Participatory democracy platforms gain traction in Switzerland

From left to right, Guillaume Drevon, Vincent Kaufmann and Armelle Hausser du Laboratoire de sociologie urbaine.  © Alain Herzog / EPFL

From left to right, Guillaume Drevon, Vincent Kaufmann and Armelle Hausser du Laboratoire de sociologie urbaine. © Alain Herzog / EPFL

An initial survey by researchers at EPFL has found that local and regional governments are increasingly turning to digital technology to understand the views of their citizens, especially on planning and development proposals.

Governments across Switzerland are embracing civic technology. This is one of the headline findings of the first Civic Tech Barometer, a survey conducted by researchers from EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory (LaSUR) in partnership with Geneva Canton’s Consultation and Communication Department. The team’s conclusions are based on responses to an online survey sent to municipal, city and cantonal authorities nationwide between August and November 2019. In total, 83 government employees from the French, German and Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland submitted answers.

The idea behind civic technology, or civic tech, is to change the way citizens participate in democratic processes. The LaSUR survey found that the Swiss civic tech landscape is far from uniform. The most common platform types include websites, blogs, open-data repositories, social media, participatory spaces where citizens can submit ideas and suggestions, and open forums for discussion and debate. Yet half of the technologies mentioned by survey respondents are not truly participatory because they are designed more for one-way communication than two-way interaction.

The survey did, however, reveal a handful of more collaborative platforms, including Crossiety (dubbed the “digital village square”) and Decidim. With such a wide variety of options available, governments are free to choose how involved they want citizens to be in the decision-making process.

Planning leads the way
“Swiss authorities use civic tech across a broad spectrum of policy areas,” says Armelle Hausser, a doctoral assistant at LaSUR who carried out the survey as part of her PhD research. “Chief among these are planning and development, youth services, sport, environment and social action.” In most cases, local executive bodies are the driving force behind civic tech usage – and legal requirements have little to no bearing on such initiatives. In fact, just one-third of the platforms and technologies reported by respondents were developed to meet a legal obligation.

Conversely, other interested parties – such as project and department managers, citizens’ groups, charities and non-profits – rarely call for the use of civic tech in consultation and participation processes. “This finding is counter-intuitive,” says Professor Vincent Kaufmann, who heads LaSUR. “It suggests that, in Switzerland, citizens still prefer to voice their views through conventional channels, for instance by objecting to planning proposals or by taking part in popular initiatives and referendums.”

Limited resources
The team also found that local governments currently allocate little in the way of funding and human resources to civic tech initiatives, preferring in the majority of cases to outsource the process to external providers. “Authorities don’t yet have a clear idea of the roles and skills required for this kind of initiative,” explains Hausser. Yet expectations were high among the respondents, who said they planned to use civic tech to produce more information for public consumption, keep citizens better informed and understand their views, improve transparency, secure public support and widen participation more generally.

“There are many other plans in the pipeline, including online surveys and participatory mapping platforms,” adds Hausser. “In terms of technology types, a general direction of travel seems to be emerging. But we’ll need to run the survey again to make doubly sure.” What is certain is that Swiss authorities are keen to embrace civic tech, with no fewer than 31 high-priority initiatives planned for the coming year.

Room to improve
The LaSUR team found clear room for improvement in two areas. First, although citizens’ views obtained using civic tech are reflected in accompanying reports, Swiss authorities still tend not to give these views due weight in the final decision-making process. And second, it is still too early to properly assess the impact of the technology on citizen participation. The researchers will have a clearer picture after running their second survey, scheduled for fall 2020.

The results of the initial survey will be presented at a special event – open to practitioners and other interested parties as well as the wider public – on 3 February 2020 at the 3DD Espace de Concertation in Geneva. Hausser will incorporate the findings into her thesis, which focuses on wider issues around the use of civic tech for public participation in planning processes in Switzerland. Her research is supervised by Prof. Kaufmann and Boris Beaude, in partnership with Geneva Canton.

  • «Résultat de l’enquête Baromètre des civic tech en Suisse 2019», Armelle Hausser and Prof. Vincent Kaufmann, 3 February 2020 1.30pm, in French, 3DD espace de concertation, Rue David Dufour 3, Geneva. Open to the public.