Part 8 of the summary of Personal Democracy Forum CEE 2019: In Whom We Trust. Scroll down for the links to other parts of the summary.

The 3rd edition of the Festival of Civic Tech for Democracy started with the track “What Triggers Gov Tech?” gathering experienced practitioners to present the advantages and challenges of government originated technological solutions 1/ on the example of CoopTech – the movement of platform cooperativism designing democratic, egalitarian digital technologies, balancing both citizen needs and agility of business; 2/ trying to answer the question: how can we use tech to tweak existing governance practices and make open government work?; 3/ sharing the experience of the first hackathon in a Polish museum; 4/ telling the story of the digital procurement system transferred to the state as an official tool.

Jan Zygmuntowski (Instrat Foundation) opened the event with his speech “Platform cooperativism: a democratic response to digital threats” explaining platform cooperativism as a democratic response to digital threats. The topic of misinformation and fake news was omitted and the presentation focused on such themes as: 

  • exploitation of contractors and unfair competition on the example of UBER practices – the European Court of Justice recognised such service as a transport service and not as a digital service;
  • gentrification and displacement: the example of Airbnb, whose activities have a real impact on the living conditions of permanent residents and local neighborhoods in many cities around the world;
  • gig economy and the resulting lack of stability;
  • algorithm black boxes, where not only don’t we know what happens with our data but we either don’t know how the software works which affects our lives and we don’t have any influence on it;
  • top-down decision making model: Zygmuntowski pointed out that so called community standards in Facebook are not created by any community but by the company itself;
  • data extraction: when we use the main online platforms and it’s our activity that actually creates the data but data is extracted, monetized and then packaged into products and sold;
  • mono-/oligopolization of the economy: when we have a couple of dominant tech companies (such as Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Google).

The response to the threats that impact our society is platform cooperativism, the co-op tech. Mondragon Corporation is not a platform cooperation but still a great example of how we can create a cooperative of engaged people and a democratic bottom-up process. An egalitarian way of spreading revenues is applied – company actually strives and competes with the biggest. Mondragon is the biggest corporation in the Basque Country and the 10th largest company in entire Spain.

The first person to present cooperativism platforms was Trebor Scholz who distinguished 10 attributes of this phenomenon: Ownership, Decent Pay and Income  Security, Transparency & Data Portability, Appreciation and Acknowledgement, Co-determined Work, A Protective Legal Framework, Portable Worker Protections and Benefit, Protection Against Arbitrary Behavior, Rejection of Excessive Workplace Surveillance, The Right to Log Off. That was the starting point to pin it down. On the other hand, research made by Marina Gorbis from the Institute for the Future, who interviewed employees about the best platform to keep them motivated, engaged and feel great as citizens, revealed the following conditions: earning maximization, stability and predictability, transparency, the portability of products and reputation, upskilling, social connectedness, bias elimination, feedback mechanisms. These results show a strong overlap with classic Gig Economy – it is visible that people need more democracy in their workplace.

What solution do we have? There are five flavours of CoopTech: 

  1. Cooperatively owned, online labor brokerages and market places: belonging to workers, freelancers, online shop owners;
  2. City-owned platform cooperatives: municipal utilities providers, pooling local resources (rental, mobility);
  3. Producer-owned platforms: dedicated mechanisms for producers-consumers of content;
  4. Union-backed labor platforms: using power, resources and know-how of occupational union;
  5. Platforms governed by international institutions: addressing universal, global issues across borders.

Zygmuntowski believes that the last point is a hope for the emergence of new social media. The United Nations platform designed and ruled by the citizens of the world. There are examples of operating platforms based on CoopTech assumptions such as Res()nate directed to artists producing music and video content or Fairmondo which is German eBay where the shop owners actually run it.

Finally, Zygmuntowski asks: why aren’t such platforms used in large numbers? What is missing? Why don’t we see more of them? According to the speaker, in view of the awareness of existing tools, and the problem with cross-competence collaboration, we need a new ecosystem of institutions. We need to create a scene for CoopTech.

The second speaker Tamar Gzirishvili (NDI Georgia) elaborated on “Making civic engagement great again: the role of tech in open government” as she – not being a techie – knows a lot about open government: how to make public authorities more transparent, accountable and more inclusive in decision making. The key factor is involving residents in making public decisions – from the location of a street lamp to division of the budget. The process itself becomes the most important element and Tamar with her co-workers facilitate such processes.

The most frequent argument Tamar hears from the partners of civic participation processes is that citizens do not want to get involved. Such interlocutors think that the lack of interest from the side of inhabitants is the legacy of the Soviet Union. Tamar, however, considers these answers to be insufficient. In addition, there are different mechanisms for analogue citizen involvement and the picture should be more positive. Unfortunately, it is not. On the bright side, there exists an open government movement in Georgia. Online procurement platforms with declarations of financial interests of public officials have been implemented.

The team in which Tamar works with the National Democratic Institute Georgia decided to ask residents about the main challenges of public involvement through a series of group interviews. The first element is awareness. Residents are not aware of the fact that they can attend open city council meetings or submit a petition. However, this is quite a simple challenge. When you don’t know anything – you learn and you know it. It is relatively easy to cope with this challenge. The second challenge identified during the interviews was attitude. It’s related with trust – the main topic of PDF CEE 2019. Why is trust so important? Because it comes out here: does it make sense to speak to the government, what will it bring? The third challenge for civic activity is opportunities. Interviewed citizens claimed that public officials are always interested in them before the elections but they are neglected afterwards. At the same time, we know that many officials actively try to reach out to citizens, and despite this, people feel disappointed. The last barrier is the skillset. There is a problem with understanding, for example, how the local budget works and what official documents actually mean. And despite the sincere willingness to do so, involvement turns out to be very difficult.   

Tamar presented two tools that can help overcome these barriers to civic engagement. One tool from the local level and the second from the national level. The first tool is which was created by the State Audit Office in Georgia. This tool shows – in a simple and nice way – public expenditures for various purposes. It also gives the possibility to report corruption as well as control by the ordinary citizen. The second tool is “Live transmission of City Council meetings”. The tool allows not only to watch the meetings of the city council but also to comment and ask questions live.  

Tamar ended her speech with an appeal to keep citizens in mind and try to tweak the inefficient practices of the democratic institutions to make them more usable to end users.