19 August 2022

Democracy Technologies: What does CitizenLab do?

Wietse van Ransbeeck: CitizenLab offers a community engagement and citizens participation platform for local governments, with two dimensions of participation. On the one hand, we have projects come to us  from a city or local government, like “Hey, we are working on a new mobility plan, we are working on a climate action plan, or we want feedback on our budgets”. Cities use our tools to gather input, to collect ideas, run polls, do participatory budgeting, and so on. Secondly, there is a service in which citizens can come up with their own proposals. So, we support  two ways of participation, top down and bottom up, which go hand in hand. 

DT: What’s your understanding of participatory democracy?

van Ransbeeck: Our mission is to make decision-making more inclusive, more participatory and more responsive. Inclusive, like how many people we involve  and what profiles these people have. Participatory, because where we are looking at the quality of the processes, the quality of the input and whether citizens can set the agenda. Thirdly, responsiveness. It’s good that governments have all that input, but our goal is that the community can also influence decisions and have an impact on the policies. These three components – inclusive, participatory responsive – are at the heart of how we make decisions at CitizensLab. 

DT: What is your international scope? 

van Ransbeeck: We are currently working with 300 governments worldwide, in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, UK, Denmark, Austria and Germany, but also in the US and Latin America. Our international organisation now has slightly over 40 people. 

DT: What are typical participation projects that you do?

van Ransbeeck: It’s often cities wanting to roll-out a platform that is used by different departments, for instance,  a mobility department with mobility projects or an urban planning department  redesigning a square or planning a new park. But it’s also leaving room for citizens to come up with their own proposals for these projects and to put something on the agenda. Our ideal partners are medium-sized cities with populations from 40.000- 400.000 citizens. We aim for at least 5% of each municipality to actively participate. 

DT: Give us an example of your work that you are proud of …

van Ransbeeck: One of our clients is the City of Leuven in Belgium, with about 100.000 inhabitants. In 2019, the newly elected mayor opened up the entire multi-annual planning and strategic planning. They got a lot of online participation, with about 3,000 citizens sharing more than 2,000 ideas on the different chapters of this strategic plan. They then linked that to the objectives that the coalition had. The entire six-year budgetary planning has been done in a very participatory way.

By the end of 2023 we want to have engaged more than 2.5 million citizens actively.

Wietse van Ransbeeck, CitizenLab

DT: What are your next plans?

van Ransbeeck: One of our big projects is to launch an academy for citizens’ participation where we are going to digitalise all the expertise we have generated over the years. We would like to bring our know-how and experiences to an online academy for civil servants to build capacity and to train them. We are going to launch a new product and it’s going to be called ‘community insight’ which will  better inform the decision-making and help governments to become more responsive using data. By the end of 2023 we want to have engaged more than 2.5 million citizens actively, meaning  that they have expressed their voice via our platform. That is  the goal that we are working towards right now.

DT: What do you think is needed most in the field of Democracy Technologies?

van Ransbeeck: Looking beyond your own reach or country and finding innovative best practices from other countries is a really important thing. There are some initiatives that I think we can do more of here in Europe, to exchange these best practices and to learn from each other. Not only looking at the shiny best practices but also the failures, the learnings and the real things we get out of it.

DT: What’s your advice to political professionals and public officials who want to start participation projects?

van Ransbeeck: It’s important to think about internal organisation first and to get people online. That is a key factor before you get started. Then finding a partner, on the one hand for technology, and on the other, to find the best practices, consulting and advisory and services on how to do this. The 2,000 ideas collected by the city of Leuven show that when you have collected all that input it takes a long time to actually see the different priorities. That’s why we have developed functionalities to use text analytics that find the different priorities and visualize them… It’s not just about collecting input, it’s what you do with the information to turn it into insight for decision-making.

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