09 November 2023
Democracy Technologies: Consul Democracy is one of the most used open source platforms for digital participation. What would you say distinguishes it from other platforms?
Jens Kimmel: The fact that it has been developed as open-source software from the very beginning is important. The origins of the tool lie in Madrid. After the protests and demonstrations against austerity in 2015, there was a lot of organising and a lot of political platforms in Spain, all founded in a bottom-up fashion. Activists and people on the street formed citizen platforms, and then they decided to participate in local elections. That’s how, for example, Podemos came to power at the local level. And it happened all over Spain.
But in Madrid, people were starting to bring together conversations about democracy and technology. And one of the projects that came out of that was a digital tool to facilitate citizen participation. The aim was to open up local government for the people, and to devise a tool for that purpose, which is now called Consul Democracy.
Beyond the technology, what is also crucial is the community. This is a group of Consul Democracy users from around the world who interact with one another. The foundation is there to facilitate this exchange. For example, we have a slack channel where everyone can post their questions and get free tech support. There are something like 700 or 800 people from around the world using the channel to talk about tech, but they share knowledge about how to implement participation processes.
DT: Tell us more about the role of the Consul Democracy Foundation.
Jens Kimmel: The Consul Democracy Foundation is a non-profit organisation founded by 12 partners: Foundations or NGOs from around Europe, the USA and Australia who were already working on similar topics.
It launched in 2019. There had been local elections in Madrid with a shift in power and there were some different priorities. Some of the people that were working on the Consul software for the city of Madrid left and the project came to a bit of a halt. That’s when a couple of those people took the initiative to set up a foundation to basically do the work that Madrid had been doing – to push Consul, to develop it, to maintain it, to make it visible worldwide, and to strengthen the community, the global network of users.
At the moment, there are around 250 municipalities, national governments and other public organisations who are either using or have used Consul Democracy in the past couple of years. In each case, there are either a couple of people, or a whole participation team involved. The foundation invites these people to become part of the community.
There are also several tech partners, what we call certified companies. These are companies to whom we refer governments and municipalities if they need additional tech support with their installation or implementation. We are in close collaboration with them to make sure that the tech development is going in the right way and the quality of the code is maintained too.
All of this is a work in progress. We will be adding some layers to the community work in the upcoming months. So we’ll also start organising community and network events where we draw people together in rooms for an exchange about their experiences and use of the platform and ask questions.
DT: What are the main topics that the community members talk about?
Jens Kimmel: It can be roughly divided into tech and implementation. Someone might ask about a participation process where, for example, a successful debate was organised in order to get some insights from existing practices. And someone else might say: Yes, I’ve done this, or they did something similar in a city in Australia, or wherever, and share information about it.
On the tech side, users may want to add a feature, perhaps a small module, or to play around with the design. Before they do it, they ask the community if someone has already done something similar. Because it is open source software, you can modify it in any way you want. That means there are hundreds of different versions of the software in use around the world. So before making modifications yourself, it is worth asking: Does anyone know about this feature we’d like to add?
The best case scenario is that someone answers and says: Yes, I’ve already done this, and shares the code with you, as well as adding it to the main branch on GitHub.
DT: What kind of skills does a team need to start running a process using Consul Democracy?
Jens Kimmel: There are three main things you need. You need the technology. You need people to administer and oversee the participation process. And you need a communications team and budget, in order to promote the process and make sure citizens know about it. That’s really important.
Obviously, you need some tech skills to implement a software like this. Usually, we refer people to the certified companies, because we know that they know the code very well and do good work, as they have been working with us for a long time.
Still, in order to install it and maintain the software, it’s definitely very handy if you have someone on your team with the necessary skills. Preferably, they should be part of a dedicated participation team. I’ve written about how Valencia does this, this is really a best-practice example.
DT: Within the participative democracy community, there is a growing sense that digital participation hasn’t fully lived up to its potential. Why do you think that is?a team need to start running a process using Consul?
Jens Kimmel: It’s worth considering the history of digital participation tools. Take Your Priorities in Iceland, for example. It was the first open source participation tool, built by Citizens Foundation. It was developed back in 2008, after the collapse of Iceland’s banks. The government responded to the crisis by bailing out the banks, instead of focusing on the people. This was followed by a whole movement of popular outrage, and it was in this context that Your Priorities was developed.
It was similar in Madrid and later in Barcelona, where Decidim started life as a fork of Consul Democracy. It’s not for nothing that all of these tools were born out of some larger social political protest. They are really a small part of a broader transition to democratic transformation.
Democratising means more than deciding that you want to let your citizens decide how to spend €20,000. It’s about a larger transformation towards a just and equal society. At the moment, there’s a lot of injustice, distrust and polarisation. You can install all the tools you want, but if you want to really empower people, you have to do a lot more than that.
We need to keep the movements strong, and activists need to keep organising on democratic and progressive topics. But we also need political reforms and policies aimed at economic equality. Political disenfranchisement and economic disenfranchisement are closely related. Often you see that people who are economically marginalised are also the people that are not voting or participating in all these participatory processes.
Platforms like ours are just part of a much bigger picture where a lot needs to be done. It’s our hope that it can play a role in this larger transformation.