Cities, Create Services, not Websites

It started off as a simple idea of having a new climbing wall set up somewhere in Helsinki, in an outdoors public space. A proposal to make the city a more livable place, with a small investment and big benefits. How hard could it possibly be?

I was ready to accept that the climbing wall might not be the first thing the city would throw its money at. But surely the idea would be received, evaluated and taken through an official process, right? This small endeavor quickly turned into an extensive investigation of how and how not to participate in the affairs of the city, with a strong emphasis on the means of participation.

There is no place for new ideas?

Searching online for the right path to pursue the idea revealed a network of interconnected websites that all promoted the concept of e-participation. Following the call-to-actions found, and my own intuition, I clicked on a banner on the Helsinki City Planning Department’s site: Oletko ajatellut Helsinkiä? Have you thought about Helsinki?

A call-to-action on Helsinki City Planning Department’s website (screen capture, August 2013)

Yes, I was ready to argue on behalf of the climbing wall. But clicking on the banner only offered a possibility to comment on Helsinki’s new masterplan vision for 2050. And clicking back or forth did not help either—eventually none of the city’s websites offered an explicit answer on how and where a citizen could make a new initiative. Instead of using the sites as a direct mean of participation I started to use them as a phone book, and as it turned out, a rather bad one.

All possible links from Helsinki City Planning Department’s website to other sites presumably related to presenting your own initiatives (the actual situation in August 2013)

While trying to directly propose an initiative online only resulted in a maze of websites, it seemed necessary to change the mean and pick up the phone. This was of course in direct contrast with the idea of e-participation. It prioritized human interaction as a way of influencing; at this point I was already hoping I could talk to someone.

Trying to present the wall initiative on the phone resulted in an endless loop

Moving on to a seemingly endless round of phone calls from one city department’s switchboard to another revealed that none of the departments really knew where the wall-initiative belonged to. Calling the numbers found on the websites was of no use as I did not get a hold of anyone who could help with the project. The different switchboards did exactly the same as the websites—directed the user from one organizational silo to another. The official route for making an initiative started to feel long and inefficient so I tried a shortcut.

Social contacts got the idea straight into process

Eventually I called a friend and then a friend’s friend, who sits on the city council. The idea got further immediately—someone listened and took care of it. The outcome was a success, but at the same time it revealed a major bug in the process: Would only the residents with the right kind of social networks get their ideas to the table? It might be an exaggeration to say that this is the only way the system works, but it was the only path that seemed to work in the case of the climbing wall. Shouldn’t engaging in any civic activity be equally easy for all?

Participation practices are up to cities

The legal responsibility of a Finnish city in interacting with its residents varies from one public subsector to another, but the overall incentive is to engage residents as much as possible. There is no single law that would direct the way participation should be organized on the municipal level, so it is up to the cities to decide how to communicate with people.

Regarding urban planning, every resident is subject to the Land Use and Building Act. It is a law stating that everyone has the right to participate in the preparation process of a plan. In practice, it means that all plans must be presented publicly and everyone (involved) has the right to comment them. The law was changed in 1999 in order to shift power from the planning departments to residents. It aimed to emphasize participation and interaction instead of merely hearing the residents.

As a result, residents are eagerly being invited to participate in planning, although this still mainly means the possibility to comment on plan drafts and nothing more. A better example of interacting with residents is the Helsinki City Planning Department’s information and exhibition space Laituri, where anyone interested in urban planning can examine current plans and participate in the debate on the future of the city (both online and in a physical space). A less effective example is the abundance of feedback forms, the most common way of hearing residents.

Could the reason for mixed practices be that citizen participation can be understood in so many ways? Researcher of urban environments Liisa Horelli and her colleagues recently divided the possibilities of (namely digital) participation into two categories; staged participation and self-organization. The first refers to planner or government-initiated activity, consultation or collaborative activities with citizens and planners. This way of initiation moves from within the governmental institutions towards the public discussion, so its direction is inside-out or top-down. Self-organization refers to the exact opposite of this, where the participation moves from the outside in or from bottom up.

The nature of participation is clearly changing from staged commenting to self-organized urban movements. For example, many recent self-organized initiatives, such as Restaurant Day, guerrilla gardening and Cleaning Day, operate without any governmental support. They are cultural movements created by citizens for citizens, bypassing the official process entirely. How should cities respond to this growing trend of self-organized urban activism?

Digitalization is about rethinking the process

Easy access to new technologies has tricked many organizations to focus on the means instead of the processes. Cities and other public sector actors are eager to use the term e-participation, although up until now it has mostly meant that the forms for filing your comments are digital (instead of paper).

It is not that cities were not enforcing their digital presence, they are just doing it the wrong way. A glance at the 20 biggest cities in Finland shows that the pattern of using the cities’ websites is similar everywhere. Most cities promote citizen participation in their strategies and many city departments have their own e-participation agendas and policies. Many departments also maintain their own forms, questionnaires and map services, all available for the citizens to react to the plans proposed by a particular department. Yet it is hard to present new ideas through any of these paths.

Most Finnish cities allow their citizens to comment existing plans online. Presenting own initiatives is much harder. (Landing views of 20 biggest Finnish cities, August 2013)

In addition, the user has to know what to look for. Ideas need to be addressed to the right department in order to get them into process. How are you supposed to know which one? A single website rarely explains which department is in charge of which issues (or more importantly, which ones they are not in charge of). And nevermind a climbing wall, to which department does a friend’s desire to plant flowers on a tramstop in front of a kindergarten belong to? This is more a problem of the city organization in itself; nobody seems to take care of the big digital picture.

The climbing wall initiative revelaed that the city’s focus on e-participation has left other forms of influencing badly attended to and even out of sync—if the participation process was well-designed, it would not depend on the mean where your idea would be directed. Now following the digital call-to-actions led to a masterplan blog and using the phone led to the Sports Department’s switchboard. What eventually got the initiative processed were the personal social contacts.

Getting an initiative into evaluation should not depend on the means of participation

Even though cashing out the ‘e’ in e-participation has not been very successful, finding faults is easier than acknowledging what has been done right. Cities deserve credit for having encouraged participation wherever they can. In that sense it would be too easy to mistake the poor website designs for a lack of will in empowering the inhabitants—what they lack is not will but vision.

When envisioning the future of participation, it is unnecessary to think of e-participation and participation as two separate processes. It not only directs all attention to websites, but also makes you question whether anyone has ever heard of p-participation or f-participation, i.e. influencing by phone or fax. Underlining the ‘e’ just states the obvious—participation (like any other form of human interaction) is relying more and more on digital technologies. But that should be the rule, not the exception.

Citizen participation is not just about commenting existing plans online. It is also about empowering self-organized movements (on- and offline), gathering feedback in resident hearings, calling your assigned city planners and whatever you can think of to influence your circumstances. Therefore participation design is all about service design. It is about enabling the commenting and presenting of ideas, regardless of their author and the chosen mean.


To hire me, request an appearance or discuss a project, please contact me via, +358 50 547 0020 or LinkedIn.

With kind regards,

Signature of Jyrki Vanamo