Future Tools: Decidim

Free open-source participatory democracy

Digital decision making tools are proliferating, becoming increasingly accessible and applicable to our societies, communities, and organizations. Decidim (meaning “to decide” in Catalan) is a free and open source platform developed by and for the city of Barcelona, that is now being adapted and used by communities around the world.

From their FAQ: “Decidim makes it possible for thousands of people to organize themselves democratically by making proposals, attending public meetings, fostering decision-making discussions, deciding through different forms of voting and monitoring the implementation of decisions.”

“Decidim is a platform for citizen participation made by the people and for people. Its source code is open and can be inspected, modified, and enhanced by anyone. The Decidim software is covered by the AGPL license. That means that you can use it, modify it and redistribute derived versions of it as long as you respect the AGPL license.”

In 2015 Ada Colau, an activist with no experience in government, became mayor of Barcelona. She called for a democratic revolution, and for the last two years city hall, working with civic-minded coders and cryptographers, has been designing the technological tools to make it happen.
Their efforts have centred on two things. The first is opening up governance through participatory processes and greater transparency. And the second is redefining the smart city to ensure that it serves its citizens, rather than the other way around.
The group started by creating a digital participatory platform, Decidim (“We Decide”, in Catalan). Now the public can participate directly in government as they would on social media, by suggesting ideas, debating them, and voting with their thumbs. Decidim taps into the potential of social networks: the information spreading on Twitter, or the relationships on Facebook. All of these apply to politics — and Decidim seeks to channel them, while guaranteeing personal privacy and public transparency in a way these platforms don’t.
“We are experimenting with a hybrid of online and offline participatory democracy,” says Francesca Bria, Barcelona’s Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer. “We used Decidim to create the government agenda — over 70 per cent of the proposals come directly from citizens. Over 40,000 citizens proposed these policies. And many more citizens were engaged in offline collective assemblies and consultations.”

From its initial start in Barcelona, Decidim has grown considerably, offers a suite of relevant features, and continues to be developed. The folks inside of the city government operating Decidim will provide Barcelona based organizations with their own custom install of the software free of charge, as part of the city’s commitment to help build local democratic infrastructure.

They regard Decidim as an essential element of smart city infrastructure, that as more data is available, as more of the city is configurable, more citizens need to be empowered and included in the city’s decision making.

Decidim takes advantage of the sensors and data generated by smart city initiatives to help citizens see and have a voice in the operation of city services and the governance of the city. Residents can make proposals, debate, vote and organize around any issue they desire, with the data serving as evidence and fuel for these debates.
This kind of democratic innovation offers up one model for the success of a smart city. Technology and data are never enough. Consent, literacy and participation are necessary ingredients that smart cities should be focusing on.
The result is a kind of political authority that allows the city to better negotiate with technology companies — the opportunity here is far more impactful than simply negotiating a better internet rate. Barcelona is now insisting that technology contracts feature data sovereignty and public ownership of data. The city recently secured a contract with mobile provider Vodafone that includes a commitment by the company to turn over data to the city each month. This is significant not just because the city was able to get the company to bend to their agenda, but more importantly, the city is developing the capability to collect, manage and understand the data it is collecting.

Democracy is about exercising legitimate authority that results in decisions that are powerful and enable action.

The crisis in our current democratic configuration results from our inability to make collective decisions that are recognized as legitimate and have enough popular support.

Systems like Decidim are part of a growing range of solutions that are designed to make decision making more transparent and participatory. The hope is that this will result in better decisions that more people can get behind.

The following is a social media ad or call to action, encouraging residents of Barcelona to participate in their budget. A rough translation of the last line: “To love the city is to jointly decide its future.”

The software is governed by a social contract. It affirms an ongoing commitment to free software and open content, as well as transparency, traceability, and integrity. Additionally data confidentiality, accountability and responsibility are emphasized, as well as a desire for “continuous improvement and inter-institutional collaboration.”

Particularly interesting and significant is the passage on “equal opportunities and quality indicators”:

Alongside the guarantees previously defined, the platform promises to ensure equal opportunities for all people, as well as for their proposals or other contributions the platform might host. The platform will offer equal starting opportunities to all participatory objects (proposals, debates, etc.) for them to be viewed, discussed, commented, evaluated or treated without discrimination of any kind. In this sense, the digital identity of the users of the platform will always be personal and not transferable, the verification that confers decision rights on the platform should also be unique, and it is the administrative entity in charge of the platform who should be responsible for ensuring non-impersonation of a person or entity.
The platform should promote, with the aim of ensuring its democratic quality, the use of quality indicators developed on the basis of the data obtained from participatory processes, mechanism and user activity. Sharing of the setting of the different components as well as open data will be promoted for the definition of these indicators
Equality in political participation of citizens is one of the fundamental principles of any democratic system and the platform, not only has to ensure equal opportunities with respect to the uses and functions, but also the access right. In this sense the entity in charge of the platform assumes the commitment to promote actions that advance in the direction of providing access and support to the platform for all citizens alike universally Giving tools and resources appropriate to the platform is available to anyone who wants to use.

What’s neat about Decidim is both the thought and resources that have gone into developing the platform. This is what’s possible when a municipal government takes participatory democracy seriously, and then collaborates with other organizations to make it accessible and available. As a result Decidim is spreading to other governments and communities around the world.

The list of cities, regions, and organizations using Decidim is impressive and growing. Barcelona, Helsinki, Mexico City, Pamplona, and the province of Quebec to name a few.

Appropriately enough, now that the software is used by other cities and communities beyond Barcelona, a Metadecidim has been formed to connect the various users and groups engaged in deploying the platform for democracy.

Metadecidim is the community of Decidim that collaborates in the design of the platform and the construction of the Decidim project. We meet regularly through the SOM (Metadecidim Operative Sessions) and the LAB Research Seminars. Go to meta.decidim.org to follow the calls closely and if you want to join the community. We'd love to ;-)

As the software continues to evolve, it will be interesting to see the contrast it creates between communities that embrace this kind of digital participatory decision making and those that don’t. It’s not just about better decisions, and better decision making, but the kinds of solutions and opportunities that arise as a result.

Our Future Tools series is designed to profile free and open source tools that provide alternatives to established or entrenched platforms. As we had into a contentious and combative US election we felt it was important to look at what tools are emerging that offer a potential upgrade for democracy.

However these tools are not just about governments, but also organizations. The more participatory an organization, the more healthier that organization can be, and in particular the more efficient and even innovative. Making decisions is something we all do, and the better those decisions are, the more legitimate those decisions are, the greater our ability to adapt and respond to the challenges and problems we face.

Jesse Hirsh

Jesse Hirsh