First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Wietse Van Ransbeeck: Good, thanks!
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded CitizenLab
Wietse Van Ransbeeck: I founded CitizenLab in 2015 with my partner Aline. At the time, we were both freshly out of business school, living in Brussels, and felt frustrated at the lack of opportunities to engage with our local governments. Koen, our CTO, quickly joined the team. The company started out in Belgium, but has now expanded in Europe and beyond: we’re working with over 200 local governments in the Netherlands, France, the UK, the US, Chile, Denmark, and South Africa!
How does CitizenLab innovate?
Wietse Van Ransbeeck: Today, local democracies face two main issues: a lack of trust from citizens, and difficulties reaching these same citizens. When trying to reach out to citizens through town halls or paper consultations, local governments hit barriers: these consultation methods are costly, time-consuming, and not representative of their population.
CitizenLab solves these issues by providing governments with a digital democracy toolbox. Governments can set up an online platform to easily consult their citizens on several topics, and in many ways – whether this is a referendum on the city’s mobility plan, a participatory budget to distribute funds across cultural projects, or idea collection to come up with citizen solutions to climate change. Citizens can vote for the ideas they support, comment on projects, or suggest new ideas, ensuring top-down and bottom-up continuous participation.
By transparently implicating citizens in the decision-making process, local governments don’t only increase trust and willingness to engage – they also gain efficiency and make better decisions.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Wietse Van Ransbeeck: It’s been scary, but in a sense, coronavirus pushed digital democracy forward by two or three years.
The health crisis has had a profound impact on the governments we work with. Among other things, the lockdown and social distancing measures have made regular citizen consultations (such as town hall meetings and in-person workshops) impossible, forcing them to rethink how they connect with their communities. During that time, many cities turned to digital tools, a choice that some of them had been pondering for months or even years.
In addition to the growing adoption of our platform, coronavirus also pushed us to develop new features allowing for deeper deliberation. Platforms like ours are usually geared to direct, synchronous participation (think voting, liking, commenting, sharing an idea), while in-depth deliberation is usually done offline. In the spring, we launched citizen workshops, allowing cities to have online workshops and facilitate meaningful discussions with citizens throughout the crisis.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Wietse Van Ransbeeck: In a fast-moving start-up, one of our main challenges is always knowing what to prioritize and what project or new feature to focus on. When lockdown happened, we decided to put everything on hold and decided to focus entirely on our clients’ most urgent needs. This enabled us to deliver quickly features that had been a real impact for our clients, like online workshops and features to coordinate solidarity efforts. The lesson learned here is that when in doubt, always focus on your core mission and remember who you’re here to serve.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and CitizenLab in the future?
Wietse Van Ransbeeck: I try to regularly disconnect completely and reflect by hiking in nature or reading a lot.
In the workplace, I try to be very transparent, talk things through with the team regularly, and share our wins and lows.
I’m excited about the future of CitizenLab – we’re recruiting great people, we’re growing into different markets, we’re taking part in the global conversation around digital democracy and citizen participation.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Wietse Van Ransbeeck: We have two types of competitors. The most direct ones are other Civic Tech companies providing community engagement platforms. We’re staying ahead of them by investing in research and development, and making sure our tool is the most user-friendly and the most advanced in terms of automated output analysis.
Our other competitors are platforms internally developed by local governments. The main argument here is that our platforms keep evolving and improving, which is something that internal teams can’t do.
Your final thoughts
Wietse Van Ransbeeck: This is just the beginning of our journey: over the past 5 years, we’ve seen citizen participation grow at a rapid pace all over the world. Participation platforms like ours can help increase the eroding trust in governments and crowdsource innovative solutions to the most pressing challenges of our times – think climate change, fiscality, or education. The future is bright!