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Harnessing human smarts: Meet Madrid’s Director of Citizen Participation

The City of Madrid is committed to citizen participation and enabling it at scale. Sarah Wray talks to Miguel Arana Catania, Madrid’s Director of Citizen Participation.

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Involving citizens in the evolution of their city is becoming increasingly important as the smart cities drive intensifies. Research has repeatedly shown that the idea of smart cities is often poorly understood and something citizens feel far removed from. This is incompatible with the stated aim of making our cities better places to live and work.

 

The good news is that almost all cities and smart city technologists now talk more about the centrality of people and the importance of citizen engagement. However, while we are seeing some examples of it in practice, it is rarely on a large scale. Madrid stands out for its work in this space.

 

Three years ago, Madrid’s City Council established a Department for Citizen Participation, Transparency and Open Government, and it appointed Miguel Arana Catania as Director of Citizen Participation.

 

Madrid’s City Council has established a Department for Citizen Participation, Transparency and Open Government, and appointed Miguel Arana Catania as Director of Citizen Participation.

 

This is not a job title you see every day in cities.

 

Catania agrees: “It’s not that common.” But, he adds, “If there is a position like that, that means that there’s political will to let people have a major role in government. That means spreading power – because you take the power from inside and you spread it to citizens. And that is something that not all politicians like to do.”

 

City smarts

 

Explaining his approach to the role, Catania says: “Our city is already smart – in Madrid, we have three million people. That’s a lot of smartness. What we need to do is create effective ways for this collective intelligence to work.”

 

He adds: "A smart city for us is not a city that has a lot of sensors and very complex software doing complex things. The smartest thing, we think, is just to let people take control of the city."

 

Catania and his team are enabling this through the Decide Madrid platform. It uses Consul software, which the City of Madrid developed in-house. Consul is described as “the most complete citizen participation tool for an open, transparent and democratic government". It is free, open-source and customisable.

 

Madrid City Council uses the Decide Madrid platform to facilitate participatory budgeting. Every year, citizens decide how €100 million is spent. They can also have their say on developments within the city, view open data, gain an insight into City Council processes and initiatives, shape legislation and debate city issues with their fellow residents.

 

If they don’t have access to the internet at home, residents can use any of the 26 Citizen Service Offices across the city.

 

“People send the ideas, they vote on the most interesting ones, and we just do it,” Catania says.

 

Ask the experts?

 

And when Catania says they "just do it", he means it – for example, the options are open-ended and the city doesn’t take the paternalistic approach of providing additional information or ’expert’ commentary to help citizens come to a decision.

 

Catania explains: “You may have information, or not. You may have an understanding of the issues you are proposing, or not. Whatever. If you propose it and it gets the most votes, we’re going to let you do it. We just check that the proposal is legal, and that’s it.”

 

Once proposals have been checked for legality and costed, residents cast their final vote on which projects should go ahead.

 

"If you propose it and it gets the most votes, we’re going to let you do it."

 

Catania adds, too, that typically citizens are as well informed or more informed than many politicians about the issues that affect them: “We don’t need to do anything with citizens to prepare them or inform them. People are ready to take the decisions right now. The quality of the decisions is absolutely amazing.”

 

Priorities

 

Catania says this level of citizen participation is clearly changing the way public money is spent in Madrid.

 

While he says no seriously wacky ideas have been proposed or voted up yet, what has been notable is the way citizens prioritise issues, compared to the way politicians might.

 

He explains: “In the participatory budgeting, half of the ideas that usually win every year are about the environment, and half are about social issues. So it’s not that the ideas are revolutionary but that the priorities of the people around social issues and the environment are much higher than we perhaps imagined. If you take the political programmes of all the political parties going to the elections – the main line was not the environment or violence or disabilities or whatever. But when you let people control the money, it is.”

 

Another surprise, Catania notes, is how efficient the decision-making has been and how much more innovation can be tapped when you find ways for citizens to participate better.

 

Before participatory budgeting, the government was able to start 30 or 40 projects every year with the €100 million. With the participatory budgeting and the same amount of money, the City starts over 300 projects every year.

 

Before participatory budgeting, the government was able to start 30 or 40 projects every year with the €100 million. With the participatory budgeting and the same amount of money, the City starts over 300 projects every year.

 

Catania comments: “When people are responsible for the money, and so many people in the city can take part, it’s amazing the number of things that you can do. So it’s not only that you do different things that you were not expecting; it’s also that you really do much more than the experts and the people inside of the institution.”

 

As well as altering the way money is invested, increased participation is also shifting the way Madrid’s citizens interact with the city around them, Catania observes.

 

“Now, for the very first time, citizens walk around the city looking for ways to improve it,” he says. "They no longer feel like they are just guests in the city that somebody else designed.”

 

Participation at scale

 

While more cities are looking at ways to increase citizen participation, few are yet managing to foster it at any scale. Here, Madrid is making progress, too.

 

Madrid has around 3 million residents, and over 400,000 of them are registered on Decide Madrid.

 

“I think Facebook has grown faster in Madrid but probably not much faster,” says Catania, adding that the number is continually growing – through media and marketing outreach but mainly through word of mouth.

 

“It’s in citizens’ benefit to invite other people to be a part of it. They understand it’s their space and they are happy to invite other the people. So mainly it’s just organic growth by people telling other people."

 

Again, a ‘hands off’ approach is essential for encouraging maximum citizen participation – it may not be something all cities have the stomach for.

 

Catania says: “We are totally open to any kind of decision. We don’t set limits. This is very important because the moment you start setting limits and putting constraints on the processes, people stop participating – they know it’s some subset of a decision that you think is not dangerous, and then trust is broken.”

 

The network effect

 

Like any good platform, the more people and organisations that use it, the greater the benefit for everyone. The Consul software is now being used by around 100 cities and regional governments around the world to replicate the Decide Madrid model. These include the cities of Paris, Buenos Aires, Lima, Gwangju, Guatemala and more, as well as public institutions such as universities.

 

As well as sharing the maintenance and development effort, the organisations using Consul also contribute best practices on how to make citizen participation as effective as possible.

 

Catania says: “This type of democracy is starting to grow and there’s a lot more interest in it.”

 

He adds that initiatives such as those powered by Consul can demonstrate, through real cases and data from all over the world, that: “It is not something dangerous – it’s totally the opposite; it improves institutions and societies.

 

"[When citizens have a say], it is always the case that the money is used in a more efficient way, human rights are more protected, and minorities are more taken care of. It’s better decisions in all senses.”

 

“We have seen it every time in every city, big and small, every kind of context from crisis contexts to more wealthy societies – it is always the case that the money is used in a more efficient way, human rights are more protected, and minorities are more taken care of. It’s better decisions in all senses."

 

However, he notes: “I think it will still be some time until it’s really in the core structure of most public institutions.”

 

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