24 November 2023

As one of the winners of the 2018 United Nations Public Service Award, the Decide Madrid platform was long considered by many as a best practice case in digital participation. The number of registered users grew from 180,000 users in 2016 to 464,654 in 2020. The number of projects proposed by citizens was also very high in the beginning, reaching between 800 and 2,400 daily proposals in some periods. Meanwhile, its success led to the application of the software behind the platform, Consul Democracy, in many other cities including Paris, Turin or Buenos Aires.

Yet the project has not been without its issues. Independent reports have highlighted difficulties handling the large number of proposals, leading to delays, and frustration among the public. Moreover, since the election of José Luis Martinez-Almeida as mayor of Madrid in 2019, the number of participatory processes has fallen significantly, as has the amount of public money available to the project.

In spite of these hurdles, the platform continues to evolve. Earlier this year, the platform team completed the implementation of a series of actions recommended by the Open Government Partnership to address some of its shortcomings. Furthermore, the creation of the Consul Democracy Foundation in 2019 to take over the management of the open source software and its community means that its legacy will be less dependent on support from the Madrid government in future.

Empowering citizens with new tools

Decide Madrid has its origins in the anti-austerity protests that swept across Spain in 2011. At the time, many were angry at a perceived failure to address the financial crisis, high unemployment rates, corruption and a lack of prospects for young people. There was a widespread view that Spanish institutions lacked legitimacy. The movement called for greater transparency, accountability and citizen participation to improve democracy. There was a demand for all levels of government to search for new ways to empower citizens and foster a more open government.

These social movements led to the formation of new national parties and coalition governments, including Ahora Madrid led by Manuela Carmena. Carmena was elected mayor of Madrid in 2015. She played a large role in promoting the Decide Madrid platform, promising to deliver on bottom-up democracy, ensuring that citizens’ voices would be heard and included in municipal decision-making processes. (The same movement also let to the creation of Barcelona’s platform Decidim, which was originally based on a version of Consul Democracy). 

The platform allowed citizens to propose projects of their own, or to support other projects to help them to progress to the final stage. The local government led by Carmena had planned to directly implement all proposals that received support from more than 2% of the municipal population census and were accepted by public consultation. Despite increasing citizen engagement, the percentage needed for approval was decreased to 1% when no proposal received more than 2% of support.

The digital platform was developed within the administration. The use of information and communication technologies in Madrid exceeds national average with more than 90% of the population having regular access to broadband internet connection. The stage was set for this new experiment in citizen participation.

Growth, success and going global

Very quickly, Decide Madrid received widespread adoption from the citizenry. According to Consul Democracy, between 2015 to 2018 the number of participants rose from 45,000 to 90,000 and the budget allocated from €30 million to €100 million. The rapid success of Decide Madrid and the open source nature of its software attracted attention from around the world. Soon, dozens of other cities began using Consul Democracy software.

The change to a conservative government in 2019 led to a reduced budget for Decide Madrid. The city also stopped promoting the Consul Democracy software to other cities. Reacting to this partial retreat, some of the people who had been working on the software created the Consul Democracy Foundation – a coalition of civil society organisations with the mission of improving digital citizen participation through the use of its open source software. Even as Decide Madrid was scaled back, its global influence continued. According to Consul Democracy, its software has been used in 35 countries by 135 institutions and 90 million citizens.

Main barriers and criticisms

 A critical  analysis of Decide Madrid by a team at the University of Zaragoza published in 2020 explored the successes and failures of the project. It contended that despite obstacles which included a change in government and failures in aspects of functionality, Decide Madrid remained an integral part of policy-making processes. Serious concerns such as a lack transparency and poor functioning of some of its formats were taken as evidence of room for improvement, rather than of serious flaws in the platform itself.

Nevertheless, there have been definite signs of a decline in influence in recent years. After the new government took office, the number of proposals on the Decide Madrid platform fell considerably. The fate of the participatory budget also undermined confidence in the platform: The municipality discarded 182 proposals that had been approved in the previous legislature, and halved the budget resources going forward.

Some citizens also criticised a perceived disconnect from the participation process, with many citing a lack of gratitude for their participation. Many felt that while they could make proposals online, their contributions were in many cases not taken into account by the municipal government, even if the approval threshold had been reached. The participatory budget was the only format with an established monitoring process. For all other participation formats, there was no formal feedback link. As a result, citizens did not know if their proposals were considered, or why they were rejected.

This lack of transparency and communication was reflected in the two major projects that employed the platform: The expansion of pedestrian and bike lanes in the central street Gran Via, and the redevelopment of the main square, Plaza España. The final outcomes of both projects failed to fully reflect citizens’ preferences.

Learning from failures, looking forward

In 2023, a report was published with recommendations on how to address the shortcomings of the platform. It was produced by the Open Government Partnership, a network of government leaders and civil society advocates promoting transparent, participatory, inclusive and accountable governance.

Among other things, the report suggested changes that would improve the user experience, addressing public frustration at the lack of responsiveness. One solution was to develop the machine learning platform Decide ML, intended to help ensure that the proposals reach the people in government responsible for the issues raised.

However, in spite of the report’s optimistic tone, the roadblocks to Decide Madrid’s development that began with the change of government remain in place. The limited resources for the platform’s further development continue to be a challenge. As one Decide Madrid administrator put it, “it is essential to have efficient management interfaces and sufficient and trained technical personnel to make adaptations to the portal with the required agility.”

While Decide Madrid has not been without problems, it nevertheless has proven to have had a lasting impact on political participation around the world. Overseen by the Foundation, the Consul Democracy platform continues to evolve, and is now less dependent than it initially was on political changes in Madrid.

Decide Madrid, too, continues to evolve. According to the project team, new features like gamification and portals dedicated to youth are on the horizon.

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