Foto: Participedia Screenshot

“We are focused on widening the scope”

Participedia is a global knowledge sharing platform for everyone interested in democratic innovations. Project manager Paul Emiljanowicz talks about its purpose, challenges to participation and why research on democratic practices has to move away from its Western-centric angle.

What is Participedia about?

Participedia is the world’s largest open access, online inclusive database documenting public participation and democratic innovations. These innovations are the creative and innovative expressions of democracy that people around the world come up with to address real life challenges they are faced with: whether it’s related to climate change, access to public institutions, increasing decision making power, or health care, among countless others.

Paul Emiljanowicz is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. He is the project manager at Participedia. You can find him on Twitter. Foto: private

The crowdsourcing platform collects and shares these experiences. The idea is that maybe an activist organization, practitioner or a policy maker somewhere can look up a case from the opposite end of the world and be inspired to do something similar. We have much to learn from each other and many of the problems that are facing us are global; open-access knowledge exchange is essential.

What kind of information do you find on Participedia?
Participedia crowdsources stories about participation and democratic innovation in the form of cases, methods and organization entries using surveys. You can find information related to how people around the world are organizing and responding to challenges at the level of communities, regions or districts, nation states and the international community. You can learn about their purpose, context, types of new methods and tools used, outcomes and lessons learned among a host of other information.

Could you give some examples for ideas or initiatives that work on increasing participation?
Before 2015, outside of Brazil, if you were to talk about participatory budgeting, people wouldn’t know what you are talking about. Now, this method has been practiced by governments in over 1500 municipalities around the world. Participatory budgeting is the idea that average citizens can participate in how public funds are distributed and what tax revenue gets spent on. Another example are citizens‘ assemblies. Randomly selected individuals representing different population demographics participate in deliberative processes to form an opinion on important topics and to have some say in the decisions that are going to have a substantial effect on the outcome of their life. There are also examples which challenge how we think and understand democracy, its Western centric biases and mainstream assumptions. The Gaada system of the Oromo peoples in Ethiopia for example, a longstanding indigenous democratic system that has allowed them to maintain sovereignty over the regulation and protection of the Gaussa-Menz grasslands.

In terms of science and technology, people around the world are finding innovative ways to be included in decision making regarding the development of AI, ethics around stem-cell research, and weapons technologies – to name a few. At the same time scientific innovations, especially in communications technologies, are connecting people in new ways and making it easier for people to deliberate and organize.

What are the main challenges when trying to implement participatory measures?
That’s a really tough question, because it is very context dependent. In some cases, the challenges to participation can quite literally be a gun or a bullet. It might be a police or military force sent on you by an oppressive, authoritarian – and even sometimes democratic – government to stop you from organizing. In other cases, it can be more subversive or even practical challenges which prevent people from participating.

“We have much to learn from each other and many of the problems that are facing us are global; open-access knowledge exchange is essential.” Paul Emiljanowicz
Moving from the local to the global, things get even messier. Let us take global assemblies – those at the recent United Nations Climate Summit – as an example for how challenging scale and representation are: Each person of 100 randomly selected individuals from around the world in effect represents a particular demographic. It is impossible to fully capture the diversity and heterogeneity of the world’s population, yet it is also a worthwhile exercise to include the otherwise non-included. But this is only the beginning.

Which other factors limit participation?
There are also technological challenges. How can individuals in rural contexts engage in the decision-making going on in an urban center? In Poland and in Ghana they use platforms on digital devices for these processes. But not everyone has access to those tools and the software or technology might be owned by a private company or easily controlled by the government.

Another question is how receptive the government is to participation. Are the processes truly participatory? Who are they leaving out? Are the most marginalized in society included? If not, why? In our research we want to understand which methods have worked, under what conditions, and how those that didn’t work could be improved for the future.

Ultimatley, the creativity and desires for people to participate in the decisions that affect them cannot be quelled.

Did you already get an answer to those questions?
In the first phase of Participedia, research was very much centered on participatory governance processes, formal processes such as participatory budgeting, for example. We are in a new phase of the project now. Since then we have opened up the research agenda to new cluster areas that are exploring different aspects of democracy, such as democratic innovation, resilience and challenges to democracy.

It is complicated even at the level of definition: People around the world are defining and practicing democracy differently. At the moment, to think more broadly about the field, research is still dominated by Western institutions and methods. That is why we are focused on widening the scope of how we think about and understand democracy and democratic innovation. Many of the crowdsources entries are looking at contexts and ideas that have traditionally been excluded from democratic knowledge production and policy making.

In short, we are learning something new everyday.

Do you evaluate those cases and methods?

“Another question is how receptive the government is to participation. Are the processes truly participatory? Who are they leaving out?” Paul Emiljanowicz
That is something we’re very much interested in. The challenge with Participedia being an open access database is maintaining factuality and providing accurate and well-sourced information. We have people who monitor the website and edit entries for spelling, grammar and citation, but all this is captured and openly visible to the user. Researchers, students or practitioners can collaboratively publish and edit entries. When people who make an entry get to the section on analysis and lessons learned we want them to insert as much information as possible so readers can make the judgment for themselves. At the moment, we are still in a research co-design process and want to include as many voices. Evaluation is definitively on the agenda and will be a core feature. There are even talks about establishing a Participedia Democracy Lab in addition to regular Participedia Summer Schools in which we would curate people around specific topics to produce reports and training for government officials around the world.

You mentioned people being excluded from democratic processes. Do you have any lessons learned for decreasing barriers to participation?
I wish more people would ask that question. One of the key mechanisms which can remove some of these barriers to participation is to empower people. Give them greater control over the decisions which will affect them in their lives. And again, this will look differently in different places.

If you think about the complexity of the problems which we are facing, they require now more than ever a diverse group of people that take each other’s ideas, perspectives and experiences seriously. Participedia is trying to actively contribute to these debates.

One big challenge at the moment is the Covid-19 pandemic that stressed the importance of interdisciplinary problem solving. What are the key insights from how Participedia is responding to this crisis?
We set up a special collection on the database that is documenting Covid-19 specific case studies of democratic innovation and participation around the world. They document the resilient ways in which people are navigating the challenges brought about by Covid-19.

Schwerpunkt Partizipation Alle Beiträge zum Thema
Even though based at McMaster University in Canada, given the expansive network of Participedia, we always operated on a hybrid model with semi-annual events, all-team meetings and conferences, while day to day operations were conducted online. In the immediate response to the pandemic we moved everything online and provided significant support and training to help make these digital spaces inclusive and deliberative.

We are already planning to gradually move back to a hybrid model but the lessons about inclusivity will stay with us.

What role does science communication play in the Participedia project?
Knowledge mobilization is a key aim of Participedia. We have a communications team that disseminates the research outputs of our network to other scholars and participants in the project and beyond. Oftentimes we researchers are disconnected from each other, especially in Covid-19 times. Researchers are often producing impactful work, but the insights do not reach broader and more diverse audiences such as practitioners or government officials. We are trying to co-create our knowledge mobilization strategies with diverse audiences in mind and with students taking lead roles.