Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 3)

After their failed attempt to turn Plaza Podemos into a real engine for the development of Podemos’ political program Arana and other tech activists such as Pablo Soto and Yago Bermejo Abati joined the electoral platform of Ahora Madrid, which managed to win the 2015 city elections through a highly participated, citizen-driven political process known in Spain as the confluencia, which Arana briefly discusses in the third part of this interview.

Since September 2015 Arana has been in charge of  Decide Madrid the city participation portal, which has over 300.000 registered users. Through this website citizens can propose their own initiatives, engage in collaborative legislation, and vote on participatory budgeting projects for which the City has allocated €100 million in 2017 alone. As I previously reported, the first binding city referendums based on the new system were held in February 2017, and were a mixed bag of citizen initiatives and consultations that were launched by the city.

Screenshot of the Participatory Budgeting landing page of Decide Madrid (as of January 2018)

The two citizen initiatives on making Madrid 100% sustainable and the introduction of integrated ticketing for public transportation were based on proposals that passed the 1% support threshold an initiative must collect on Decide Madrid in order to be put through a city referendum. Because Madrid has 2.7 million eligible voters, the two proposals were initially backed by 27.000 city residents. It is Arana himself and his colleagues that have set this threshold after they had tried to introduce it without success in Podemos.

At a first sight, such threshold appears to be low. After all, why should an entire city be called to express an opinion on an issue that only 1 person out of 100 cares about? But then, thinking about it, it is obvious that this 1% backers have themselves gone through various stages, such as registering an account on the city portal, reading several proposals, supporting the ones they consider relevant, and informing other people about them. In other words, this is an active (if not activist) part of the population that lets everybody else know that there are some urgent questions they should consider and decide upon. And, contrary to political candidates, these citizens are not making “electoral promises,” they are just exercising their constitutional right to participate directly in public affairs (art. 23 of the Spanish Constitution reads “citizens have the right to participate in public affairs, directly or by means of their representatives.”)

From this perspective, the function of the city administration is just to verify that the citizen initiatives are technically and financially feasible. Of course one could argue that financial feasibility is never just a technical criterion. However, in my understanding only the proposals that would require a significant financial investment are at risk of being carefully scrutinized and possibly rejected on this ground. Further, the growing importance of participatory budgeting, for which the City of Madrid has allocated 100 million Euros in 2017 suggests that the administration led by Manuela Carmena is letting madrilenos have a growing power in deciding how to allocate city funds.

In the third and final part of this interview Arana reflects upon the difference between Podemos and Ahora Madrid, and analyzes some of these participatory processes in detail.

Marco Deseriis (MD). Let me return to the question of the scalability of direct democracy. We have seen that in Podemos direct democracy hit a wall because the leadership was concerned of controlling the message in the electoral area. At the city level, the scale is more horizontal, it is closer to the citizens’ daily life. Parties instead have to connect the level to the national to the supra-national. Do you think that the party form is itself more difficult to reconcile with direct democracy?

Miguel Arana (MA). What happened in Podemos is exactly what you said. Before the Vistalegre congress they realized that for them it was a very wrong idea to have this internal democracy both tactically and strategically. “It is going to be very beautiful but we are not going to be able to win the elections, so we need to be a more traditional party.” At that moment a lot of people like us stopped being part of Podemos. It is not that you really quit, because you do not have a membership card, but we got less involved. At this point, people who had been involved with the 15-M, with more traditional parties of the Left, as well as common citizens decided to create new local parties for the local elections. These parties had no leaders. In Madrid three months before the elections we did not even have a candidate, which is the opposite of what happens in a traditional party.

MD. Can you explain how you organized Ahora Madrid and more in general the confluencia (convergence) process in Madrid?

MA. Yes, we initially made an internal call for people to run for office and we selected the candidates. For this internal election we used the Dowdall System. We had different lists of candidates competing. One list for example was the Podemos list. Another list was these traditional parties [of the Left]. Another list was hosting independents. We voted online using a Dowdall-based algorithm. With Dowdall, when you vote you give 1 point to the head of the list, ½ point to the second on the list, 1/3 to the third position, and so forth. It is similar to a Borda system, but the fractions decrease a bit faster.

MD. What kind of outcome did you get?

MA. The result was that the winners were a mixed group of people. The most voted candidate was the head of the list [that received more votes]. But the second person was not the second candidate of the winning list, but the most voted person in the second list. This system mixed not only the lists, but also the most important positions. This is because even if the first list gets 70% of the vote, the second person on the list gets only ½ point, making it easier for the heads of the other lists to pass him. It is a really horizontal method, which distributes the power within the party. The outcome is a mixture of decisions, ideologies, and everybody feels represented in some way. With this system, the leader [Manuela Carmena, AN] appeared at the very end of the process. She is now the Mayor of Madrid, but back then she was an unknown person, somebody who most of us did not know. But when she presented herself many of us thought that she was perfect. This is a kind of party that people can trust much more. With this bottom-up process, it is more difficult for the media to attack a party by attacking its leader. We were also able to develop a program in a collaborative way. When we started the electoral campaign, we decided not to control the message, we let people make their own logos, videos, messages. Thus we decided not to control the communication strategy anymore and let people run their own communication strategy. This happened almost everywhere.

MD. So, what is the broader lesson to be learned here?

MA. The lesson is that the only parties that have proven they can win an election are the ones who let the party open, the parties that do not have a unified message, who give up control. This idea that the traditional party is the right machine to win an election is not necessarily true. And we proved it, at least here in Spain.

MD. Do you think that the process of the confluencias can be scaled beyond the local level?

MA. I am not sure about the supra-national European level, but I do not see a significant difference between the local and the national level. When Podemos started, they run for the European elections. People voted them because of trust. But the kind of trust that develops around a party is very different from the one that develops around a Manuela Carmena, who is hugely popular. . . . And this is because political parties have internal power dynamics that people cannot really trust. This is also true of Podemos, which is ultimately not that different from a traditional left-wing party. With a confluencia these power dynamics are not there because the process is much closer to the common citizen, you do not have this layer, this bureaucracy that is really detached from the citizen.  In Ahora Madrid nobody cares about the executive body of the party, nothing is happening there. In Podemos they are always fighting about who has the leadership, and so forth. Traditional parties should be done, or made into tools for winning an election. Focus on the problems, on the solutions, not on the party.

MD.   Historically speaking political parties also had the function of providing a venue for collective identification. Don’t you think that this function may still be relevant?

MA. We don’t need a space for debate, tools for ideology. We are a hyper-connected society, hyper-informed, hyper-educated. If parties stick to this traditional function of functioning as filters, they are going to be doomed as they are renouncing their only potential, which is to help people from different backgrounds to come together to make a difference. This is what the Indignados movement did. The Indignados were not a thousand people who were well-filtered and well ideologized, they were millions of people.

Screenshot of the results of the first city referendums held in February 2017

MD. Let’s discuss the first binding city referendums that you organized [the consultation was held in February 2017]. In my understanding, 2.7 million madrilenos were eligible to vote. 214.000 voted. Were you expecting this kind of turnout?

MA. In general terms we didn’t have a clear idea, it is the first time we do something like this. We knew it should be larger than 100.000 people because we did a huge campaign and because in the last participatory budgeting process we had 50.000 so we expected at least the double of it, less than this would have been a disaster for us. So we were really happy with the turnout because it is five times what we had in the last process. And this in a city where we never had participation mechanisms at any level, including the national level. You have to consider that until very recently we had no possibilities of organizing referendums here in Spain so it grew really fast. We have now around 300.000 registered in the platform. To my knowledge there is no citizen participation platform in the world that has this kind of level of users. Of course when you compare it to countries where the institute of the referendum is well established, like Switzerland or some cities in Germany or the States it is still a very small number, around the 7% of the population. But I think that for the moment we shouldn’t compare it to those countries. If these numbers stay the same for a long time then maybe we will be disappointed, but at the moment we are very, very happy with the progress we are making.

MD. The referendums were a mixed bag of citizen initiatives and consultations that were launched by the city. Besides the two citizen initiatives on making Madrid 100% sustainable and the introduction of integrated ticketing, you also held a consultation on the redevelopment of Plaza de España, which was initially launched by the city and went through several stages. Can you give me an overview of this process?

MA. The redevelopment of Plaza de España was done through 4 different phases. In the first phase we gathered together the people living in the surroundings of the square, owners of the small shops, owners of the megahotels there, some ecologists, some people caring about bikes, urban transportation groups, and the technicians of the city council. We gathered all this people, it was an assembly of eighty people, and we asked them to prepare questions to define the new square. So there were the experts, it was a group of citizens and technicians, and they were asked, especially because they have knowledge of this kind of things, to define which were the important questions to create a new square. This group worked for 1-2 months came up with 18 questions. Some questions were: “Do you want more trees or less? Do you want a bike lane or not? Do you want to connect this part of the square with this road or it should be kept like this?” So, very specific questions. At the bottom of this page you can find the 18 questions with the answers.

MD. Did you ask these questions to the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods or to all madrileños?

MA. We put the questionnaire on the website and we asked all Madrid residents to answer the questions. This was the second phase of the project. The questions were thought for the citizens, so they didn’t have to have previous knowledge of urbanism or architecture or anything. It was thought for them, they answered and then you can see the answer that received more votes. With that answer we created the specification on how the new square should be and we launched an international contest. We asked architecture firms form all over the world to propose designs for new squares based on these answers, because this is what people decided. In the third phase the architects presented around 70 projects. The website hosts links to each project, you can see drawings or texts or whatever the architects sent. All the information was published and people could vote on them. There was also a professional jury of technicians of the city council and some architects, who also voted. So it was a mixed voting between experts and citizens. Combining these votes, five projects were selected. Three of them were in the top ten of citizen voting, and two were a bit lower, but the architects thought that they were really high quality. So even if the architects had a bit more weight than the citizens, they were still influenced by the citizens’ list as they couldn’t choose from the bottom of the list. Then these five projects received some money to be developed, to make some models, more detailed studies and so on, and then this group of architects selected two for the final phase. Finally the citizens decided which one of the two to go. For these two projects citizens could find all the information on the website. Of course, for this kind of urban planning process, which is a complex process, we understand that less people participate, but we still believe that having 50.000 people participating in the process is better than two architects and three people sitting in an office.

Screenshot of the two finalist projects for the redevelopment plan of Plaza España

MD. Interesting. I see that participatory budgeting (presupuestos partecipativos) is also an important part of Decide Madrid. Can you tell me about how this process works?

MA. Yes, we use a hybrid model of online and offline participation. We have a total of around 1.000 people who join the 21 physical spaces we have dedicated to participatory budgeting meetings [in Madrid]. Thus each of these meetings has no more than 100 people, usually much less than that. These people are not representative of the population. These are specific type of people, they are more informed, they care more about politics—in short, it is the activist type. So these spaces are biased and should never be seen as representative of the common citizen, who is not so involved in politics and doesn’t care so much. These spaces should never be seen as the seeds of a larger decision. At the same time, we give each of these spaces a little more power than the ordinary citizen.

MD. How?

MA. Each space has a dedicated account, with a login and a password, on Decide Madrid. The coordinator of each space can use this account to vote in the name of the space.

MD. In the name of the space without the people meeting in the space?

MA. Yes, exactly. The space itself doesn’t vote, but if people decide to delegate their vote to the space, they are automatically voting what the space decides to vote. It is similar to Liquid Democracy but you cannot delegate a regular user, you can only delegate one of 21 users each of which represents a physical assembly (because we have 21 districts).

MD. I see. So if I go to a participatory budgeting meeting then I can delegate to the coordinator of this meeting my vote if I want to?

MA. No, anyone in the city can delegate his/her vote to one of the spaces, you don’t need to go there. If you go to a space, you decide with the people there what the space will vote. You make a list of things that are going to be voted in the name of the space, and then anyone in the city who delegate his/her vote to your space will vote what the space has proposed.

MD. What is your take on this process, is it working well?

MA. When we tried this delegation mechanism it was a first attempt and it didn’t work out really well, because it was not well known, so almost nobody used it. But we are trying again this year [in 2017]. We are doing the second phase of the participatory budgeting and we are doing it a bit differently. Now you can delegate every user, not only these physical spaces, so we are trying to open it to see if it works. But in any case this is a functionality that has been thought to solve a problem that perhaps is not present in any platform in any part of the world, that is, when you have too many things to vote and when people are tired of voting, then they need to delegate, because they are not gonna be able to participate so much. So this is a functionality that is thought for the future, because at the moment there is no other platform in the world where you really need to vote so many times. I think it’s very important to go in that direction, and this is why we are trying again and we are hoping to do it better this time.

MD. Is the delegation mechanism similar to LiquidFeedback where I can delegate a user for certain proposals or subject areas and other users and for other initiatives? Is this the concept behind it?

MA. Yes, it is the same concept but it is not so complex in our case. It is similar to the support phase of the participatory budgeting, or the voting phase. You can just decide not to vote and delegate your vote to another user. You do not choose between different proposals, you delegate somebody for the whole process.

MD. So, that’s the equivalent of what in LiquidFeedback is called a global delegation, you give all your votes to one user, who acts like a representative for you in a certain sense.

MA. Exactly.

MD. From what you have been saying, it seems to me that many of the decisions that are taken via Decide Madrid emerge from a mix of expert knowledge and citizen’s initiatives, grassroots activism and the “general will” of the people. Is this your vision of how to scale direct democracy via the Internet?

MA. Yes and no. When you have to make a larger decision you cannot rely on experts, technicians, politicians, or the well educated. The only good source, or the best source to make a decision is the citizens themselves. If three million people try to find a solution to a problem they are going to come up with a much better solution than a group of politicians, the well educated or whatever. You do not have to educate people, you do not have to give them means to debate. People are going to get information and debate independently of what you do. You [the government] should really trust people and understand that they are first educated and know probably much more than you do. And second they are going to find ways to debate, to talk, to organize and to do the right thing. Independently of what one can think theoretically about direct democracy, the comparative studies of hundreds of cities in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States show us that the decisions are always better: the minorities are more cared, the human rights are more preserved, the debt of the government is reduced. And this is happening since 1848, and even if at that time there was no Internet people made better decisions. Of course direct democracy is not a panacea, but expanding direct democracy channels is going to give us better decisions.

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