31 March 2023

Democracy Technologies: CitizenLab has almost tripled in size in the last 5 years and is recognised as one of the leading citizen participation platforms. How big is the team now?

Wietse Van Ransbeeck: We’re currently 46 people, with a very international team. That’s something we’re super excited about. We have 26 different nationalities on the team, and it’s also been a very deliberate choice for us to get different cultural perspectives on democracy and digital democracy. We have colleagues in Uganda, Argentina and Chile, a team of 6 in the United States, and of course there are also a lot of people all over Europe. 

DT: How many citizens are using your platform?

Wietse: Over the course of CitizenLab‘s existence, we have engaged about a million residents worldwide.

DT: Are there other fields beyond citizen participation in which your platform could be applied?

Wietse: We are extremely focused on governments because that is what our mission is about. It’s about making public decision-making more inclusive, participatory, and responsive. We’re focused on the dialogue between the residents and the government. It can be applied to different levels of course. For example, local government, as well as regional to national governments. We work at all levels, including with NGO’s. However we don’t work with, say, the private sector.

DT: What have you been focussed on recently, as far as the product is concerned?

Wietse: We have made significant investments in three areas. One is in the configurability of our platform. We now have a CMS behind the platform called a “Content Builder” which allows governments to have way more creativity with layouts and customise their participation processes more. Secondly, we have recently developed our own in-platform survey app.

In the past, we’ve always tried to promote more open dialogue and encouraged clients to go beyond surveys. However, we saw that a lot of smaller governments are more comfortable starting small with surveys before going to the more open and empowering ways of participation. Lastly, we now have quite a robust set of tools to help governments with automated reporting. For example, more dashboards and more text analytics to help them get a summary of what’s being said by residents.

DT: What are your business objectives for 2023?

Wietse: We now work with about 40 cities in the US. By the end of 2023, we would love to be working with more than 100. It’s still early days for us, but we’re very excited about working in the United States. For Europe, we want to expand further as well. In some countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, we’re already more established. However, in others, such as Germany, we’re still in our early days. We have, I would say, maybe 15 cities or something. I hope that in the coming year, we can expand across Europe as well and work with 600 cities in total.

DT: Do you think there’s a chance big tech corps and social media platforms will enter the market with some kind of citizen participation tool?

Wietse: I believe that what is happening today to Facebook is that more and more users are moving away from it. In general, activity is way lower. On the other hand, you see platforms like Twitter, where there’s still a lot of activity or growing political activity, but that platform is now in the hands of someone disputable. Those Agoras are getting more and more polluted. I think this will create the urge and the necessity for governments to think about where we are going to create democratic dialogue, and where we create the forums for citizens to have conversations. I think what is happening to Twitter specifically can be a good trigger for such reflection, as well as potential investment into more constructive platforms.

DT: Beside participatory budgeting, where do you see participatory and deliberative democracy going technically?

Wietse: I think we have to look at what governments worldwide are working on. The first major trend we are seeing is climate action planning and the follow up on climate plans—providing transparency about the strategies and actions taken. Another one is strategic planning and budgeting. It is not just about facilitating participation, but again, offering transparency. For example, in the design and production of an annual or multi-annual strategy, but also in keeping track of things we hear and see from policymakers and decision-makers. Today, it’s often very difficult for them to communicate progress made on these topics. So it’s something we’re seeing a lot of interest in—getting the work being done out of this technical council area and bringing it to the citizens in an easily digestible way. That’s where digital democracy platforms can come in. 

In terms of products and services, we have also seen a growing interest in management reporting. Lastly, another area that is increasingly important is diversity, equity and inclusion. In the early days of online participation, it was about how we could get as many people as possible on online platforms. Now, there is an increasing awareness of the need to make sure that those who are underrepresented find their way to participate. Many of the requested features are to support these efforts.

DT: Speaking of representation and participation, how do you gauge things like that?

Wietse: For representation, we look at the different demographic details of registered users and compare those to the census data, so that governments know, ‘Okay, we’re missing out on older people, or need to reach out to people from a specific neighbourhood”. They can then go out in the field to balance it. That is something we have speciifcally built to work on representativeness. It’s very hard to express as a number, just based on the volume, because it’s more important for us that the balance is in line. But if you look at the census data, and you look at the participants, then we can point out where something is not representative. We can say “Make sure that you go out and get more input from this group.” That’s where we are at the moment and what we are focusing on. With participation, in the past, we said, “Okay, we want to get five percent of the residents on the platform.” We still have that ambition and we even want to find ways to get it up to 10%. But we don’t do it in an obsessive way. We’re more obsessed with reaching different groups and making the participation more representative.

DT: What are you working on regarding AI applications in citizen participation?

Wietse: The big thing we’re currently working on that involves AI is what we call internally the ‘project summary’, where we try to summarise all the input collected. Our platform already has an automatic clustering and grouping functionality, but we’ve heard that for some governments it sometimes remains hard to draw actionable conclusions from it. As a result, we’re experimenting with different summarisation techniques. They can be abstractive and generative. Abstractive means looking at key phrases and sentiments and abstracting key elements using text analysis in order to create a summary. On the other hand, generative means creating a report that summarises all the inputs. That is very experimental but it’s pretty exciting!

DT: How would you describe the development of the citizen participation market in terms of the number of platforms?

Wietse: I don’t think there are a lot of new platforms being developed these days because I also think that, today, as an outsider, you might think, “Okay, there are already so many mature platforms on the market.” That whole wave of development happened five to ten years ago. I believe the new companies that will come along will take a more specific and niche approach to things. They might do something like VR participation, document annotation, or budget transparency. They will come in with very specific objectives, but I don’t think we will see a lot of new generic-purpose or general-purpose digital participation platforms. Our competitors are still the same as five years ago, and we don’t see a lot of change there. Some disappear, and others become bigger.

DT: Do you see other technology or trends in the citizen participation market that you would like to mention?

Wietse: There are many different ways participation in the public space could happen. It could be through new technologies like virtual reality. I think the application of the technology is still very marginal, but you can use VR both in online and offline engagement methods. It could, for instance, be applied for simulations in public planning. 

One or two years ago, during COVID, many governments went online, and we went on Zoom calls. Some companies, including ourselves, developed modules for online participatory workshops. Those tools are not being used so much anymore because we can have offline meetings again. But that is also a bigger question. During COVID, we saw the benefits of using technology to bring people together and have remote in-person conversations. I think, in a business context, we’re still doing that because we are often restricted by location. We cannot be together. However, if we live in the same neighbourhoods, we can return to offline meetings. One thing I’m personally interested in is whether the metaverse can be leveraged in everyday deliberative processes. Deliberative democracy, citizens’ assemblies, and citizen councils are here to stay. Can we conduct such engagement at bigger and more scalable levels? That’s something that I think is interesting that our industry hasn’t figured out yet. We thought we were getting there with all those Zoom calls during COVID, but clearly, that hasn’t been the answer. It’s interesting to think further about.

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