11 September 2023

Democracy Technologies: Your first encounter with participatory tools happened in Kenya, while you were working with an NGO. What did you learn about democratic practices during that experience?

Vanessa Liston: It showed me that we always have to hear other perspectives. While in Nairobi, a lady asked the NGO I worked with to help her set up a school for her community. To do so, we adopted a democratic approach and used different participatory tools, involving locals in the process. As we talked to people to understand the scope of our contribution, we realised that what we considered crucial aspects of setting up a school weren’t priorities for them. We would think of teachers and books, while their priority was building a fence to protect the land.

That key learning moment stuck with me, in terms of the importance of providing spaces for all knowledge and interests to be brought forward; to be open to doubt and change one’s own perspective and assumptions in any situation; and the value of doing so, in terms of achieving stronger, more sustainable outcomes. The school went on to become very successful – revealing to me the power of what local communities can achieve, even with very limited resources.

DT: So your personal experience shaped your view of democracy. Do you think personal experiences shape democracy more generally?

Liston: Many people identify democracy with elections, but elections are just one of the processes we use to achieve democracy. The actual definition of democracy, in my view, lies in the principles of equality and freedom. During my studies, I came across Harry Eckstein’s book ‘Patterns of Authority’. He believes that democracies are stronger when we experience them in all aspects of life, for example, both at work and at home. So, if we learn and experience democratic practices at a young age, we are more likely to apply them to every aspect of our life. This is what he calls a ‘spill-over effect’.

DT: Why did you see the need to create a new tool to assess public opinion and manage consultations?

Liston: If we look at social media, newspapers, and reports, we’ll often see the dominant opinions being represented, and a lot of polarisation. Surveys and opinion polls capture our answers to pre-worded questions created by experts or governments. They don’t capture what we think, or represent every perspective on a specific topic. Moreover, if we had a way of identifying all perspectives, we would have a robust basis for ensuring inclusion in the public’s engagement and deliberation on issues. That is what we wanted to provide in CiviQ.

However, before getting to that point, other basic challenges needed to be addressed with public participation. For example at the time, the only way for communities to give their feedback on local and national policies was in writing by post or email. Submissions were not published, meaning residents/citizens could not see the range of other interests or information from their community that needed to be considered by officials. For that reason, the first tool we developed was OpenConsult. This is an platform to enable open engagement by the public in policies, plans and proposals.

DT: How is CiviQ’s portal innovative, and how does it work?

Liston: When I finished my PhD, I became very interested in the work of John Dryzek and Simon Niemeyer on deliberative democracy, and the idea of discursive representation. This focuses on representing all the key discourses on a specific issue. For example, if we’re talking about migration, we should aim to identify all perspectives on the issue and consider the reasons behind those opinions through deliberation. Starting from this principle, we used Q methodology to create tools that capture all the nuances and represent minority perspectives.

The focus of OpenConsult is on open and qualitative feedback in order to achieve higher levels of representation of perspectives. For administrators, OpenConsult enables them to easily gather feedback from a wide range of stakeholders and report back on how their input was considered. This is particularly valuable to those in the planning and infrastructure fields, and as we know, feedback is so important for building trust in the engagement process.

We also have OpenInsights – a tool administrators use to identify and gather the widest range of public opinion on specific topics for example, from social media, newspapers, and other digital platforms where people express their thoughts. Following a rank-ordering process by stakeholders, it then statistically analyses responses and interprets the data to identify underlying perspectives. So, if we want to know what the public thinks about climate change, the tool collects statements on this topic from social media, newspapers, and other digital platforms where people express their thoughts.

DT: What’s the technology behind Civiq’s tools, and what is your opinion on AI and democracy?

Liston: OpenConsult is based on Drupal – an open-source framework that enables us to share the community’s knowledge. We won’t introduce AI into that. We believe more needs to be known about AI and how it can be used appropriately before it is used in public participation and democratic decision-making processes. Administrators need to read each submission and give due regard to each citizen who participated in the deliberative process rather than use automated analysis. That’s the only way to listen to all the stakeholders and the citizens and understand the nuances of their opinions.

For OpenInsights, AI automates tasks related to collecting and performing an initial categorisation of data. The Q methodology is a subjective analysis. It aims at understanding how people think. AI currently cannot assist with methods for the study of subjectivity and identifying shared social perspectives.

DT: CiviQ’s portal is used by most local authorities across the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. What were the initial challenges to implementing this new process, and how has it changed public participation?

Liston: Our portal has given administrators and citizens a place to deliberate and has introduced a culture of organised engagement. When we started, local councils in Ireland didn’t have an effective way to make their consultation documents accessible to the public. In the beginning, we faced four key challenges – make the documents easily available online; create a portal where citizens could file submissions and express their opinions; make all the text documents and maps interactive; and convince the County Councils to open submissions.

Open submissions were the most radical part of the process because councils were a little bit sceptical about it. The whole idea behind the deliberative approach is that people should be able to listen to each other, learn from each other, and connect with the Council during the consultation process. Before CiviQ, it was almost impossible for very under-resourced Irish local authorities to process, report, and visualise the community’s perspectives on specific issues.

DT: What are the obstacles to public participation in the digital era?

Liston: There are many obstacles to engagement. One is the digital format itself. If most of our engagement is digital, by default, we exclude people who are not present digitally. The last open government action plan received a submission explaining that around 300,000 elderly people are not online or feel uncomfortable online. At the same time, digitally skilled people may not have a computer.

Another challenge is how to structure public engagement opportunities and communicate them to the public. Are we enabling all stakeholders to have a voice? Are we collecting all the different points of view? Are we ensuring our engagement is inclusive and conscious of equality criteria? Public participation can be a very bureaucratic exercise that doesn’t empower people. The public is often asked to give feedback on documents created without their input. It can be quite a passive process. So, they might participate, but they don’t engage.

I think public participation is a very neutral word, and we should move away from it and towards political engagement.

DT: You are working towards introducing a different kind of public representation in Ireland. How does this new model work?

Liston: As a County Councillor for the past four years, I’ve realised that the way public representation currently works is not balanced. Political parties are elected to create a majority government by 1%. The majority is 51%, over 49% of the opposition. Yet, membership of political parties is less than 4% in Ireland. Those who join a party have disproportionate power. They can create policies, have access to leaders, and vote on proposals that affect the whole country. This 4% of the population decides on the policies and the manifestos, while the remaining 96% can only vote for or against them. They have no input in the formulation of these proposals. I believe we should have open policy-making, where political parties involve the public in deliberating what’s best for the country. 

At the moment, I am working on a new project which aims to create local change forums in communities. The forums have a political focus but are outside of the political party structure. These are spaces where citizens come together to discuss what changes they want to see in government policies on any topic. Citizens can also prepare as electoral candidates and engage in open policy-making. The vision is to move beyond the competitive nature of political parties and the narrow process for developing policies, towards greater inclusion, deliberation and citizens’ political engagement. This way, we’re bringing the lived experience of ordinary local people from the bottom up into creating a policy.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Vanessa Liston as a Green Party Councillor. Ms. Liston is an independent Councillor, and is not currently affiliated with any party. 18/09/23

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