Social Participation in Brazil — Lessons Learned

The Growing Pains of Brazilian Civil Society and How to Build a Resilient Ecosystem

The scenario for the field in which we operate — with the recent intensification of polarization in Brazilian politics that promotes the weakening in the propositional social participation practices with engagement capability — made ​​us more aware of our common challenges and gave us strength to write the following diagnosis.

Recent events, both in politics and in the economy has meant that the social participation/ democracy has lost centrality in the democracy building process, leading to political parties groups confronting agenda, worsening of mood and the deconstruction of opportunities for agreements and unity among social sectors. Thus, the cooperation between society and the state sees its environmental conditions becoming less fertile, with interest in politics captured by issues that seem to escape the range of influence of the ordinary citizen.

In scenarios like this much prudence is required as well as a strong dose of perseverance so that energies of all involved actors in the social participation ecosystem, may be invested in preparing for the next window of opportunity, because, as already known, when the opportunity arises, it is no longer time to prepare for it.

As the main challenge for this moment, we have identified the lack of synergy between the actions of initiatives working in the field of social participation in Brazil as detrimental to the necessary advances, leading to the resources invested having little effectiveness and, thus, producing low impact.

Possibilities to tread the narrow path

That said, and from our experience, we bring the following elements that could serve for the necessary preparation for the next big leap:

  • Develop a common agenda for the field of social participation/ democracy in Brazil
  • Improve and implement ontology for initiatives involving digital resources
  • Develop open digital resources for social participation
  • Build governance spaces to discuss make decisions on the above agenda

Moreover, we believe that valuable social capital, in the form of initiatives working in the field, must be preserved so that we can have more and better results with regard to public policies and investments generated from the common citizen action. In this respect, the tendency for impact investment, innovation and civic techs for profit has an important role, but alone, such initiatives are unable to respond to the great challenges of the field. Moreover, the competition logic — and the creative destruction that it promote, need to be taken with care in an industry that does not have the necessary conditions for its consolidation as an independent force. We emphasize that important initiatives in the field have been closed, are inactive or have undergone important part of discontinuance of its activities related to the field. As examples: My Fun City, Sampa Criativa, Urbanias, SAC/SP, Criticar BH, Rede Jovem, Twiticos, BOVAP, 10 Perguntas, Eleitor 2010, Laboratório de Cultura Digital, Cidadera, Campinas e-Você, Instituto Ágora, Politize!, MAPSE, Esfera, InovarCidade, Revela e Vai Mudar na Copa, among others.

What we see from where we are

Given the recent period in which the activities of Instituto Cidade Democrática — ICD have been developed, we list below some of our learnings in activities to stimulate the development of social participation/ democracy in Brazil:

1. Still, we have not found the paths for the action of citizens to change their reality through decisions taken by their representatives.

Resources available in the form of technologies and practices are not enough; agendas with large audience and control do not promote purposeful social participation; politicians have been quicker (and more able) to take ownership of technologies; but all this is unsustainable in the long run.

The involvement of citizens in transparent processes for the construction of qualified agendas and coordination with governments have not been sufficient for society’s proposals to be implemented.

We noticed the preponderance of agendas adopted by the broadcasting media, because of the audience they bring, and initiatives prioritizing the control of government’s actions, but this is not enough to strengthen the distributed social participation and unmediated by strong organizations.

To the extent that civil society slowly seeks to get stronger and enforce its opinion, governments and parties have also made ​​the same movement, with more financial resources, they have contracts with communication and public relations companies that have supported them to handle the public quite efficiently without changing the correlation of forces.

Popular dissatisfaction shows that this dynamic has no way to sustain in the long run, but this process will certainly delay the results that could have been achieved with the current initiatives.

2. Technologies to promote social participation need to be improved

With regard to the adoption of open innovation challenges, it is necessary to include in-person workshops, scraping of social media data, expert panels and citizen innovation labs.

The use of digital technologies for social participation through ideas crowdsourcing, in what ICD is a pioneer in Brazil, has multiplied and diversified. In our case, we incorporate (i) design thinking elements, structuring gamification logic (phases and prizes) in order to stimulate the engagement; (ii) in-person workshops to include populations and actors on the margins of the internet, accelerate the construction of communities (social tissue) and qualify deliberation and dialogue in the proposals; (iii) scraping interaction data in social media (webcrawling), perfecting key analysis and the analysis of data from the ideas challenges, bringing the use of big data for social participation and decision making of public and policy makers and (iv) expert panels for data analysis (challenges + webcrawling) to give greater consistency to the agendas developed through data analysis and prioritization, search of political sense, increased conceptual density and validation of the agenda under construction, including politicians, experts and social leaders.

The application of this technology in different contexts pointed also to the need to adopt innovative solutions building laboratories for prototyping, engaging people to build prototypes policy, laws and public interventions. Actions of this type have been built in hackathons and laboratories, however, without a component of social participation, or without connecting to the experiences and communities already built, making the social demand — and its actors — not participating in the designing process of innovative solutions.

3. As a field, we have not reached collective impact: common agenda and progress measures, mutually reinforcing activities, communication between the actors and backbone organization/ governance.

Common agenda: the field of social participation does not have a common agenda. There were some studies in the last two years that could help identify this agenda.

Common progress measures: there is no consensus on how to measure progress from the above agenda, and initiatives end up adopting circumscribed metrics to their projects to measure their successes. However, these metrics often take into account audience, active users and others that can be used to well assess the impact of the project, but not the strategic advances to the field.

Mutually reinforcing activities: as each initiative is designed so that an organization can receive resources and finance their activities, projects fail to consider their impact on other projects already carried out or running.

Communication between the actors: despite some initiatives in the form of e-mail lists and focused meetings on the theme of civic engagement, there has been no fluid communication between the actors in the field as a result derived also from the lack of a common agenda.

Backbone organization/ governance: in addition to the necessary agreement among stakeholders on the issues to be addressed jointly (planning, agenda or other name you want to give), it is necessary that these organizations and actors can rely on a structure that allows decisions to be made within the field.

One way to make collective impact possible in the field of social participation/ democracy in Brazil is a study of five initiatives overlapping, but with little or no synergy, seeking in one way or another, to identify assets and challenges in the field. They are:

  • Survey of the social participation field: MEPS (ICD)
  • Civic Entrepreneurship (Cause)
  • Research on the field (UPDATE)
  • Alerta Democrático (Reos)
  • Brazilian Dream in Politics (Box 1824)

There was little exchange of information between these initiatives and there is no result that includes the compilation of the data analyzed in each of them.

4. Significant expenditure on software development with little efficiency

The implemented digital solutions required high investments for poor outcomes in terms of what it could be, given the existing technological resources. These design components consume a big part of those initiatives resources, without providing the required results, as solutions are developed ‘from scratch’. As possible solutions to this issue, we suggest:

  • Constitution of a marketplace so that developers can create a set of softwares and plugins that respond to the needs of the field.
  • A pact around the opening of all civil society social participation initiatives databases.
  • Adoption of common ontology, allowing the comparison and joint analysis of different initiatives databases and with databases scraped from social media.

An estimate made ​​by our team, calculates that the twenty major Brazilian initiatives in the field of social participation may have invested around USD 800,000 to USD 1 million from 2008 and that this figure could be reduced by 80–90% with the adoption the points listed above.

With this report, we wish to contribute to the strengthening of the Brazilian ecosystem of social participation, and the very Brazilian democracy, from a higher incidence of society in decision-making on public issues, by their elected representatives.

We do this because we believe in the need of a coalition of forces that allows the treading over the path necessary for the invested energy and resources to have greater effectiveness and to project a field for civic innovation with the potential to attract talents and to create economic and social value.

São Paulo, March 11, 2016

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