consensus. Pol.is is a third-party software product developed by Occupy Wall Street activists in the US. Participants draft agreement statements (“UberX should pay drivers a living wage”), and then each participant can privately vote to agree, disagree, or simply pass on each statement.
The Pol.is software applies semantic clustering to these statements and votes to analyze and chart the group into clusters. With enough data, this results in discernible factions based on any number of expressed viewpoints. Importantly, Pol.is also identifies popular statements between otherwise opposing factions, exposing areas of consensus. In doing so, the software maps the relationships between how participants feel about the issues surrounding the topic. Compared to some other engagement tools whose participation syntheses can still best be described as, “a word cloud”, Pol.is is working at an entirely different level.
The deliberative group can then use this data for additional discussions and designing compromises. The facilitators drive the stakeholders’ conversation, through voting, towards co-creating a rough consensus (rather than complete agreement). In the case of UberX, areas of consensus included the arguments that the company must not undercut minimum fare prices, and that app-based ride services must only pick up passengers dispatched from apps, rather than off the street. The decisions were then sent to the requesting government agency to either adopt or reject. From here, civil servants translated the recommendations to specific policies and reviewed their legal viability, with the option to consult the original petitioners for clarification. (This step, a human layer of people who can transpose digital feedback into analog institutions, shows up in several successful public engagement platforms and is an important investment to keep in mind when setting up such a program).
In the UberX case, 31,115 votes were cast on a flexible set of regulations, which were soon adopted by the government. The process was successfully repeated to determine regulations around Airbnb in Taiwan.
Many digital platforms are rightly critiqued for engaging individuals as sole actors, rather than collective groups. vTaiwan stands out as a truly multistakeholder process from start to finish. It is also a strong and too rare example of a blended online-offline participatory process.
The process is heavily dependent upon volunteers inside and outside of Taiwanese government, allowing its host office (Public Digital Innovation Space) to achieve societal outcomes well beyond its budget. Still, vTaiwan could be a more stable institutional process if it had dedicated staff for key roles.
The main weakness in the process with regards to empowerment is that the decision to embark on a vTaiwan process is a voluntary one, made on behalf of federal agencies on topics under their purview. Findings from the vTaiwan process can be rejected by the federal agencies that called for the process. If they do, the agency must clarify why adoption of the proposal isn’t possible. Still, the lack of binding power for its resolutions, and the voluntary nature of calling the process, limits its role as an accountability mechanism.
Lastly, the limited number of participants the vTaiwan process engages (versus the large numbers of people engaged in broad-scale digital platforms that reach tens of thousands of people) opens it to critique over how statistically representative involvement is.
Another interesting thing about vTaiwan is that the team found it easier to create change at the regulation level than the legislative. Individuals from national regulatory agencies are generally willing to participate, as they see their involvement early in the process as constructive. vTaiwan is rightly hailed as a step forward in bridging digital and traditional engagement methods.
How to emulate the vTaiwan process
- Learn more about how it’s administered
- Try out the tools that make up the process:
Decidim is an independent participatory democracy project used by Barcelona and Helsinki, among others.
Pricing: Free, but like any web app, requires technical skills to set up and maintain.
Example installations: Decidim Barcelona, Decide Mérida (Mexico), L’Hospitalet (Catalonia)
Barcelona’s Decidim was originally an offshoot of Madrid’s CONSUL, but was later rewritten to allow more modularity. It was developed at Barcelona’s Laboratory for Democratic Innovation and by a self-organized community of partners, including Barcelona’s City Council.
Like CONSUL, participants on the Decidim platform register as city (or other) residents, and can then propose initiatives, and track and vote upon those proposed by others (including the City itself). Some of the distinguishing features included in Decidim, but not CONSUL, are support for in-person meetings, collaborative drafting of proposals, modular features, and a social contract over using the platform for the right reasons.
Decidim is one of the most feature-rich platforms I’ve seen, as it includes participatory budgeting, collaborative proposal drafting, and peer-to-peer communication tools. Also like Consul, Decidim’s modules enable groups and governments to inform, consult, involve, collaborate, and/or empower.
Decidim’s features support blended digital and traditional democratic activities. It supports group deliberations with meeting registration and minutes-keeping (remote as well as in-person). It’s used by cities like Helsinki, regional governments, nonprofit networks like Fundaction, and communities like the Decidim community itself.
Decidim is an open, participatory project, meaning that partners who engage and contribute to developing the platform will have more input into its direction than clients of commercial platforms.
The team is also cognizant of the several sociopolitical layers that must be considered when attempting to reform democracy with technology, and have been thoughtful with regards to the effects of their software designs, as this essay by its founder illustrates. For example, rather than design software that maps to a limited set of municipal activities, Decidim is designed to support “custom-made democracy”, with modules for any combination of organizational processes, like decision-making conferences, participation by lottery, candidate selection processes, collaborative documents drafting, and more.
It’s also modular, so for example, when the EU-funded DECODE project was piloting experiments in personal data privacy, Decidim was able to integrate their solution to allow anonymous public petition signatures that still verify qualifying residence status.
Decidim blends digital public engagement with offline outreach opportunities and staff. Like vTaiwan, the City of Barcelona relies on a team to synthesize public proposals from the digital platform back into the traditional structures of government.
According to NYU GovLab’s Crowdlaw Catalog, 120,000 people (7.5% of the Barcelona population) participated in the process to submit proposals for the city’s Municipal Action Plan (PAM). Of the 10,860 proposals submitted, 1,467 were included in the official PAM. Since the platform’s launch, 9,828 proposals have been accepted, of the 13,957 created.
According to a 2019 report, the Barcelona instance of the platform had under 32,000 participants, which is fewer than other digital engagement platforms of its caliber.
Partners using the Decidim project must follow a binding “social contract” that seeks to prevent the manipulation of data or users on the platform. It stipulates that the platform will remain free and open, as well as auditable. It also stipulates that participatory content must be accessible and downloadable, it should always be known what happens with each proposal, or why it was rejected or left behind. This is an important distinction from the commercial platforms, who promise to hold their paying government partners accountable, though sometimes without providing the ability to audit these promises.
Decidim hosts also commit to promote all participatory content equally, rather than unfairly promote, either manually or with black box algorithms, certain proposals. Another principle is “Privacy with verification,” meaning that individuals must be verified in order to maintain equality of participation, but that this can be done without transferring personal data to third parties.
Decidim is a potent platform for digital public engagement. It can be used by cities, but also communities that aren’t geographically defined. If its developer community can formalize onboarding and support options, and continue developing the product, it will become an obvious choice for groups that want to practice a more participatory democracy.
How to get started using Decidim:
- Join the meta-Decidim community
- Watch presentations from last year’s DecidimFest
- Check out the documentation, which includes manuals and an introduction video.
- Try a demo
- Check out the code on Github
These are three of the best-in-class digital public engagement processes I’ve learned about while curating the Civic Tech Field Guide and conducting additional research. Whether you use these platforms directly or simply as inspiration, now is the time to consider how to engage your constituencies, however you define them, in more meaningful ways.
In my next post, we’ll look at three examples of social ventures working on the same challenge from private sector perspectives, each sporting next-generation features of their own.