“When you buy a space heater, sometimes it works, and sometimes it catches on fire. You have a right to know which it’s going to be.”
Josh Lerner is talking about space heaters, but he’s making a larger point. Lerner is the CEO of People Powered, a fast-growing hub for participatory democracy and the group behind the Digital Participation Platforms Ratings (DPP Ratings) – a new analysis of more than 30 digital tools that are competing for the attention of policymakers, civil society leaders and philanthropic funders hoping to engage community members in decision-making.
This the second annual offering from People Powered, and it arrives at a moment when demand for online participation tools is growing rapidly.
Although trust in global democracy continues to fall on the macro level, the past few years have also seen a clear increase in citizen-led, participatory models like participatory budgeting and citizens assemblies – as well as an embrace of participatory grantmaking and investing by foundations and humanitarian funders. Many of these projects have a virtual component, which means they require a functioning backend tech system to make the magic work.
Lerner sees the DPP Ratings as a “Consumer Reports for digital participation tools”. Based on a survey of 400 users and input from a panel of civic tech experts, it’s a way for potential users to sort the wheat from the chaff and, importantly, find the tool that best fits their needs.
“These are products in a marketplace,” Lerner says. “Ultimately, we want to see this market mature. In the meantime, users need to decide which tools to use carefully.”
Ever since Zoom entered our lives, it’s become ever more common for governments, foundations and other institutions to engage everyday people in decision-making via the Internet.
This plays out in a variety of contexts: parents in a school district proposing items for a school budget. Residents of a seaside community debating infrastructure projects to protect against rising sea levels. Activists discussing the best way to share resources ahead of a coming campaign.
All of these deliberative processes require a technology solution. But it’s not always obvious which one is best.
The first impression one has upon reviewing the DPP Ratings is the sheer number of options. This year People Powered added six new tools, for a total of 32 companies vying for market share. It can be overwhelming, but the rating system is an attempt to make the process of selecting a little easier.
First, the tools are divided into three categories. “Toolbox” refers to tools that support a full participatory process from start to finish – from idea collection through proposal development and voting. “Specific” platforms are designed for a specific step in the process, while “Special” platforms are tailored for something like participatory budgeting or citizens’ assemblies.
In each category, People Powered has ranked each tool from zero to 100 on a variety of factors:
Other factors include ethics and transparency; capacity requirements; and the tool’s track record.
Still, Lerner and his team insist that there is no objective answer as to which tool is “best” for a particular organization. They’ve created a Guide to Digital Participation Platforms that includes a process for evaluating platforms before choosing, and a checklist for platform administrators.
“Different tools work best for different contexts,” Lerner says. For instance, Decidim emerged in Spain, where citizens have a national identification card that makes tracking of individual votes easier. “That might not work as well in other countries.”
The DPP Ratings platform was designed by and for civic tech leaders, with government decision-making top of mind. But the analysis and guidebook are relevant for leaders in other fields where institutions are looking to democratize decision-making.
In May 2023, People Powered Program Associate Melissa Zisengwe led a well-attended session for the Participatory Grantmaking Community of Practice, called How To Use Digital Participatory Platforms To Support Participatory Grantmaking. The community is a hub for practitioners of participatory grantmaking – leaders at foundations and aid organizations that are interested in shifting decision-making power to people over grants to the communities impacted by funding decisions.
Over the course of 80 minutes, Zisengwe led the group through an overview of the rating system, and invited leaders from two participatory funders – Camden Giving and FundAction – to speak about their experience using digital tools to provide the infrastructure for their grantmaking.
Yasmin Farah of Camden Giving spoke about their grantmaking process, which engages residents in London’s Camden neighborhood to decide on the destination of grants to things like food banks, homeless shelters and community organizing. Farah shared that Camden Giving uses different tools for the application, panel review and decision-making process, from FormAssembly to Slido and Salesforce.
Farah spoke about how they make sure to make extra considerations for inclusivity when using a digital tool.”
“At the interview stage for our panelists, we’ll ask if they have any access requirements – if they need a phone or laptop, or need access to Wifi, and if we can provide them with a phone or dongle to get online.” Their team has purchased a speech recognition and dictation software that has supported panelists with additional needs, to read through applications ahead of meetings.
These kinds of questions around inclusion and engagement are top of mind for the People Powered team, which is excited about future iterations of the DPP Ratings. Lerner is clear that even if they can be harsh in their analysis of some tools, their ultimate goal is to see the market for digital participation platforms mature, and for the best platforms to receive more investment.
They also want to see the market expand to other parts of the world. In the DPP Ratings’ initial launch webinar, People Powered’s Melissa Zisengwe pointed out that the guide does not include any platforms that were created in Africa, because “Africa does not necessarily have these platforms.”
“A lot of African civic tech initiatives have been finding creative and innovative ways to enable digital participation, using common platforms like social media,” Zisengwe said. “But a lot of them are starting to build platforms that are specifically dedicated to digital participation… This guide is a starting point for us.”