Let's talk about R&I

Rosa Borge: "Offline and online social participation are complementary"

26/03/2018
Rubn Permuy
eGovernance: electronic administration and democracy researcher

What is your academic and professional background?

My training is closely related to my profession. I have always tried to ensure that both research and professional development are related with on-going training. I started doing my doctoral degree in Political Sciences and Sociology at the University of Deusto because I’m from Bilbao, and I graduated in Political Sciences and Sociology from the same university. I did part of the doctoral degree at the University of Michigan, at the Institute for Social Research, where I learnt a lot about methodology. At the University of Deusto I learnt about theoretical models, with a more humanistic approach to sociology and political science. In Michigan, in contrast, the training was more geared towards quantitative and qualitative techniques. Here in Spain, I applied for a post at Pompeu Fabra University, where I spent a few years, and then worked in other universities. I've worked for Portland State University, the Universitat Internacional de Catalunya and UNED, I was adjunct professor at the Universitat Autnoma de Barcelona and finally ended up at the UOC. I've been at the UOC for more than a decade and it is here that my research and academic career, previously very focused on political participation at an individual, social and party political level, took a new direction. I did my thesis on political participation in the Basque Country. At the UOC I focused more on internet issues, exploring online political participation with different R&I projects.

When you started, the focus was not on online political participation…

At that time, the internet was not as widely used as now. Being at the UOC encourages us to do this type of research, and the resources and colleagues on hand are particularly useful. It’s a very interesting study subject because the emergence of the internet and, for example, of social media has totally changed the world of political participation. People go into the street, participate in person and still vote in a traditional way but there is also a lot of political activity on social media and citizen participation platforms.

Is offline citizen participation still relevant?

Yes, in fact the current online participation is related to offline participation. Many people are involved in both types; they have a long background in activism, in protest movements, or have always voted and are now asking to do so online because it is easier from home. But in reality we cannot vote via an electronic ballot box or digitally: we go to the polling stations in person and will continue to do so. Offline and online participation are complementary. The whole history of social movements and the political changes in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have taken place offline. The social media and digital media complement the other type of participation.

In different studies we have discovered that some people, the young and not so young, are professionals and very busy. The internet provides an opportunity to participate because offline they perhaps would not have the time or inclination. There is a lot of debate about whether the quality of this participation is good enough, whether there is sufficient reflection, because on many occasions it is what we call click activism: now I vote rather superficially because with one click I can participate electronically without having to think, move and relate to others. We are assessing this handicap: each individual is different and must exercise their rights through different channels. We mustn’t hold people back; we must enable citizens to express themselves in different ways. If one of them is digitally, they must have the right and the opportunities to do so.

Is it possible to ensure the integrity of fully electronic voting?

There can be problems with both ways of voting: traditional and electronic. On many occasions election results are questioned by political parties, and the electoral board must make decisions. This has happened in Spain and in many other countries with the classical ballot-box vote. There are problems, as there are with electronic voting, but if it is done well and under supervision there should be no difficulty. The count can be conducted in different ways to ensure its validity. Electronic ballot boxes could be placed in polling stations or it could be done from home with an encryption system, which is perfectly valid, and under the control of different judges, computer experts and so on. I'm not an expert in electronic voting but I don’t see why there should be any problems. Although Spain is reticent, experts point out that some countries are moving in this direction: European countries such as the Baltic countries, Lithuania and Latvia, and the Nordic countries. So there are examples and it could be done. The research projects I'm leading concern participatory platforms that are also digital. It’s a very interesting field to give citizens a voice and allow them to express their view on public policies. And there are various control filters to ensure that participation is not coming from the same people, the same IPs. There are different controls, which for citizens are very simple: by providing your ID or mobile phone number, you receive a code and can access the platform, vote and participate. The problem is not technology but political will. You can have fantastic online tools, like those in the councils of the Barcelona metropolitan area, which are the Decidim platforms, or the “consult” platforms in Madrid and many other Spanish cities, such as Palma, or those being used in the Basque Country. All of them are free software platforms and encourage citizens to participate by offering possibilities and they provide tools that are very easy to use. But not everybody participates because joining these types of talks online also demands a great deal of time. There is also great reluctance from some people who assume it is complicated, but who then find it quite easy. There is also psychological distrust, perhaps linked to a generational gap, as well as the political issue. For instance, We have analysed the Barcelona Municipal Action Plan in which 20,000 people participated with 11,000 proposals. It is very complicated for a city, even if it is Barcelona, which has a large budget, to manage it: you have to group together, select and filter, and do so as transparently and democratically as possible. It doesn't mean rejecting some initiatives or accepting others according to what interests you but that these interests must be combined. You need to talk to those who have initiated the proposal and give them feedback. All this needs people, council officers and experts in computing and participation. Sometimes there are not enough resources, to say nothing of political will. This will seems to exist in some councils but not in others. The same happens in some political authorities or regional governments: some are willing to involve citizens in online and offline participation while others are not so convinced. I don't think it is a technical issue so much as a human one.

Is Barcelona and its metropolitan area a benchmark in online citizen participation?

In fact, in the project we are developing within the eGovernance: Electronic Administration and Democracy (GADE) research group, endorsed and consolidated by the Government of Catalonia, we are working in this direction. We submitted a project to a call on democratic quality to analyse these participatory platforms but above all to study online deliberation because the participatory aspect has already been analysed. In research it is good to innovate and analyse different perspectives, not only to contribute socially but also for researchers themselves because sometimes you have to change topics when you have studied them for many years. The aspect of deliberation is interesting because debates or talks are very frequent. We do this every day on WhatsApp or through our social networks and also at a political level. We analyse whether local issues are also being addressed through the networks, mainly Twitter, and later whether this is related to the council's platforms where these issues are deliberated. In the platforms of Barcelona City Council and its metropolitan area, technical design is clearly a good practice because it has functionalities that can be modified depending on whether they work or not. This allows changes to be made very easily because they use open software and we have a structure that is very easy to handle, flexible and adapts over time. One of the comments we’ve made to them recently is that in the proposals concerning the Municipal Action Plan the feedback was not very extensive and sometimes an initiative by someone who had spent days or months developing it and had obtained 200 votes of support was rejected. They rejected the proposal because the subject didn't fit in with the council's electoral programme or its objectives as an institution. The responses were of a very brief nature, connected to the lack of staff. There is now far more extensive and documented feedback, with much more information. There is willingness to change and improve and if it is combined with an appropriate technical platform it is a good practice. This model is actually being replicated in other European cities and by other regional governments in France and Finland. They began in 2016 and the platform has now changed, improved and is spreading, not only to the Barcelona metropolitan area but throughout Catalonia and other cities in the Basque Country and Galicia. It’s a good practice.

Is it complex explaining to citizens that participation does not mean determining a decision by the administration?

We are talking about a system that is participatory and deliberative but that complements the representative system. The decision-makers in the councils are the government teams who have won the elections and have the capacity to open out a specific issue to citizens so they can present proposals, and accept them. Or there can be participation but with decisions always made by the administration. The two ways of working don't seem too bad to me and I think they should be combined. If a government wants the people to participate to legitimate its decisions, it’s a mistake. But if you combine this with listening to different voices, this often results in government proposals. Citizens are very intelligent: they make proposals because they are interested in specific issues that affect their lives, their financial situation, their future, and that’s why they participate. In the case of the platforms we’re analysing in the different councils, we see that people participate extensively in issues related to tourism and renting apartments in Barcelona, and rental prices, as well as more civic matters or public works, such as the covering of the Ronda de Dalt ring road. These are issues that affect people's everyday lives and, therefore, on which they are the experts and often give the council ideas. They give governments ideas about how to act. If you participate but then the government doesn't accept your proposal, it can be frustrating. Often what has to be done is to explain very well why that proposal has not been accepted by the government or council. If you open a participatory process, you will have to accept some of these proposals; otherwise it’s not a real participatory process. It's just a whitewash by the public administration. You can't accept 10,000 proposals. That’s common sense. It's understood that many of these proposals have to be grouped together, filtered. People have common sense and if you explain things properly, they can accept it. Then there are the participatory budgets, where citizens completely decide on one part and the proposals are integrated. Here participation carries more weight because these proposals will be binding. So these two channels have to be combined: a part fully decided by citizens, knowing that the proposals will always be grouped together and made economically feasible because those that require a budget beyond the reach of the council cannot be developed. Moreover, we have other consultative channels, which are not binding but that also help public decisions.

Could citizen participation be applied to bigger administrations than councils?

These kinds of initiatives are being developed in other countries that we could say are smaller than Spain, such as Iceland, Finland, Nordic countries with a participatory tradition of many decades, with a more established democratic culture than Spain. Perhaps at the level of Catalonia, which is smaller, it could be done, or in the Basque Country or the Community of Madrid, as they are areas with more manageable populations, rather than an entire country or the European Union as a whole.

Is there now no turning back in citizen participation?

If participatory budgets have been opened, even though the colour of the council may change, the dynamic continues. If you started 30 years ago, you continue today. This is the evolution we have seen in the different councils. It is not only at municipal level. Participation carries the weight of legitimacy and involvement in the democratic quality of a political system that, once opened up, is very hard to close. It has quite important connotations of legitimacy. We could even say that extreme right-wing parties often use the issue of participation to defend their positions. It’s an initiative that everyone agrees on; the problem is how. You can maintain these budgets but reduce the amount decided by citizens, or you can continue with these deliberative platforms but certain functions, for example of debate, no longer exist. We are analysing this in the different councils. There is a very wide range of possibilities as a council, as a politician, but the functions are later reduced if there are not enough resources. In certain councils a boom in participation would not be desirable because they operate differently and may use offline participation more than online. Participation is ongoing but the intensity can vary, always following a very clear logic, because it is not only a question of citizens voicing their opinions but also of organizations, social movements and associations that are already present within the social structure and within towns, which have participated in the past and which will want to continue to do so.

Your current citizen deliberation project is funded by the Catalan Government. What does it involve? What other projects would you highlight?

It's a project that lasts one year. It has a small budget but we will try to continue it because it has been well received by the Catalan public administrations. I think this kind of research offers possibilities. Other projects I have carried out that are relevant for making a scientific and social impact include, for example, designing and implementing the European social survey when I was at Pompeu Fabra University, for which we received a generous grant, and this has continued. Another project with researchers and professors at the UAB, which I thought very interesting as it was pioneering, consists of the first survey on internet uses and attitudes for political participation in Spain. This was in 2007 and it had never been done before. Another innovative and pioneering project in the business world was as project manager of a company to measure sports performance using sensors: a completely different field but also very interesting and related to new technologies. In this respect, I could also highlight these three projects because we made more progress than had previously been achieved in these fields.

DEMOC, the citizen deliberation project you are asking about, has a good future because there is a lot of interest. They have invited us to do presentations of the results in important congresses, such as the Joint Sessions of Workshops of the European Consortium for Political Research, the most important political science congress in Europe, and there are possibilities for cooperation with the Oxford Internet Institute. We have different futures scientifically speaking but also at the level of social utility because it interests the public administrations. Participation is de rigour but has been so for forty years, and particularly in Catalonia, which has greatly developed the tools of offline and now online participation. If social media and the internet really create a public sphere of debate that is the same or better than the offline alternatives, or at least different, or brings new dimensions to the conversation, this is very interesting. Because there are studies that are discovering that when someone often debates with friends or strangers on social media, they subsequently don’t do this so much in person: they have already expressed their position, rejected other people's and perhaps don't want to argue in person. Their attitude is that “I have said my piece online”, whereas other studies show that if you participate in person, you will be very likely to also do so online. It is another channel for your political activism. Following the democratic models, many authors consider that participating without reflecting, without debating, without seeing other points of view, is poor because it can collectively lead to the wrong decisions. So debating online and face to face can be very important. There are theoretical models, which were developed many years ago, for example, by Jrgen Habermas. This is what we want to examine, given that the digital path is new, very important but with offline repercussions, which are sometimes not so apparent. They could be counterproductive repercussions but sometimes positive and this is what we want to bring out.

Can digital participation saturate participants?

This is a question for each individual. We have to see the digital world as tools, not as an addiction. It's better to use few channels, unless you are inclined to vote in several initiatives, which I think can be somewhat absurd. Participation must focus on the issues that really interest participants. It means bringing the classic philosophy of offline participation to the online world. The digital sphere is more efficient because it is faster, because there are diverse channels to express opinion, even though the information must be filtered individually. Now it is the responsibility of the public administrations to provide these channels in an accessible, user-friendly way and not saturate citizens. In terms of what we are analysing on the Decidim platforms, we sometimes have this debate about not opening so many channels because citizens can get lost. They also have to help us with this. In our everyday life, there are few people who only want to be present on one social network or channel: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc. It’s the same attitude. Perhaps a valid alternative is to focus on only one channel and to do so with quality. The important thing are the issues that interest me as a citizen or as a social movement and focusing on those, using different channels, but not opening lots of channels without focusing on a theme.

How can we explain to society that research needs the social sciences?

The social sciences are as important as the health sciences, natural sciences or the so-called hard sciences (physics, chemistry, etc). For example, if there is no scientific research in the social sciences we would not have the idea that there should be equality between men and women, because scientific research in the 19th century referred to women from an almost medical perspective, commenting on the possible diseases, such as hysteria, that especially affected them. The social sciences often bring critical thought to society and scientifically and empirically discover that, for example, there are no differences between men and women in terms of their abilities in fields such as work or personal life. For example, in the recent feminist protests, there was a major role for the social sciences on many occasions in reporting or discovering the falseness of other a priori scientific studies of the hard sciences. And we also have a humanistic dimension that allows us to use critical thought that perhaps is not possible in these other sciences. These are ways of seeing a complementary social reality. If only physics or maths existed, the social world would see itself quite differently. The social sciences are very necessary for the functioning of society.

Can you recommend an instructive book about your field?

I can mention three books. The first, related to what I was talking about before, is Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective (1963), one of the first books I read when I was studying, by a very renowned author, Peter Berger. He notes that the social sciences must use the characteristic scientific methodology of the natural sciences, the most empirical, based on data and statistical analysis with quantitative techniques, but without ever losing the humanistic dimension. In other words, the roots of sociology, political science, history and philosophy because it is what gives us tools to analyse the social machinery, the social and political institutions. I really like this human dimension, the awareness of these social sciences of critical thought. It is a kind of manifesto, a book I think we should all read, especially when setting out in the social sciences.

The second book I would recommend is Las bases de Big Data (2015) by Enrique Martn and Rafael Caballero. I find it a very interesting book because I come from the social sciences and work on network analysis and with big data and I analyse social networks and data on platform participation, involving thousands of users and tweets, which are big data. It is not for experts and provides a map of the evolution of data storage, from early computers and the first era of the internet to the present. It analyses the evolution of how data is stored, which used to be relational but is no longer. This difference in concepts is very important for those of us from the social sciences and helps us find our place in this evolution and understand the virtues and disadvantages of big data analysis. We don't always have to analyse big data even though we are in the digital era. There will be moments in the research when it won't be necessary but others when it is, and the book lights your way along this path. It also deals with the big companies that use big data and the techniques to be used to analyse this kind of data. In particular, the idea that it is not about collecting all the information possible but about what will be done with it and what we are looking for, such as patterns, checking theories, doing work that is more inductive and deductive. The researcher must have a clear objective when approaching this kind of data because the important thing is to find some kind of explanation, some kind of pattern, not to store just because we need to collect everything we produce online. We must be selective.

The last book is “The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy”, which I recommend to people who have spent some time in the academic world and those running the universities. It is written by two full professors at a very important university in Canada: Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. There is a snail on the cover and the book talks about a movement similar to slow food or the slow economy transferred to academia. In the academic world, expectations are very high, the institution’s expectations of the professor and researcher. Your own expectations as a researcher are excessively high and this has major repercussions on the quality of the work. We form an integral part of universities, which have a corporate structure like big companies, and this is noted by the authors. They don't condemn academia, because those who form part of it appreciate it; we are dedicated to research, developing knowledge and sharing it with other colleagues and students. This is what motivates us to work, but we are inside corporate organizations that have objectives and we are small human beings with a workload and expectations in many different fields, which we often can't fit into our lives or develop appropriately. This book is very interesting in this respect because it describes this situation in which teaching staff are immersed and also provides some windows of hope.