One of the key issues facing the WMCA, Birmingham City Council and all the other WM Councils is what they do about public participation. Birmingham’s “Statement of Community Involvement (SCI) sets out how we consult on new plans, policies and planning applications, to ensure that Birmingham City Council respond appropriately and consistently to the views and needs of local communities, businesses and stakeholders.” (2 Feb 2023).
BCC now has a new Leader, Cllr John Cotton, imposed unilaterally by Keir Starmer. Cllr Cotton was responsible for the BCC policy ‘Everyone’s Battle, Everyone’s Business Equality Action Plan for 2022/23’. It says “We will put those who are affected by inequalities at the heart of designing solutions”. That means the vast majority of the population of Birmingham. So what will the new regime do about making sure their voices will be heard in policy-making?
There are some existing examples of consultation. BCC’s People for Public Services Forum meets monthly to bring together citizens of Birmingham with officers from Birmingham City Council Adult Social Care “to discuss current and future services”. But we don’t know what influence their views have. And in the March 2023 ‘Bolder Greener Bulletin’ Ellie Horwich-Smith, Birmingham’s Assistant Director of Route to Zero, says “We want to make sure that the public are at the heart of our work, and to achieve this, public involvement in policy making needs to be genuinely meaningful and purpose driven, whilst also engaging diverse parts of the population”. But she hasn’t spelled out yet how this will be achieved.
Public participation is also a policy of the WMCA. The WMCA’s statement on ‘Power and participation’ (7 March 2023) says “Power and participation are about the extent to which people have a voice in influencing the things that matter to them”. For example, its Greener Together Citizens Panel aims to “Bring together representatives of the WMCA with all those across the region who are committed to cutting carbon emissions and enhancing the natural environment to discuss, collaborate and debate different initiatives”.
And yet in practice there is very little evidence of public participation in shaping the policies either of BCC or the WMCA, for several reasons:
- There are very few meetings, in-person or online, where citizens can hope to propose or influence policy.
- Many people are not able to take part in in-person meetings, for various reasons.
- The agenda is set and the meetings are run by those in power, and participation is limited largely to responding to their plans, with citizens having little opportunity to initiate their own proposals, let alone have them implemented.
- Meetings may be infrequent. For example, the Greener Together Citizens Panel only meets four times a year for 2 hours.
- The vast majority of people are not aware of these opportunities to influence policy and how to access them.
Why we need Digital Democracy and why we should learn from Barcelona
“In January this year a pan-European citizen jury voted Barcelona the first European Capital of Democracy. Barcelona has a rich history of official and citizen initiatives in political and economic democracy. One received a special mention from the jurors: Decidim. [We Decide in the Catalan language] Decidim is a digital platform for citizen participation. Through it, citizens can propose, comment, debate, and vote on urban developments, decide how to spend city budgets, and design and contribute to local strategies and plans.” 
Barcelona’s 50 page presentation (December 2022) says: 
“With the development of the decidim.barcelona platform, Barcelona has consolidated a model of open citizen participation, where fundamental rights such as transparency, traceability, privacy and accessibility are guaranteed, but it also constitutes a model of flexible participation that allows multiple participation needs to be channelled: proposals, debates, meetings, surveys, public consultations, citizen assemblies, citizen initiatives, voting, etc…”
Launched in 2016, decidim.barcelona now has more than 150,000 registered citizens. “The platform has made great leaps in quality with the city‘s major participatory processes such as the participatory budgets or the citizen assemblies.” But it is not meant to be a substitute for in-person meetings. “Decidim has encouraged wider public use by taking the platform back to the streets and using it alongside offline methods to engage people in issues that matter to them.”
Open-source development using free software
“What makes Decidim stand out, according to our research, is developer commitment to democratising technology development itself and embedding it within struggles for democracy offline and online.” 
One consequence is Decidim’s international take-up.
“The international impact of the Decidim platform is another success of the city; 450 instances in 30 countries, and more than 1.3 millions of people using the platform around the world.”
“The project has transcended the local scale and has spread to public administrations and social organisations, both in Catalonia and the rest of Spain, as well as to other countries such as France, Mexico, Belgium, Switzerland, Japan and Finland. Decidim has been translated into more than 50 languages worldwide, having currently more than 450 active instances (institutions and organisations).” 
But digital democracy won’t work unless local government acts on it
“Achieving engagement and meaningful collaboration through digital technologies requires a better understanding of what hinders governments and citizens from being able to effectively collaborate, both online and offline. Barriers to effective citizen participation include poor public knowledge of the issues treated, poor provision of information, poor execution of participatory methods, low adoption, the digital divide, lack of representativeness of participants, lack of political support, failure to influence the decision-making processes, regulatory constraints or the use of these tools for political propaganda. Moreover, public administrations are often not clear about the objectives of these initiatives. All of this can give rise to different types of tensions and conflicts, disappointment and reluctance to engage in future processes”. 
That’s the argument of ‘Decide Madrid: A Critical Analysis of an Award-Winning e-Participation Initiative’ by Sonia Royo, Vicente Pina and Jaime Garcia-Rayado, 2020. This is a case study of Decide Madrid, which uses Consul, a similar platform to Barcelona’s Decidim. Consul is used in more than 100 institutions from 33 countries, including Porto Alegre.
“Although the citizens interviewed have been critical and sometimes have questioned the levels of participation and the effectiveness of Decide Madrid, both citizens and municipal staff consider that Decide Madrid is necessary, which supports the success of this initiative. This agreement among interviewees evidences the high motivation for e-participation and direct citizen participation for both the city council and the citizens, although it seems that both citizens and the city council need more time to adapt to online direct participation.”
“Two examples of successful participatory activities are the proposals of “Madrid 100% sustainable” and “Single ticket for public transport”, which obtained enough support to reach the voting phase and won. Other successful practices are the participatory budgets and the poll initiated by the city council to refurbish which eleven squares, including Plaza de España.”
Digital democracy can help build mass public pressure for action
Digital democracy can enable citizens to put forward progressive policies and build large-scale public pressure on local councils to put them into practice. That is why it is essential that the WMCA and Councils in the West Midlands, including Birmingham, make it a priority to develop the capacity to integrate E-participation into their policy-making processes. This can be done. The digital platforms are available to use.
But we all know that public demands on local government are often blocked by the neoliberal class interests of the Tory government, interests which are relayed by local government, whether willingly or not. Which is why digital democracy is not a solution on its own, it needs to be coupled with mass street-based and workplace-based campaigning.
23 May 2023
- Adrian Smith and Pedro Prieto Martín, ‘Decidim: why digital tools for democracy need to be developed democratically’, The Loop, March 14 2023. https://theloop.ecpr.eu/decidim-why-digital-tools-for-democracy-do-not-need-to-be-developed-democratically/
- https://capitalofdemocracy.eu/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/ECoD23-24_Application_Barcelona.pdf. See also https://www.decidim.barcelona/ and https://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/digital/en/noticia/over-100000-people-take-part-in-participatory-process-in-the-current-term-of-office_1268198. For a recent analysis of radical governance in Barcelona see https://redgreenlabour.org/2023/05/16/lessons-from-barcelonas-8-year-experiment-in-radical-governance/
- ‘Decide Madrid: A Critical Analysis of an Award-Winning e-Participation Initiative’, by Sonia Royo,Vicente Pina and Jaime Garcia-Rayado, Sustainability 2020, 12(4). Special Issue ‘Citizen Participation in Sustainable Local Decision-Making’. https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/4/1674