Transforming bureaucracy with smarticipate

Patricia Hernandez, international relations expert with the City of Rome, believes that smarticipate has the power to breathe new life into citizen participation in the Italian capital by removing the barrier of bureaucracy.

The City of Rome is famed for its breathtaking beauty set among a lively, even chaotic urban landscape. Tourists flock from around the world to marvel at its ancient wonders and to sample its world class cuisine, but for residents, city services can leave something to be desired. “It is a beautiful city with unique charms, full of welcoming, kind people, but in terms of services it is a difficult city to live in,” says Patricia Hernandez. “There are issues, such as around waste management and public transportation, that we live with every day.”

Despite (or perhaps even because of) this services deficit, the historic city has a highly engaged citizenry eager to interact with the local authorities. “In Rome, the citizens want to interact, but they face challenges in terms of communicating with the city. They simply don’t know who to address their issue to. Ultimately, there is not a lack of will to interact, but staffing issues in the administration can mean that citizens do not have a proper point of reference, or if they do that person may leave after a certain period meaning there is a lack of continuity. This can lead to citizens losing trust in the ability of the local government to take onboard their input, resulting in them abandoning their pursuit. The result is that citizens may want to engage and shape their city, whilst at the same time being dismissive of the local government.”

The barrier of bureaucracy

While all parties in the city agree on the need to foster greater citizen participation, in the past there has been a gap between intent and action. When it comes to tackling the bureaucracy required to put the vision of better participation into practice, Patricia says “that’s where the machine stops.”

“The bureaucracy is so complex and old-fashioned that it just slows down the whole process. The good will is there from politicians, the initiative is there from citizens, but in reality the formalities hinder the whole process. The big challenge is to speed up the bureaucracy and transform it into a more efficient system.”

As Romans have a desire to interact with the city but lack a clear and simple way to do so, taking part in smarticipate was a natural choice for the city. Rome also wishes to use smarticipate to foster interaction between different departments: “Ms Rossella Caputo, one of the directors of the Department of Urban Planning, saw the project as an opportunity to finally bring together different departments of the administration and to make them work together. Technical, social, and urban departments are all embedded in the project, and it was seen as a way to get them to talk!

“We have many departments that work well, but they work independently. We wanted to make them part of a machine that runs together, sharing information and sharing data. Ms Caputo had a vision of changing the mentality of how the city administration works.

“She worked very hard to bring these departments together, as she is a great believer in the project. Having a good manager is very important to ensure inter-departmental cooperation. You need someone with vision.”

The importance of open data

Within Rome, there is a strong recognition of the need to make data open to residents. “A city can no longer act as a governing body – making and implementing plans – without consulting the local society. Society is changing: people want to participate and cities have to come to terms with the fact that they have to share,” says Patricia.

“People want to have their say in what the city does, and even if the city doesn’t listen people share their views through social networks. It is not in the city’s interest to ignore the citizens – it is better for politicians to let people know before they do something rather than afterwards, otherwise it can come back to haunt them.

“You are left behind if you don’t share.”

Patricia accepts that Rome still has some gaps in its data collection and must improve how ‘open’ it really is. The main problem is that while people can view data, they cannot interact and give their opinion.

Smarticipate aims to change this. “Through involving citizens in the urban planning process, we can make Rome more attractive to live in, as we can better respond to the needs of citizens,” says Patricia.

To date, Rome has been working hard on developing its urban scenarios, which will be taken forward and trialled when the smarticipate platform is launched. These scenarios will be presented at the Smartathon in the city, which is scheduled for 21 January 2017. The Smartathon will provide residents with an introduction to the smarticipate platform, allowing them to steer the process of developing smarticipate into a relevant, user-friendly tool.

The challenge of history

One of the primary challenges faced by Rome in involving citizens in urban planning is the historic nature of the city itself. “We want to ask citizens to propose ideas and locations for urban gardens, but have found that it is not as easy as we thought to develop these gardens. There are a large number of constraints for reasons of historical protection. We cannot just dig up the land where we like. But we are finding ways to go forward and the experience has turned out to be valuable,” says Patricia.

The future

Patricia is positive about the future of smarticipate, and is hoping that it will cut through the layers of bureaucracy that have been holding back citizen engagement in the city: “For citizens of Rome, it is the first opportunity for them to really participate in the development and improvement of their district, and in the management of their territory. Whereas before it was a long and challenging process, now simply by using an app on your smartphone you can do something good for your neighbourhood.”