Article |  08/24/2021Gritten Naams, Kirsi Verkka, Belinda Barbato

Towards a more inclusive digital participation process – case OmaStadi

Digitalisation has transformed working life, services and how we interact with one another in recent decades. In democratic institutions, however, utilisation of digitalisation is still a relatively novel concept. Many aspects of these institutions – representative democracy, cumbersome administration, infrequent voting opportunities and the way in which political parties, boards and parliaments interact with citizens – have remained almost unchanged for decades, if not centuries. The need for change is clear to see, as demonstrated by the increase in citizens’ lack of faith in political institutions and falling voter turn-out percentages in many European countries, for example.

Digital participation solutions allow the citizens’ role to change from passive recipient to active operator, whose expertise and experiences are taken into account in decision-making. Digital democracy methods can, at best, strengthen the transparency of political discourse and decision-making, increase the accessibility of information to a wider audience and bring decision-making closer to citizens. Digital democracy methods also increase the equality of participation, by making participation independent of time and place.  However, e-democracy entails some risks, such as the narrowing of opportunities for equal participation, polarisation of discourse, and leaking of data as a result of hacking.

In the City of Helsinki’s participatory budgeting initiative, OmaStadi, citizens can share ideas and vote to decide how the City spends an €8.8 million allocation. OmaStadi is a digital participation process in which ideas are submitted and co-development and voting take place on the OmaStadi website.  OmaStadi was implemented in Helsinki in 2018, and the second OmaStadi round is currently under way.  

OmaStadi is an influencing channel for all

Even the best digital participation process cannot achieve its objectives unless citizens are provided with information, encouraged to take an interest in the matters at hand and are activated to get involved. There is also a lot of work that has to take place alongside development of the digital service, to ensure the various resident groups receive information on how to participate and sufficient support to get involved.

In accordance with the City of Helsinki’s participation principles, the aim of OmaStadi is to attract a participant group that represents as broad a range of perspectives and is as geographically balanced as possible. OmaStadi is an influencing channel for everyone in Helsinki, but in order to be a process that is non-discriminatory and accessible for all, its implementation requires various means to support the participation of different population groups.  In the implementation of OmaStadi, clear and multilingual communications; an accessible website, events and workshops; and cooperation with the City’s services and organisations have played a key role in supporting residents’ equality and involvement. The measures to ensure more equal participation in OmaStadi consist largely of additional and enhanced support targeted at groups that were identified as underrepresented during the first round.  

Equal participation in OmaStadi amongst residents has been supported through the operations of around twenty City services, the service points of which are spread across various parts of the city.  For example, young people have been reached through schools and educational institutions, whilst elderly residents and those undergoing mental health and substance abuse rehabilitation, amongst others, have been reached through social welfare and healthcare services. Partner organisations have been particularly helpful in reaching foreign-language speaking residents. 

The participation of foreign-language speaking Helsinki residents was supported through multilingual communications, and marketing materials were produced not only in Finnish, Swedish and English, but also in the other most widely spoken languages in the city – Estonian, Arabic, Somali and Russian. The marketing communications were targeted at different linguistic groups, and in the voting that took place in autumn 2021, a trial was launched to target communications by age group and area, too. The City also participated in a project, led by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, seeking ways to support the Russian-speaking population in particular.

In participatory budgeting, the city is divided into major districts, with the budgets determined based on resident numbers. Furthermore, a separate proportion of the overall sum has been reserved for proposals concerning the entire city. There has also been discussion on equality between areas, as well as on whether the areas are too large and if this causes the larger districts (in terms of population) to benefit more than the smaller ones. At the major district level, the distribution of proposals between different parts of the city was relatively even, and in the first round, there were 3–4 proposals per 10,000 residents in each major district. However, voter turnout varied significantly between major districts, from 5.3% to 16%. The most active voting areas were the south-eastern and central major districts. The voter turnout percentage was lowest in the eastern major district despite many ideas being submitted for the major district and active involvement in the co-development stage. Hence, voter turnout alone does not provide a comprehensive picture of the participation and activity of an area’s residents in participatory budgeting. In order to support geographic equality, for the second round of OmaStadi it was decided that marketing communications and other measures would be targeted at those areas that had been the least active in the first round.

When encounters moved online – solutions to promote participation and interaction

The objective of OmaStadi is for the proposals that advance to voting to be developed deliberatively – through shared consideration and discussion between residents and civil servants. Residents vote on the proposals they would like the City to implement and thus directly influence the decision.  

Implementation of the digital participation process in a way that supports equality also requires a lot of face-to-face encounters. The COVID-19 situation posed a challenge for this key principle. Face-to-face meetings were not, however, completely discarded, and instead they moved online, with information sharing, guidance and participation support shaped to suit the digital environment. Both the City and partner organisations organised a broad-ranging set of online workshops and guidance sessions, with groups such as the elderly, foreign-language speakers and young people provided with tailored support for brainstorming their ideas. For example, partner organisations alone reached hundreds of foreign-language speaking residents through dozens of workshops, which led to hundreds of ideas for developing the city.

It is important to meet with residents and discuss the proposals particularly during the co-development stage, when ideas are developed into proposals to be voted on. In order to support the co-development after the brainstorming stage, 15 OmaStadi Raksa online workshops were held, with digital participation supported before and during the workshops. Digital guidance, active communications, and sharing of information and supporting material on the OmaStadi website paved the way for co-development online and prepared the participants to work together. The participants’ different needs were taken into account when planning and realising the workshops by utilising resident profiles and companies specialising in online facilitation. The workshops were built based on area or theme, which allowed residents interested in the same topics to meet and discuss topical needs and wishes. Approximately 500 residents participated in the OmaStadi Raksa workshops, corresponding at least to the number of participants reached by the co-development events for the first OmaStadi round in 2019.

However, participation in the workshops was not mandatory, and instead a large proportion of the proposals were prepared on the website, based on discussion between civil servants and residents. During the first round, all co-development took place in practice at workshops, so the increase in digital capacity during the COVID-19 situation was clearly perceptible during the implementation of OmaStadi, too. 

Development of equality

During the first OmaStadi round it was clear that the digital platform offered a variety of residents the opportunity to brainstorm and create proposals, which drew in not just already-active Helsinki residents, but others too. The second round of OmaStadi – which was implemented almost entirely digitally – demonstrated that a more diverse group of residents were involved than in the first round. The OmaStadi participants were varied in terms of age and linguistic background, which indicated success in information distribution, guidance and participation support. 

However, challenges to do with the digital participation process were also identified in OmaStadi, which are reflected in the implementation of equality. Digitalisation poses challenges, in particular, in terms of the deliberative nature and information flow of the process. The chance of misunderstandings is greater in online discussions than in face-to-face encounters. Experiences from the second round of OmaStadi demonstrate that interaction taking place on the website was more limited in terms of quantity and communicative value than in the online workshops.  The deliberative nature of the online workshops was stronger, as the workshops involved more reciprocal discussion and sought shared understanding.

As with other democratic innovations, proposals were made in OmaStadi’s second round on how to improve operations. These proposals linked to OmaStadi processes were focused on increasing equality and improving the participation options for silent voices.  In order to support equal participation opportunities, the intention in the future stages of OmaStadi is to use not just existing support mechanisms but also opportunities produced through voluntary operations, amongst other options, more comprehensively. The development of OmaStadi is ongoing, but the results attained already on digitalisation opportunities in the promotion of equality are promising, despite the challenges faced.

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