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Decision-making, like much of our lives, has moved online during the pandemic. At the same time, there are growing calls for funders, organizations, and institutions to make decision-making more inclusive and shift power to impacted communities. How can we make more democratic decisions online?

A new wave of digital participation platforms can help. Platforms such as Decidim, Citizen Lab, and Your Priorities can effectively engage communities throughout the process of making budget, policy, and funding decisions. They can make engagement easier, more transparent, and more accessible. Thousands of government institutions are already using digital participation platforms. It’s time for nonprofits and foundations to upgrade our digital decision-making tools.

Individually and through our organizations, we have surveyed, tested, and evaluated these new platforms. We each have experience running participatory grantmaking and decision-making processes online using different platforms. At Open Society Foundations, we are interested in the potential for digital tools to encourage meaningful participation, and as such we supported the establishment of FundAction, a digital fund and platform in Europe. At People Powered, we recently reviewed and rated the best digital participation platforms, and we have used them to engage our global members in making funding and policy decisions.

The results are promising but not perfect. Digital participation platforms can help you make better decisions online, but they can also reinforce inequities and take up excessive time and resources. Below, we explain why you should consider using the platforms, what to watch out for, and what you need to know before you start.

You Can Make Good Decisions Online

First, the good news. Digital participation platforms can enable people to learn, debate, and decide together in more inclusive ways. They generally have several core functions that work well: collecting, reviewing, and revising ideas and proposals; voting on proposals; and reporting outcomes. Along the way, people can receive updates, give feedback, share information beyond the platforms, and integrate offline and online discussions. Advanced platform features are increasingly using artificial intelligence, algorithms, and randomization to connect people and ideas in new ways.

These platforms can make it easier to reach more informed decisions that have broader support. They make engagement easier by automating and distributing work— by collecting ideas, for example, and compiling votes. They make decision-making more transparent by documenting and sharing key information and discussions online, in usable formats. And they make participation more accessible by creating easier opportunities for people to engage at times and in places and languages that work for them.

At FundAction, a European community of activists has used one such platform to make decisions about funding priorities and grants. FundAction is a participatory fund that aims “to shift power to make decisions about funding from foundations to those closer to the issue, strengthen collaboration and mutual support among European activists, and build the capacity of activists and the social movements they work with.” The community is spread across many countries in different time zones, so people need to engage asynchronously at times most convenient for them.

The platform that FundAction uses has made it easier for activists to share their work with people outside their thematic or geographic community, which has helped build solidarity and buttressed political education. For example, disability justice activists shared links to their proposed social model of disability on the platform, making it easier for peers and reviewers to learn about the concept and ask questions. The questions and responses are shared transparently with all, saving the activists time as they do not have to repeatedly address the same points. This open format also serves as a reminder that all of us have questions, as well as solutions, to contribute.

People Powered has used a platform to allocate funds at a global level—and also to decide new organizational policies. People Powered is a global hub for participatory democracy that aims “to expand people’s power to make government decisions.” Its community of members from over 35 countries provides direct support for programs such as participatory budgeting and citizens’ assemblies. Members have used the platform to propose and debate funding allocations and policies and then vote to allocate funds to new projects (e.g., mentorship, trainings and a digital participation platform guide and ratings) and approve new policies (e.g., for membership, board elections, inclusion, and accessibility).

The digital participation platform has provided People Powered with long-term infrastructure for countless meetings and discussions. While video calls and WhatsApp exchanges are often the most inclusive spaces for global member discussions, the platform has served as a central place to collect ideas and feedback. The site’s translation services have made these discussions more easily accessible to our members, most of whom do not speak English as a native language. The platform has also enabled clear and transparent voting, reporting of vote results, and subsequent project implementation. 

Technology Isn’t a Short-Cut to Equity

The transparency and “flatness” of digital tools, however, can be mistaken for fairness. The technologies may treat everyone equally, such as allocating the same number of votes in preference polls or randomized participant selection, but this may deepen inequities. Access to a decent internet connection, familiarity with platform navigation, and comfort with online discussions vary. Providing the same information and opportunities to everyone simultaneously may seem fair, but it does not necessarily deliver equitable results.

Platform developers and supporters often encourage maximum transparency, but this can result in information overloads that undermine inclusion. Platforms strive to be the ultimate tool for all your participation needs, but some needs are better met by other means.

For example, People Powered was advised to create event pages on its platform for every group call and to post the call discussions and outcomes on these pages. After sinking hours into this work, staff decided not to bother. The most important outcomes—project ideas—were already collected elsewhere on the platform, and staff could do more for transparency by reaching out individually to less active members than by spending hours creating additional pages that only the most active users would see. If so much is shared that people feel too overwhelmed to open the platform and review updates, then you’re not cultivating transparency—you’re creating fatigue.

Likewise, equal opportunities to participate do not necessarily result in equal (let alone equitable) participation and indeed may still lead to certain people having disproportionate power. A more sophisticated approach looks at outcomes and then iterates. If only certain groups are participating, then we are failing in our ambition to achieve equity.

For example, an algorithm that randomly generated a group of decision-makers at FundAction resulted in four of the six on the panel being Serbian. There are two measures needed to correct this. Most simply, adapt the algorithm to account for geographical diversity. But the more complex—and necessary—solution is to understand whether and why Serbians are over-represented in the community—and take steps to address that. This work needs to happen through direct communication and organizing, beyond the constraints of a platform.

Technology is not neutral, and we need to compensate for its biases. This requires extra outreach and discussions with people who face digital barriers, extra time to allow people with less connectivity to participate, and active moderation and language support. Sometimes this means going against the tech-first recommendations of developers and limiting online participation to make more space for human discussions outside of the platform.

Expect to Iterate

Relatively young, these technologies are still works in progress. While their core functionalities are well developed, new features are constantly being added and tested. If you use new features, you can expect to encounter some surprises. Sometimes these are glitches that may be easily fixed, for example when a platform sends out automated announcements to users. In other cases, these are software limitations that you need to work around.

While it can be frustrating to learn and adapt, this experimentation and flexibility is healthy. Good decision-making processes should be iterative, and online platforms allow for customization as you go. You can quickly change how you engage based on feedback. This flexibility is especially helpful now, as COVID restrictions, economic conditions, and workplace practices are constantly shifting.

At FundAction, one area of constant iteration is how to classify work, identities, and communities in ways that help organize the work while also respecting the political struggles around categorization. To ensure that we’re funding a diversity of issue areas, we ask people to tag their work as “housing justice,” “racial justice,” or “digital rights.” But while an ever-expanding list may offer a fuller picture, it will never be exhaustive. Allowing people to claim multiple tags may be a nod to the intersectional nature of their work, but it also adds to complexity and limits the platform’s functionality. We will never tell our full stories in a series of tick-boxes, and each time we try, we discover new challenges. But once this messiness has been acknowledged, we can move closer to technology that supports our work and human dignity.

There Are (Too) Many Options

Configuring a platform is not the only complex challenge—first, you have to select the right platform. There are dozens of digital participation platforms trying to do similar things. You may be overwhelmed by the options. While the promotional materials all sound impressive, don’t believe everything you read. In a young and oversaturated market, developers often make claims that their products don’t back up.

The good news from this competitive marketplace is that you can often get developers to address your needs. If you need a particular feature or functionality, let developers know. This feedback will also help improve the quality of the tools, so they better address user needs.

One of the most promising things about the platforms are their constantly expanding range of features and functionalities. You can connect like-minded proposals using algorithms, enable diverse voting methods, and set up public reporting and monitoring dashboards. These features and new ones can be tailored to your needs.

Many of these features are still raw. You can view content in different languages, but only with many clicks. You can create a dashboard, but you may not be able to display the exact data you want. You can send mass messages to users, but you can’t fully control what the messages say. But all of these are solvable problems. The more people use the platforms, and the more funders invest in them, the better they become.

So, are you ready to upgrade your online decision-making? Or do you work with communities that are struggling to shift from in-person engagement to hybrid or online spaces? If so, review the platform ratings and guide and pick an option with a strong track record that fits your needs and budget. Set up the features that you need, watch out for over-reliance on technical solutions, and iterate as you go. And don’t forget to share what you learn to help us all to make better decisions.