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How representative? Spain tests new forms of citizen participation

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Madrid's City Hall - the Cibeles Palace - hosted a meeting of randomly chosen citizens to discuss budget proposals  

Madrid's City Hall - the Cibeles Palace - hosted a meeting of randomly chosen citizens to discuss budget proposals  

(AFP)

Is random election of representatives the key to revive democracy? One thousand citizens selected arbitrarily were called to the Madrid G1000 meeting to reflect and debate over the city they want.

We want real democracy and this involves opening the institutions’ doors. Since the last municipal elections, many cities have focused on increasing citizen participation.

The variety of processes and the desire to experiment has been extraordinary. New platforms based on Consul free participation softwareexternal link, such as Decide Madridexternal link or Decidim Barcelonaexternal link, have been replicated beyond our own borders, opening previously unimaginable possibilities for direct participation through electronic voting.

The latest citizens’ initiatives binding vote through a secure voting process in the Spanish capital is the final step in these processes, bringing these cities of change closer to countries like Switzerland where direct democracy has been established for years.

In parallel, dozens of votes in-person and through otherwise mixed methods have been carried out throughout the country. Some notable examples are A Porta Abierta in A Coruña, Pla d'Actuació Municipal in Barcelona and the most recent and innovative experience in Madrid: the launching of Foros Locales, the district spaces for local voting.

Yago Bermejo

The authtor of this text  is head of the Collective Intelligence Lab for Democratic Participation (@participa_lab) at the @medialaprado in Madrid, Spain. Twitter: @iacocoba

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Effective, intelligent?

Almost two years after the municipal elections, we need to take stock and ask ourselves to what extent all these processes are sufficiently effective, intelligent and inclusive.

Tens of thousands of people are getting involved in deliberative processes, more ambitious processes than casting a vote or showing support.

In a large city like Madrid, although this does mean many people, it's not more than a few percent of the population.

What kind of citizens are involved? Do we have men and women of all ages, social classes and ideologies? Are the minorities or the population at risk of being excluded from being represented? What is the participatory sample? How can we try to improve participation processes to maximize the diversity of participants?

Diversity

Statistics tells us that if we choose arbitrarily but with a sufficient number of elements we can have a representative sample of the whole, in other words, a sample that represents the diversity of the population.

#Dear Democracy

This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by swissinfo.ch.

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While this idea is easy to implement in the natural sciences, when dealing with human beings it becomes a somewhat more complex task.

We can’t just lift them from beside a ballot box, at most we can contact them on the street or through a phone book. Even after we have got them, they still have the option to refuse to participate.

The reasons can be varied and can lead to the sample being less representative.

Luckily public opinion research professionals have techniques that help counteract this effect: they introduce quotas based on key criteria such as place of residence, age, gender, etc. In this way, they dedicate more effort and resources to the more difficult or harder to find profiles.

Roots of democracy

The ancient Greeks introduced random methods of democratic selection many centuries ago. In this way, they appointed the majority of the relevant political positions of their cities.

On the contrary, in our modern states, scarcely any use of this remains, as in the case of the popular jury. What do people chosen randomly bring? It seems that a new stream of thinkers and activists believe that they bring a lot.

Just a few weeks ago, the philosopher and writer David Van Reybrouck external linkwas promoting his new book Against the Elections in our country.

In it, he emphasizes the value of deliberation before a vote, and of the value of the citizen before the professional parliamentarian. It also highlights different initiatives which have brought together hundreds of citizens, contacted randomly, to deliberate.

This is the case with Iceland's constitutional reformexternal link attempt and the G1000 event born in Belgium and later exported to the Netherlands.

Anger, dreams

On March 4, 2017, more than a thousand Madrid residents were called to the Madrid G1000external link in the Cibeles Palace of the Ayuntamiento de Madrid.

These citizens were randomly selected through a contact process in supermarkets, sport centres and health centres in Madrid’s 21 districts.

The contact included a survey to ensure that the sample of citizens was demographically representative of the city.

Before the meeting, Van Reybrouck, one of the G1000's founders, sent a message of support to the Madrid G1000:

“In a time of communication and information, people have something to say. The G1000 offers common citizens the opportunity to talk about their anger and their dreams. After a dozen G1000 meetings in Belgium and the Netherlands, Spain will hold its first G1000 Citizens’ Summit in Madrid. I hope it brings people together. You don't have to agree to have a good talk.”

During the meeting the citizens were split into groups of up to ten people, in which they tried to reflect and debate about the city.

By the end of the morning, they had jointly formulated dozens of proposals for this year's participatory budgets to which €100 million (CHF107 million) has been allocated.

Common people who had never participated were able, then, to bring the proposals to decide.

swissinfo.ch/P2P

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