Verónica Fumanal. Director of the communication study Verónica Fumanal.
If we think about citizen participation, the name of Porto Alegre comes to mind, the Brazilian city that underwent an institutional revolution in the 80s and evolved representative democracy towards participatory democracy, during an exercise which aimed to listen, dialogue and represent its citizens through their inclusion: everything for the people, but by the people.
In recent years, citizens’ commitment to politics seems to have increased. According to published surveys, interest in politics has surged, a thesis backed by television audiences for current affairs and politics programmes. This data leads us to conclude that the electorate wants more information and greater involvement in public affairs. A view reflected by political forces whose discourse and policy agendas include citizens’ demands for greater participation.
But it isn’t easy to create a participation processes with the requisite guarantees. To ensure citizens feel consulted a series of circumstances must exist such as security, transparency, information and accessibility.
Security is fundamental; any institution committing to undertake a participatory process must guarantee the protection of citizens’ data and vote certification. Otherwise, goodwill towards the participation processes may be tarnished by doubt being cast regarding the legitimacy of the results and their legitimacy, sending a completely opposite message to that which was intended.
The transparency of the entire process is essential. The administration, institutions involved and the citizens called to participate must be aware of all project stages so they can be involved much as they wish. Therefore, institutions must be in a position to clearly and easily provide details of process methodology, stages and means of participation.
All participation processes are based on the premise that information is available to all citizens. Therefore, they must involve an extensive communication campaign providing information about the terms of the process and the different options available for social debate, to guide each participant in the decision-making and opinion forming process with full guarantees.
Ensuring access to all citizens provides the process with greater legitimacy. Accessibility that requires not just security, transparency and information to be guaranteed, but also depends on the ease with which the population can participate, independent of mobility. Which is why an electronic participation process is a decisive complement to direct processes.
Lastly, it is worth noting that citizen participation outside of electoral periods is a novelty for the institutional system, despite having existed for almost 30 years since Porto Alegre. Whilst some communities have experienced participation processes for many years, their use has yet to become widespread and they are in the process of being introduced into general political culture. Institutions at the vanguard of this political culture have much to gain, because citizens’ involvement in public affairs makes societies stronger, more cohesive and satisfied.