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eParticipation and the Tyranny of Scale

10. December 2009 – 12:52 by Rolf Luehrs

This is the second article about  the evaluation of eParticipation projects and their role in participatory democracy, which will be posted by the members of the TuTech team over the course of the next weeks. The first one by Bengt Feil can be found here.

Quantity matters – especially for everything related to the Internet. Just think of the exploding internet penetration rates throughout the recent decades, dizzying stock prices during the new economy or the number of weblogs counted by Technorati.

Since the term web 2.0 has been coined we are flooded by incredibly huge numbers of social network users everyday and only since Obama has managed to mobilise millions of people via the Internet public administrations and politicians seem to consider the participatory potential of the Internet seriously.

However, the flipside of the obsession with scale is that not enough attention is paid to the quality of citizen participation on the Internet. Is a project or service really valuable just because tenth or even hundreds of thousands of users were using it? What does the sheer fact that lots of people wrote to their MP via the Internet or participated in a online petition tells about the contribution of this service to the improvement of political culture or decisions? Or the other way round: Is a political discussion of a certain subject irrelevant just because just a few hundred people participated?

I believe that counting heads or contributions is not a sufficient measure to evaluate what eParticipation can do for Democracy. Even worse, to only stare at numbers obstructs the view to the core strengths of eParticipation like providing a space to express and shape opinions, to exchange arguments, to collaboratively work or create and being heard by political and administrative decision makers.

Still, quantity matters, but for different types of eParticipation to an entirely different extend. If we look ad crowd sourcing-like projects in the political realm it is reasonable to assume that the more citizens participate the better the results will be. If e.g. a public administration wants to learn more about the actual quality and state of streets, buildings and places it would help a lot if as many participants as possible send their comments, photos or videos. But if the same PA asked citizens for proposals on how to more efficiently spend tax payer’s money, the quality of these proposal counts in the first place.

It has been demonstrated quite a few times that deliberative Internet discussions can lead to concrete results, that these results were amplified by traditional media and finally led to better policies. Some of these cases have been introduced here on PEP-NET (1, 2, 3) and none of them managed to attract huge numbers of active participants.

Rather than trying to realise sort of mass-deliberation on particular policies we should try to increase the number of eParticipatory opportunities. A model for this could be the so-called “Long Tail” describing the niche strategy of selling a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. Chris Anderson showed that products which are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current blockbusters. Transferred to the eParticipation domain this would offer the opportunity to achieve high overall participation rates while keeping up a good deliberative quality in the particular projects.

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  1. 15 Responses to “eParticipation and the Tyranny of Scale”

  2. By Hans Hagedorn on Dec 10, 2009

    If everything goes well, we will implement a “long tail” approach for our Citizens-Agenda projects in 2011. A number of (small and standardized) regional online-debates, aggregated by a national network-plattform.

    Very interesting concept, but management and moderation is quite a challenge :-) Hans

  3. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Dec 11, 2009

    Hi Hans, integrating and standardizing regional, local and sub-local debates seems to be key to getting some kind of “critical mass” on the e-Participation field. I hope your Citizens-Agenda project is successful, an we all can learn a lot from them.

    Through this kind of integration, it would be possible to reach the “long tail” (as Rolf proposes) on a geographical and thematic basis… while at the same time aggregating many of the positive effects of the “big numbers”, which are specially relevant for social networks to work.

    Our association has been devoting a lot of thoughts to these issues in the last years. Regarding the problem of moderation, and even management that you mention… we reach the conclusion that we need to develop “business models” ;-) that enable e-Participation systems to get “self-managed” and “self-moderated”. In other words: the participants take over the moderation of those issues that matter to them.
    For sure, this is not easy to achieve, but we consider that by creating resources that support the potential “moderators” to become familiar with that “moderating” role, and by implementing some advanced rating and reputation functionalities, which motivates the users to get more and more involved with the system as they get more experienced with it… this could be achieved.

    As we argue in a paper we recently presented at the last CLAD’s Congress in Brazil, sustainability has been one of the most important (unresolved) issues of the 20th century’s Participation. It will therefore be one of the critical factors of 21th century’s (e)Participation too.

    To overcome the “Tyranny of Scale” problems Rolf describes, together with what we call the “Leviathanic monopoly of Participation”… we all need now to devise new (e)Participation models and systems which are close to (auto)sustainable, on a financial as well as on a management and moderation level.

  4. By Rolf Luehrs on Dec 11, 2009

    Hi Hans & Pedro,
    I agree that moderation is crucial both regarding the success of online-deliberation and scalability. However, regarding self-moderation by participants I have some concerns.

    1)neutrality & credibility

    In the various Internet discussions we have organised we found that we usually have to strive for trust and credibility and to show that our moderators are impartial. To convince the majority of participants that the moderators are trustworthy is not easy at all. Participants might especially be motivated to volunteer as moderators if they are interested in the subject under discussion. But then it becomes even more are a challenge to act as real moderators and to be accepted by other participants

    Good moderation requires skills, knowledge, experience. Moderators have to be trained in order to know how to facilitate a deliberative discussion, to deal with conflicts, to summarise arguments, draft reports etc. pp. This can be hardly achieved during the course of a discussion.


    Moderation requires quite a lot of time and commitment. If moderators are not paid for their work, it might be difficult to find participants who are willing to invest that much of their time to get the job done.

    However, I am not saying that the involvement of volunteers is impossible. A model could be to institutionalise the recruitment and training of moderators e.g. on the city level. This would have to be done in long term perspective and independently of actual discussions. Maybe an organisation could develop a moderators training programme, a code of conduct and a sort of “trusted brand”. What do you think?

  5. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Dec 13, 2009

    Hi Rolf (and all),
    Your concerns are very well pointed. “Credibility and Neutrality”, “Skills” and “Resources” are all real issues that affect moderation, and its sustainability. Since moderation is essential for any “high quality” participatory/collaborative exercise, we need to solve these issues if we want to achieve a generalized and scalable model of (e)Participation.

    Let me share with you some of the ideas we have conceived for the Kyosei-Polis system, that possibly… could help to address your concerns. The main ideas were already presented in year 2006, at the European Conference on e-Government (ECEG 2006) in our paper “Virtual environments for citizen participation: principal bases for design” (Spanish extended version). Since then… we’ve been extending our reflections.

    [Be aware: all these ideas are protected by a powerful Creative Commons non-commercial license.
    If anybody can implement them… please go ahead!! Count on us: we will help you as much as we can. But if you try to “steal” these ideas and use them to “commercialize” and/or “manipulate” participation, or even to try to block the development of legitimate (e)Participation by claiming any exclusive right on them (by patenting them or any other awful trick) be assured... you’ll burn in Hell!!! ;-) ]

    Now let’s go to business: our system’s design concentrates on the sustainability of the most important (e)participation processes we’ve identified.

    It needs, therefore:

    1.- Generate “REAL UTILITY” for all kind of users the system has: citizens, civil servants, journalists, associations, politicians, practitioners, etc. Each of them need to get real profit from his/her involvement. This way, enough of them will come to use the system.

    2.- Thus, it has to provide functionalities and procedures that address their more pressing needs. In the case of “moderators”, they are, certainly:

    – Functionalities that facilitate moderation and facilitation of deliberations, summarizing arguments, draft reports, etc. As well as training resources (online resources that could actually be complemented with an scheme for formal training at city/regional level, as you proposed).
    – Functionalities that help to establish their credibility as trustable facilitators.
    – Functionalities that help them compensate (financially too) the effort invested in facilitation.

    Let’s see how the principles indicated in my last comment could contribute to this effort.

    First of all, the problem of skills: for sure, one moderator requires time to get familiar with not just the “moderator duties”, but also with system’s functionalities used by participants and moderators. This is the reason why the system shouldn’t be understood as a “one-shot” system: you prepare it for a participative exercise… and then it gets closed. Next time, users will need to start again from scratch. Register again in a new system, and learn again the particularities of the new platform.

    No. What we need is more like a “Facebook” of civic participation: a system that stays in place continuously. A system where users have a profile to take care of. Where each action and comment done, contributes to establish a reputation for him. A system where he can establish relationships and interests with other users, with organizations and geographical locations he is interested in, and thematic areas where she has expertise or interests.

    In this system (let’s say that it operates on a municipal or regional level) the “real world” –also named the “meat-space”– has a corresponding replica in the “virtual participatory world” –in “cyber-space”–. Thus, civic organizations, political organizations, government organizations, legislative institutions… all can have a “profile” in the system, that publicizes all participatory activities they promote (be it in the real or the virtual world). Thus, all users interested in the thematic and/or place affected by these participatory processes would get timely informed, so they can participate.

    This way, we are somehow creating a “free competition” in the participation area: if the mayor office is not active enough to promote participatory processes on the issues the citizens are interested in… no doubt some other organization will organize them, sooner or later. :-)

    Anyway: in such a system… the users will slowly learn and learn how to use the different functionalities. A typical user would start “watching” participatory processes, reading the comments of experts and participants. At some point, he would make some contributions on its own. Later… he/she could even worry enough to take part in the collaborative edition of the “summaries” of the discussion. At some point, she can feel motivated enough to educate herself as a “facilitator”, using the online resources, or even getting some training in the “meat-space”.
    This way… “training facilitators” is not something YOU, as organizer of the participatory activity, need to do. Training facilitators is a semi-autonomous and quite-sustainable process: the participatory environment would create the motivation and incetives that make the “facilitators” develop their abilities autonomously. The classic “Learning by doing”.

    All participatory processes carried out with the system would need to be “self-evaluating”. All participants and stake-holders would at the end of the process get asked to evaluate the experience, stating their satisfaction level and judging, for example, how did the different facilitators perform their duties.

    This way, we would have some kind of “eBay like” evaluation system. By looking at the record of the “facilitators” one could verify with some confidence, which on their level of experience and competence is, as well as their impartiality and credibility. In the same way that, by looking at the record of an eBay seller, I can decide if I buy something from him or not, by looking at the record of the organizing institution and the record of the facilitators, I could decide if I participate in a process or not.

    So… what would an organization (let’s say: a sport association or the city hall) do, if it wants to start a participatory process? It can facilitate the discussions itself… but if the organization does not have the time, capacity or neutrality to do it themselves, they could search for appropriate “facilitators” through the profiles in the system, to arrange a facilitation team. If a facilitator likes the aims of the organization it could well be the case that he/she is willing to perform his/her role “ad honorem” (a lot of pensioner could find it a valuable and enjoyable inversion of their time).

    But normally the organization would need to pay for the facilitation services received. The system could facilitate this too, by offering functionality that enables efficient and transparent transactions between the organizations and the pool of facilitators.

    Actually: if a regional, international or municipal government wants to promote participation in an area… they could make available some amount of resources, which organizations willing to carry out participatory processes could apply for, to pay for the expenses of the participatory processes they impulse.

    It could even be the case where the satisfied participants of any participatory process would be willing to donate some money to the organization/s behind it, so that in the future more similar activities can be financed.

    So… well, I think this is enough for this time. There is much more to talk about, but for now… I think I’ve covered the three issues you mentioned.

    These are… just ideas (and actually, not very well explained). We don’t know whether they will work or not. Probably they won’t. But they seem, at least… plausible, “doable”. Something we could try to continue learning more and more. We will only know how much they work, once the basis for such a system gets built and put in operation.

    The original aim of our association (https://pep-net.eu/blog/2008/06/27/asociacion-ciudades-kyosei) was to promote the creation of such a system. But so far… we have been unable to do it. We’ve been experimenting on several levels, but we lack so far the “muscle” (resources and capacity) to do it. We applied several times for financing from Spanish authorities, but we only got disappointing answers.
    For this reason, we are now concentrating on a divulging -popularizing- a good understanding of (e)Participation and its potentials. We hope we can slowly help to create a “broad community” of interested people and institutions that will help us to (collaboratively) design the system, and promote its creation. No doubt PeP-NET is an important actor we’ll be counting on. :-)

    That’s all. Regards.

  6. By Peter Cruickshank on Dec 14, 2009

    I think the consensus now is that 100% particupation is not ever going to happen (and I don’t think it would be valuable outside of elections). Only some citizens are interested enough in a subject to actively follow it, never mind take part in debates. But maybe bite-sized deliberations would allow a wider range of people to take part.

    I think the tweet comment by Tony Bovaird summarises my take on this issue:

    The real indicator would be the percentage of ‘interested’ who participate?

    How you measure even that would be a challenge.

    NB Be careful quoting the long tail as gospel. It may even be that the Web magnifies the importance of blockbuster hits – see this and other items on the Register for some problems with the model (and also the criticism section of the Wikipedia entry)

  7. By Zebralog / Matthias Trénel on Dec 15, 2009

    I like Rolfs reasoning about the long tail of e-participation, especially when it comes to issues that affect only a few or that only a few are interested in. However, with issues that usually receive a larger extent of public attention (e.g. the budget) there is a strong need to create e-participation blockbusters in order to achieve political relevance of the participation process: The larger the number of participants, the more attention is paid by politicians and administrators. Also: with a good dialogue design it is easy to turn quantity into quality.

  8. By Rolf Luehrs on Dec 15, 2009

    @ Matthias: Well, the fact that politicians pay only attention to eParticipation if lots of people participate was kind of a starting point of my reasoning. To suggest that we should keep on trying to create blockbusters is not really a new approach. (We’ll do it anyway) But isn’t that what we were trying for the last 10 years or so? And how far did we get?

    Let’s talk about Germany: The benchmarks regarding organised eParticpation projects are the participatory budgeting in Hamburg 2006 with ~ 3000 participants and Cologne with ~ 10000. In both cities the number of participants decreased when the ePB was offered for the second time. And look at the enormous PR efforts especially Cologne has put into place. Do you really think there is enough evidence to claim that many citizens are interested in budgeting as such?

    In both cases a price had to be paid to get this few thousands participants. In Hamburg most of them did not engage in the discussion but used the budget calculator. As far as I know in Cologne people mainly proposed how to spend the budget but did not discuss very intensively about the pro’s and cons. However, both projects had their strengths. But I have seen moderated online discussions which were much more intense, lively, deliberative and led to impressing results although just a few hundred citizens participated.

    From time to time blockbuster just emerge and I have my doubts if they really can be created, initiated, generated or whatever. But good deliberative only discussion with a limited number of interested and committed participants can. And for this reason I believe we need a better theoretical understanding as well as practical concepts to exploit this potential for the sake of democracy.

    And yes @Peter, the tweet from Tony Bovaird points definitely in the right direction. Thanks also for the hint to the critical post about the long tail – very interesting indeed. However, in spite of the very few eParticpation projects which can be currently considered as blockbusters, I am sure we can create the long tail, even if it has never existed in economy before. :-)

  9. By Oliver Märker on Dec 16, 2009

    @Rolf: Just some information ant comments to the electronic particpatory budgeting process in Cologne started 17th of November and which is still open for citizens input up to 20th of December.

    Compared to the first ePB, the second ePB has not been pushed by many or lets say any PR efforts. Nevertheless the participation level is again quite high (first ePB more than 11.000 participants with registration). Till now around 8.000 have been registrated onto the platform to put forward their suggestions (were to spend or save money), to give their PROs and CONs (up to now more than 30.000 votes) and comments (until now around 4.000) pro or against suggestions. And in addition several hundreds suggestions and votes have been sent by mail and list of signatures. Citizens mobilize and activate other citizens for their proposals.

    This is how democracy works: bring forward your position and mobilize votes. But this is not the main reason why the ePB in Cologne seems to be an attractive particpation offer and its not PR.
    I believe that the attraction to a greater degree is the political-administrative procedure which starts *after* the online consultation has been closed: In Cologne all top voted suggestions (this time: 200) will step by step be examined by the administration, discussed by committees, and decided upon by the council, and the suggestions aggreed upon will be monitored up to their realisiation.

    In other words: The ePB of Cologne is embedded into the poltical administrative systems which values much more than PR or can’t be replaced by PR. The citizens might see a realistic chance, to filter in their issues into the flow of the communal democracy circle.

  10. By Rolf Luehrs on Dec 16, 2009

    @Pedro, yes, I agree that your ideas “seem, at least… plausible, “doable”. But isen’t it funny that nobody has put these kind of system into practice so far? Unfortunately it is not because nobody has thought about it. There are plenty of varations of these kind of approaches but until now nobone felt strong enough to realise it. This I suppose has some reasons.

    1) From my experience I can tell that most of the governments and PAs are not trusting in these kind of self organising processes. They want to have some sort of control over the process or at least hand the process over to someone they trust. Further to this they mostly want to have a tailored system at least in terms of look/feel/appearance.

    There is also a structural problem which Charles Leadbeater pointed out at the PDF: “Politicians facing problems “giving loads of stuff away” and contribute to an anonymous creation of public goods. Instead they have to claim that they are doing things for people and need to take the credits to get elected.”

    This may result in the unwillingness to provide ressources to finance the moderated exercises. Unfortunatly I believe this can also be applied to organisations and companies.

    2) Not many citizens are intersted in (e) participation as such. They are only interested in specific subjects and only want to be involved when these subjects are under discussion. This may result in keeping the platform to reach the critical mass in terms of volonteers, participants and readers.

    Nevertheless I also wish that someone will finally give such a permant participation platform a try! I would be really happy if it turned out that I was wrong.

  11. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Dec 16, 2009

    Hi Rolf, you are right.
    What you describe is actually what has happened in the last 60 years in relation to Civic Participation. It’s understandable, that this is also happening with (e)Participation now.
    Politicians do not have a real motivation to promote “sustainable and self-organizing forms of citizen engagement”, and they won’t promote it (unless they are not fully conscious of what they are doing, when they finance such an initiative).

    To express it in an humorous way, I’d say that, in order to get a system like the one I described to be successful, we have just ONE problem to overcome, which we face in at least three different “flavors” or settings:

    - The PROBLEM is: our society’s current mainstream “political culture”, which is almost incompatible with a participative and deliberative approach to politics.
    - The SETTINGS where this problem is present are:
    1.- Politicians: very strong;
    2.- Citizens: very strong;
    3.- Public servants: very strong;

    Pretending to change this kind of “problem” is usually called… “Utopia”. ;-)

    But… well! Social change DO actually happen! And political cultures DO indeed evolve with time.

    It’s always a small number of “positive deviants”, which feel and act in a different way, who thus show the others the alternative paths.
    As their approaches get amplified, and more and more people start changing their views and habits… things start to change. Faster and faster.

    In relation to Participation, we already have, currently, a lot of positive deviants scattered through the world, which belong to the “politicians”, “civil servants”, and “citizens” fronts. Most of them are actively trying to connect, one with another.

    It’s to be seen if the connecting power of Internet can amplify them enough to bring out some kind of change.
    If everything else remains calmed (no WWIII, for example) I’d say it will.

    I guess it’s not a question of “whether or not” the kind of system I described will be created (or not). It’s much more a matter of “when” it will happen (and “who” will impulse it, and “how”).
    But then again… I tend to be terribly optimistic. :-)

    While I’m writing… PeP-NET is actually doing its part. As well as other hundreds of small groups connecting here and there.
    Let’s first make PeP-NET a success… and hope this will bring out something.
    Maybe, some day, some politicians will regret having financing your birth and some of the projects that, no doubt, will emerge thanks to PeP-NET.

  12. By Tim Bonnemann on Dec 17, 2009

    Great thread, lots of things to chew on…

    Making a mental note to follow up on these topics:

    1. Enabling participants to contribute to overall project success in the role of volunteer moderator/facilitator/synthesizer etc. (my guess is that the 80:20 rule might very well apply here, meaning a majority of these tasks could be taken on by the average citizen with some training/mentoring)

    2. Providing better low-level or “drive-by” participation opportunities whereby citizens can make (many) small yet valuable contributions without having to be involved over the full length of a participation project.

    3. Games or game-like applications as a potential driver of engagement. The budget calculator is great example. Apparently, manipulating the numbers according to one’s preferences is more fun to some people than reading through walls of text in a discussion forum. ;-)

  13. By Rolf Luehrs on Dec 17, 2009

    @Oliver I am really happy that my seemingly critical remarks regarding the ePB in Cologne finally broke through your reserve :-) – welcome at PEP-NET! However, I believe that you got me wrong – I didn’t mean at all that the ePB itself has to be considered as PR. I just meant that lots of instruments have been put in place to make the citizens aware of it. As far as I know all citizens have been informed in writing, posters all over the place etc. pp.

    You mentioned the political integration of the ePB in local government – according to what I have heard this is really outstanding! The whole case deserves at least one big top level blogpost here. So please share this experience with us pepneters!

    Furthermore it is not my intention in this discussion to criticise the few cases that managed to attract quite a lot of participants. My intention is to prevent all others from being undervalued!

    @Pedro liking your critical-optimistic attitude and your sense of humour. Great that you consider PEP-NET to contribute to the ultimate breakthrough of eParticpation! Keep on rockin’ !

  14. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Dec 19, 2009

    Hi Rolf,
    I was reflecting on one of your comments, specially the sentence where you say: “But isn’t it funny that nobody has put these kind of system into practice so far? Unfortunately it is not because nobody has thought about it.”

    I’m not really sure whether this is the case or not.

    Who and when and how has reflected on “how should the ultimate (e)Participation system be”? What are we aiming to? How would it look like, the best (e)Participation ecosystem of the future we can conceive? Would it be a “facebook of participation” or more like a cloud of independent applications tightly integrated through open APIs?
    Is a technical approach enough for participation, or do we need a socio-technical approach?
    Is FOSS software enough to support (e)Participation, or do we need new models, something deeper, that not only exposes code, but also the practices and procedures associated with these kind of systems -whose aim is to directly affect societies and political systems-?

    In the last years I’ve been reading a lot of papers, blogs, conferences, unconferences… and I have never seen such a reflection.
    Actually, I’ve read several times the opposite declarations, that warn against trying to create any such “big” and ambitious (e)Participation system.

    So… when you continued saying “… there are plenty of variations of this kind of approaches but until now, nobody felt strong enough to realise it.”
    Even that could be too optimistic, and reality could be even worst: so far, “none of us felt strong enough to even think seriously about it“.

    This thing is something we should keep in mind. In the future we should try to promote this kind of reflection. Even if nobody will ever implement any such a view, system or ecosystem, reflecting on them is important in order to get a general idea about where are we heading to, or even “where would we like to head to”.
    (e)Participation research and practice has been so far characterized by a lack of focus, a lack of coherence, a lack of aim. This is not that bad, but it is clearly not the best.

  15. By Rolf Luehrs on Dec 20, 2009

    @Pedro a concrete example is https://www.echologic.org/en/echologic#/echo. They have just started the project, time will tell wether it works.

  16. By Asociacion Ciudades Kyosei / Pedro Prieto-Martin on Dec 25, 2009

    @Rolf: yes, you are right; this is a good example. Thanks!
    I visited it some time ago, but then I never came back.
    As you say: it’s still starting. But it seems they got some funding, and they are aiming quite high! Let’s keep an eye on it. :-)

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