Ismael Peña: «There is a great deal of citizen participation beyond politics than the institutions do not take into account»

Rubén Permuy
UOC R&I talk with the professor and researcher at the UOC Faculty of Law and Political Science

Can you tell us about your academic and professional career?

I am a professor at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the UOC and my field of research begins with the digital gap and digital development. In other words, how states and people acquire habits in the use of technology. In recent years I have specialized in two very similar fields, although they sometimes may not seem so: learning and democratic participation. I believe that institutions, whether political or educational, are in a profound crisis mainly because, insofar as people empower themselves and are more sovereign, the traditional institutions' intermediation role is weakened, if not completely challenged. I am interested in how people take control of their own learning as well as their political participation to achieve their objectives.

One of the European research projects you participate in is EURYKA: Reinventing Democracy in Europe. What does it consist of?

I participate in a project funded by Horizon 2020 ‒ the 8th European Framework Programme ‒ whose objectives include mapping European youths, particularly those at risk of exclusion, to understand how they behave in general and, specifically, how and where they participate in politics. At the UOC we analyse how they use social media to socialize in the political field, to participate, to interact with each other and, above all, to try to incorporate their programmes on the public agenda. This is usually the main problem because often the issues that most interest youths are outside the public field.

You also participate in an international project called Voice or Chatter on citizen participation, analysing the case of Barcelona.

The project Voice or Chatter takes place in the framework of Making All Voices Count , a major programme funded by several international institutions aimed at giving people a voice and making them heard. The project contains ten case studies from ten countries around the world; in other words, a case study for each country. The case I am dealing with is the analysis of the participation platform Decidim Barcelona, mainly the first part when it was launched together with the Municipal Action Project (PAM), which is similar to the Barcelona Strategic Plan, a highly committed city council initiative to try to encourage citizens to participate both online and offline. A very open citizen platform was used that allowed for both the collective participation of associations and federations, among other organizations, and of individuals. This platform had an open design and protocols, and the results were binding. The results of the research show that the way it was undertaken and the commitment achieved are a turning point; in other words, there is a return of sovereignty to citizens that, if maintained, can be a shift in how institutional decisions are made.

But aren't people disaffected with politics?

Since December 2004 in Spain there has been a very pronounced trend of disaffection with representative activity or institutional participation compared with extra-representative participation, although in the last two years it has been slightly attenuated by the emergence of Podemos and new parties resulting from 15M that have been institutionalized. In other words, with one hand they stopped voting in parliament and with the other they increasingly participated in cross-cutting and horizontal initiatives, also supported by trade unions and NGOs. These two issues seem contradictory, but, in fact, they are explained by the same phenomenon. On the one hand, we are increasingly participating less in the institutions because we do not believe in them, as we think that they have their own agendas and that don't represent us; and, on the other, technology helps us to organize ourselves without relying on these institutions or organizations, such as trade unions and other more traditional bodies. These two issues are taking place simultaneously. Although it would be ideal to define a meeting point where the institutions could talk with citizens again, they find it increasingly comfortable to participate in horizontal platforms, in very specific causes where they see that they are heard and with the level of commitment they want. People want to decide, rather than to participate. Therefore, many people consider this type of commitment more effective. It is not a myth, although our mindset is firmly in representative participation and this is why these phenomena or their reach often escape us. It seems as if anything that does not go through these representative channels does not exist, mainly because we are not measuring it well enough.

Citizen participation is also taking place on social media sites, where we know there is manipulated news. Doesn't poor-quality news affect this participation?

We tend to think about the poor use of the Internet in strictly political terms. In contrast, in citizen participation in a wider sense, such as the health sector, there are communities of practice, of patients and of carers with an extensive background, very serious and rigorous, yielding spectacular results. The same happens in learning communities for educators, students or learners in general; communities of practice, people who work and share their experiences. Outside politics, which is almost everything, the practices in general are very good; people are learning to make good use of the Internet and learning about the requisites, skills and protocols, how to share, and how to validate the news. I consider that this is a great success, although there are isolated cases of bad practices. In politics there is much more noise, many interests in informing or misinforming and less concern about ethics, because its interests are often more related to destroying the adversary than to participating in order to build together. We lack more advanced digital skills, to use technology more efficiently and effectively; in other words, not just knowing how to turn the computer on and write a letter, but also what must be done so that it reaches the right person. Thus, we lack a great deal and it is here that we should probably allocate more public, private and personal resources.

Open data is positive for participation. There is a related World Bank project in which you participate.

In order to participate, open data or information in general is essential. In other words, we cannot make a critical or constructive contribution without prior knowledge of the state of the issue. The International Development Research Centre in Canada, with Canadian and British cooperation and that of the World Bank, has funded a three-year project that emphasizes this, called Open Data for Development. It is very important to also be able to identify the tools we must use, the training needed, the good practices, etc. They invited Manuel Acebedo, an international consultant based in Buenos Aires, and myself to evaluate the project, in addition to carrying out an analysis of where the project should go. In these three years many things have been done given that it is still a very virgin and open ground. This project has mapped the community and world practices at a global level in terms of open data for development. This is a very active time when it is necessary to catalyse and create standards and it is here where we make horizon-scanning proposals.

You are the supervisor of a thesis by an industrial doctorate student at the UOC, Ricard Espelt. Could you tell us what it consists of?

For five years I've been collaborating with Mr Espelt, a researcher with an Industrial Doctorates Plan grant from the Government of Catalonia. Ricard analyses how the cooperative movement can benefit from including the information and communication technologies (ICT), not from a strictly instrumental point of view but in terms of how ICT are improving network creation, how they link it to activism and ensure that it is better organized.

We are a digital university: will digital native students determine our teaching model?

I think that digital native – by that name or any other – are determining education at least in two quite radical phases. The first is by digitizing and making the supply of this teaching less on-site. I think that the blended or mixed model of on-site and digital will remain. I think that complementing on-site education with online studies will be a common, hegemonic practice. In the future it will be so not only in education but in all fields of learning, whether in a company, in leisure activities... these two components will complement each other. Thus, students pressure the institutions to complement the resources, but I think that there will be a second phase, which will involve the student starting from the reverse, from the digital side: we start the learning process alone and later we look for someone to assist us. At the UOC we are in the middle of this situation: we have digital internships, we have mentoring, we need to get a little closer to the individual initiative of those who start learning on their own and later seek a mentor.

Why do we need to publish our research?
Firstly, because it benefits researchers and their research, insofar as they present what they are doing to other professionals who can make contributions. Secondly, because it helps research to have a social impact. In my case, if I want to have an impact on the education system or on democracy, it is difficult to do so only from academia, and therefore I have to establish a permanent dialogue with society. The third reason is that we are in a publicly funded university and, therefore, it is a technical obligation to return the results of the investment to those who have given money, that is, the citizens. I find it hard to avoid our responsibility to the taxpayer for what we do with public money and not return it to society.

Would you recommend a book on your field of expertise?

A book that explains why we are talking about this participation. In The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler examines the transformations that have taken place in society due to technology, which can be applied to the transformation of participation, whether in education, politics or other fields. He notes that, with technology, many of the foundations that supported the institutions, such as limited access to information or the costs of participating, have collapsed. Benkler argues that the world has radically changed and many of the issues he identified over a decade ago are taking place today.