Unpacking Participatory Democracy Tools

By Alexandra Smith | December 14, 2023

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A computer screen sits on a table in front of a window. On the computer screen, diverse faces are visible in an online video conferencing call.
Image credit: Dalle 2

Editor's Note: This post was co-authored with Caitlyn Ramsey.

Citizen involvement in governance extends beyond just casting votes in elections; it’s an ongoing commitment integral to the fabric of democracy. Participatory democracy places citizens’ voices at the center of decision-making processes, enhancing the transparency, legitimacy, and longevity of democratic institutions. Although facilitating public input on a large scale presents challenges, the emergence of digital technologies offers a hopeful and effective solution. With modern technology, it's easier than ever to include citizen voices in government decision-making. Participatory democracy tools offer a practical and efficient means to engage citizens in the governance process. 

Public forums, brainstorming sessions hosted by civil society organizations, and public opinion surveys can now be conducted virtually anywhere a strong internet connection is available thereby expanding the civic space for citizens. Though, of course, digital communication can be exclusionary as well because those without the tech capacity to join online are left out. As such, it is important to take a considered approach to choosing which (if any!) tool is appropriate for your context.

The Dem.Tools library of tools and guides is designed to empower partners and potential users with the necessary knowledge to choose and implement tech tools in their programming. With this resource, tools that accomplish similar goals can be compared and contrasted to determine which is the best fit for any given context. This Autumn, NDI’s Democracy and Technology team (DemTech) decided to expand its expertise on participatory democracy tools by carrying out user experience testing with global NDI staff and having discussions with platform representatives. While there are numerous participatory democracy tools being used around the world (see People Powered’s database of participatory tools for more), during this process, we assessed four tools pertaining to participatory democracy:  

  1. Decidim: An open-source platform for citizen engagement, best suited for organizations with advanced technical expertise and high internet penetration.
  2. CitizenOS: A platform with user-friendly features for facilitating asynchronous conversation on a set question. 
  3. Stanford Online Deliberation Platform: A scalable video-conferencing tool for moderated face-to-face discourse on a proposal. 
  4. Pol.is: A scalable platform leveraging analytics to gauge broad sentiments in large group settings. 

The platforms were evaluated based on seven primary criteria; features and use cases, approach to moderation, licensing aspects, associated costs, digital security considerations, user and administrator experience, and limitations. All four platforms are compliant with GDPR principles and have been used by a wide variety of democratic actors, including governments, political parties, and advocacy groups. Decidim, CitizenOS, and Pol.is are open source platforms that can be forked and customized, but CitizenOS and Pol.is also provide a basic public instance for simpler, lower lift applications. For access to the Stanford Deliberation Platform, organizations should reach out directly to the team at Stanford. With their experience, the Stanford team provides expert advice as well as technical assistance in customizing the platform and facilitating the discussion. Participation for users of all four platforms only requires a smartphone or another device with an active internet connection. 

All of these tools allow participants to voice opinions, preferences, and priorities and can be used to address any topic. However, certain platforms are more effective at addressing certain topics. For example, Decidim and CitizenOS allow users to vote on proposals and add comments with their opinions and questions. This makes them well suited to host large group discussions on a singular idea, proposal, or issue. CitizenOS can even be adapted to verify users through government IDs, allowing citizens to cast official ballots. Pol.is works best with an even larger participant base because the platform has built-in analytics tools to assess group sentiment, evaluating how concordant or contentious a certain population finds a statement. Participants can agree, disagree, or pass on statements and add their own posts to be evaluated, but statements are very short (they have a low character limit), and participants cannot reply or  interact with each other. In contrast, the Stanford Online Deliberation Platform is best suited for small groups and allows a more nuanced discussion on multiple statements or proposals. 

Because online tools require strong internet connections, these tools are less useful in contexts in which internet penetration is low. Additionally, each of these platforms requires some degree of technical knowledge for facilitators to implement. Facilitators of Decidim, in particular, have their work cut out for them because the tool requires significant customization before it can be used. Pol.is and CitizenOS are the simplest to use for both participants and facilitators. All four have helpful support staff that are responsive to requests for assistance, but vary in terms of the involvement required by the developers of the tool. The Stanford tool, for example, is only available with the facilitation of Online Deliberation Platform staff. Because this platform makes use of live video conferencing to facilitate discussions, in our user testing, it was the most affected by internet connectivity issues. No tool is a one-size fits all solution. Determining which tool is best suited for your context is essential. This decision will depend on the needs of the users, the resources you have available, and the features that support your goal.

The four tools we examined are just a small number of the many participatory tools that can contribute to building stronger democracies. It’s important to remember that before choosing a tool, you must first understand the goals and objectives of your project and assess the needs of potential users. Furthermore, the limitations of tools can be mitigated and the strengths can be maximized when implementation considers the needs of diverse users. Participants in DemTech’s user testing concluded that each platform, applied with care to an appropriate use case, can play an important role in promoting and facilitating democratic participation.