Project: Curul 501 (The 501st Seat)
Government Level: National
The Curul 501 platform increases citizen awareness of the activities of the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House) of Mexico. The website strives to make the work of the legislature more accessible and understandable, with primers on the legislative process and composition of the Chamber, parties, and electoral districts. It also reports on pending and passed legislation and representatives’ proposals, while advocating for more parliamentary openness. Citizens can submit questions and concerns directly to representatives, while offering the chance to “vote” on bills and compare the citizens’ vote with the official record.
Curul 501 was established in September 2011 in consultation between Fundar, a Mexican think tank that focuses on human rights, public policy and transparency, and Citivox, a company that develops applications to facilitate community engagement.
In Mexico, as in many countries, citizens harbor feelings of mistrust and disillusionment about politicians and the work of parliament. They also have little knowledge of the intricacies of the legislative process. Curul 501 was conceived to inform the public about the parliamentary functions; to “translate” the technical language of the legislature into something the average citizen can understand; to encourage citizens to participate on the platform via direct interaction with representatives; and to vote on different initiatives. Curul 501 was established with the following goals:
- To publish and explain the work of the legislature in a simple, fast, and free manner
- To promote citizen interest and engagement in the activities of the legislature
- To establish citizen monitoring as a constant presence in the work of the legislature
- To offer a space to increase citizens’ communication with representatives
- To promote the use of technology for participation and advocacy
As an initial step to launching the project, teams from Citivox and Fundar were established to begin collaboration. At the first meetings, both groups exchanged insights based on their expertise: Fundar’s team shared its knowledge of the Mexican legislative branch and proposed the ideal content of the webpage. Citivox shared the technological possibilities to develop the platform and the creative ways to exploit it to achieve the advocacy goals.
This work division helped to make the development more efficient. Three members of Citivox imagined, createdb and built the technological aspects of the project, including web design. The platform, as such, is not the same as the Citivox one, but was designed and built ad hoc.
The particular features, however, were planned jointly, with Fundar’s parliament research experience as a foundation. Fundar has also worked with other civil society organizations to disseminate relevant pending legislation, in order to promote citizen dialogue and input. Three members of Fundar were responsible for thematic content, implementing a system to manage the desired categories of information, and conducting an outreach campaign.
The team held several meetings – almost once a week – to modify and improve what Fundar thought could be useful and interesting, in terms of the legislative content, but always taking into consideration the recommendations and technological knowledge from Citivox. A launch date was agreed upon: August 28, 2011, three days before the inauguration of the final legislative year of the LXI Legislature in Mexico.
Two weeks before the release, the team had a test with selected persons from the predicted Curul 501’s user base: students, other CSO members, researchers, lobbyists, legislative advisors and journalists. The feedback helped the team modify Curul 501 to meet these potential users’ needs and expectations.
Both Fundar and Citivox decided to throw a launch party with strategic attendees: representatives – although none ultimately attended - journalists, civil society members from both formal CSOs and the techie or “geek” community, activists, and a few public servants.
One important condition for success was the relationship between two uniquely positioned organizations to contribute expertise, funding, and other resources. Both sides helped to understand the needs, interests and inquiries of each other, so the final outcome would reflect the shared goals in terms of enhancing participation and public knowledge through the use of technology.
The actual development period, after many informal talks, took about six months, from March to August 2011. After the website was launched, Fundar took complete control of the development, maintenance, and funding of Curul 501, to make all those processes more efficient. Since this last semester of 2013, a team that works on “Technological Innovation for Advocacy” has adopted the platform code and is working on fixing bugs and adding new features. For example, a planned iOS app will have the main functioning features of the website available on a smartphone. Meanwhile, the legislative content is still developed by the Transparency and Accountability team, with its own expertise.
While there are many citizen-led parliamentary monitoring initiatives around the world, Curul 501 sought to create a platform that was accessible, understandable, and usable to the average citizen. Beyond releasing the technical language of bills and voting procedures, Curul 501 makes the information easy and convenient for citizens to use. One lesson learned is that, despite the lack of actual participation from the deputies, citizens found a new and friendly spot to share their inquiries with their representatives and other users. This suggests that in many contexts, there is a lack of instruments to facilitate direct interaction between representatives and constituencies, and the ‘democratic potential’ of it, in terms of legislative transparency and accountability, is quite high.
From the very beginning, Curul 501 was designed to be replicable. Other organizations interested in legislative work may use the technological platform, adapted to their own context. Fundar advises that these organizations be non-partisan and not-for-profit, and have sufficient resources in place to maintain the project over the longterm. Some attempts at setting up similar projects have been made. At this time, a similar project in Peru (131voces.pe) is up and running, and there is a pending agreement for one in Argentina. Both of these projects benefitted by sending a representative to meet in-person with Fundar to discuss the website architecture, interactions with legislators, and communications strategy, among other topics. For instance, Fundar has found that the best communications strategy for Mexico’s context includes an intensive use of Twitter, a moderate one for Facebook, and semi-regular, more substantive posts to a blog.
One obvious aspect of the Curul 501 model is that only citizens with access to the Internet are able to participate in the interactive portions of the website. Fundar conducts some offline outreach with CSOs on pending legislation, as noted, but the basic principle of the platform is online participation. Use of the website varies, with activity higher during legislative periods and focused on high profile legislation. When the Chamber is out of session, there is little activity on the website.
A continuing challenge for the project has been securing the participation of legislators. Thus far, representatives have been hesitant to respond directly to the comments and questions put forth by citizens on the platform. While representatives have affirmed the importance of citizen engagement and exchange, their reticence has highlighted the need to secure the support of at least a few key legislators when implementing a similar project. If communication via the platform became the norm for a number of legislators, direct dialogue with citizens could be normalized, which would increase the overall take-up by other politicians within the country. The Fundar team is working on plans to engage legislators long-term.
Contacts: The current coordinator of the project is Guillermo Ávila, available at: email@example.com
A similar case study on Curul501 was completed by Fundar, available here (pp 143-148, in Spanish).
Note: This post is part seven in a series of case studies on tools PMOs have used that can be replicated or serve as models for organizations in different contexts. To see all of the case studies, click here. To contribute a case study on a project that your organization has created, please fill out the template or email Dustin Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.