In an increasingly digital world, Participa.gov represents our vision for civic participation in political decision-making processes. Participa.gov is the Portuguese Public Administration's centralized, cross-cutting platform for facilitating participatory processes at all levels of government. It employs cutting-edge technology to ensure that citizens can actively participate in policy decision-making via secure and transparent mechanisms that foster trust.
Instruments for public participation make it possible to encourage collaborative discussion between decision-makers and stakeholders, creating the ideal environment for obtaining more thoughtful and equitable decisions, avoiding institutional suspicion, increasing the likelihood of consensus, and consequently increasing the success of the policies themselves. Portugal has a longstanding history of including citizens in the creation of public policies and services, and throughout the last decade many public consultations, participatory budgeting, and other initiatives took place. However, interacting with citizens is mostly done in a dispersed manner, with different areas and levels of government using their own mechanisms and platforms to interact with civil society. But what if there was just one place that supports all public administration entities at the various levels - national, local and intra-organizational., in their participatory processes, and where citizens could check all public participation initiatives that are running, according to my profile as a citizen, and where I could submit my proposals and vote?
During the 2019 Simplex program, a national flagship initiative based on citizen engagement and co-creation for the simplification and modernization of the public sector, the idea came up and AMA delivered. Participa.GOV is exactly that – a one-stop-shop platform where citizens can present their proposals and decide through their votes on all relevant initiatives for their lives – From the national budget to a GovTech contest or their children’s school initiatives, everything is possible at Participa.gov. Simply put, public entities launch a challenge, based on a set of rules predefined at the back office, and citizens present their proposals and then decide through their voting.
A school might want its students to vote on the launch a social responsibility project, or the central government might launch a national participatory budgeting, or we can even have the NHS wanting to launch a restricted and exclusive participatory, process, available only to its workers – all of it is possible and works under the same rules. And better yet? The look and feel of the front office will always be the same. When developing participa.gov we took into account two major factors:
- The need to be customizable, because each entity has its own idiosyncrasies and target audiences and because each initiative is different.
- The need to be safe, secure, and transparent because we know that the biggest challenge of any participatory system is related to trust factors.
The Participa.gov platform was therefore built using highly secure eID mechanisms and blockchain technology, ensuring security, auditing, and transparency in the process from start to finish. Because data is protected by cryptography and thus immutable, blockchain and distributed ledger technologies make it possible to overcome corruption and ensure there is no intervention from malicious outside players. Secure digital identity mechanisms add an extra layer of security and, in the case of the Portuguese eID ecosystem, it allows the participants' scope to be defined based on the attributes available in the Portuguese digital identity: age, address, professional attributes, and so on.
The Participa.gov portal was created with the belief that digital technologies, when combined with public participation tools, can play an important role in connecting citizens to democracy. And, in this new era of digital democracy, we want participa.gov to become the single national platform for all public participatory processes, involving more citizens in public decision-making every day.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The innovative nature of this project derives from a conjunction of features, most notably three:
- The possibility to centralize all digital public participatory processes in a single platform, regardless of type (participatory budgeting, public consultations, GovTech challenges, and so on) or level of government (central and local, schools, utilities, etc.).
- The use of blockchain technology, which despite currently trending is still not widespread in public sector projects.
- The use of the national eID ecosystem not only adds another layer of security but also allows for greater personalization in the type of initiatives proposed.
Any attribute present in the citizen's digital ID can be used to define the scope of the initiative; for instance, one can define an age range, or a professional status (Intra organizational participatory processes derive from this since public workers have an attribute that defines them as such and identifies the organization they work at).
What is the current status of your innovation?
The project was up in test environment in 2020 and was launched in May 2021, straight through the COVID-19 pandemic. Understandably, most public entities have had their hands full with pressing issues, that needed to be addressed on the spot and, despite the importance of public participation and the Participa.gov platform, it ended up taking the backseat. Currently, the project is fully implemented, and we are in a communication phase, giving visibility to the participa.gov portal and highlighting its added value, in order to bring in more entities to the fold and increase the platform's usage, after which we intend to evaluate its impact, failures and need/room for improvement.
Collaborations & Partnerships
- We’ve worked closely with the teams that worked directly in the national participatory budgeting, taking into consideration their extensive experience and knowledge of what worked better when engaging citizens at the national level
- We’ve had the local administration collaborating with us, for their expertise on the specificities of local government
- We ran tests with citizens to ensure a greater user experience
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
From the point of view of the public sector entities, we’ve provided a ready-made, easy-to-use, and safe platform for engaging in participatory processes, offering the added value of resource optimization and greater efficiency.
For citizens, we’ve made it easier and more enticing to participate in public policies by offering a single secure and trustworthy environment to have their opinions heard in all sectors of the public sphere.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
As it was previously stated, is not yet possible to provide results outcomes, and impacts since the project is at its early stages and few initiatives have been submitted. However, we predict major outcomes/impacts:
- Significant cost reduction for the public administration in the mid/long term (in a simple exercise, if a platform costs around 40K and we multiply this value for more than 18.000 public entities in Portugal, we’ll have a very significant value)
- Higher social impact: demographic trends and technological advancements are changing the way citizens communicate and engage with decision-makers. According to these trends, face-to-face forms of participation are progressively being replaced by online modes of civic engagement. By making sure we keep up and offer a simple, secure, and trustworthy platform to engage, we’re also ensuring civic engagement in public policies will increase and have more impact on decision-making
Challenges and Failures
Failures might not be as obvious at this point because the endeavour is still in its infancy. However, there are a couple of identified challenges that are being addressed by the Portuguese Government and AMA:
- Inequality in the conditions of access to digital platforms, whether due to economic issues, connectivity, or digital illiteracy, for example;
- Low use of digital services in Portugal (around 30% of the population does not use any digital services and only around 25% uses secure digital identification mechanisms), which may be due to any of the above reasons, as well as cultural factors or lack of trust.
Conditions for Success
Political support at the highest level is always required for any cross-sector initiative; otherwise, breaking down silos and implementing changes will be (even) more difficult. Then a two-way approach may be required:
- Implementing policies and rules to encourage participatory processes and prioritizing the use of platforms such as participa.gov to persuade organizations to join the project
- Keeping in mind that communication is essential: all of the benefits of Participa.gov must be perceived as such, using an honest approach, to ensure that both organizations and citizens adhere to and continue to use the platform.
Participa.gov is 100% open-source code and as such is easily replicable by others. The only requirement – as we see it – is having a highly secure eID mechanism, which in this case are the national eID mechanisms (Citizen Card and mobile ID, AKA Digital Mobile Key). We’ve developed participa.gov with a view to using it at several levels of government and across all sectors, so it’s easily scaled up (or down) according to the users’ needs.
As previously stated, it is still too early to draw conclusions from this initiative because a thorough evaluation has not yet been completed.
However, general guidelines that apply to all cross-cutting initiatives of significant scope are as follows:
- Before the development of such initiatives, ensure political support at the highest level
- Begin slowly and modestly, allowing for iteration wherever and whenever necessary.
- Remember that initiatives of this nature typically move slowly, and perseverance is required to build trust and attract users (of any kind).
- Implementation - making the innovation happen
3 January 2023