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Increasing engagement through e-Participatory budgeting


One of the interesting examples cited in the recent paper “Promising Practices in Online Engagement” surrounded the concept of Participatory budgeting. It can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of budget allocation and monitoring public spending. This participation can take various forms, from effective decision-making power in the allocation of resources, to more modest initiatives that confer voice during the development of the budget.

The use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in the execution of Participatory budgeting initiatives varies widely. The central tenet of PB is to engage local citizens – through whatever means practicable – in the budgeting process. Through this it can confer greater legitimacy and acceptance of the budgeting outcomes. It also increases trust in the process through ensuring a transparent and democratic process towards any decision making. Engaging citizens and ensuring diverse participation  is one of the primary challenges of any PB initiative.

The core values of Public Participation are essential to the Participatory budgeting process. These, however, do not mandate any form of e-Participation. Rather the use of ICT is optional as a means of  public involvement. What is fundamental to Participatory budgeting, however, is that the core tenets of Public participation are embraced:

  1. Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.
  2. Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.
  3. Public participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognising and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers.
  4. Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision.
  5. Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.
  6. Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.
  7. Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

The use of online mediums to faciliate these tenets and increase engagement varies considerably, and is exemplified in the three different approaches to participation described below.

Toronto Community Housing (Face-to-face participation)

Toronto Community Housing is Canada’s largest social housing provider. For the past eight years it has engaged in Participatory budgeting as a means of allocating funding to ideas on how to improve tenants’ quality of life. The process involves bringing citizens together to discuss and vote on proposals for the distribution of $9 million.

The budgeting process – as explained in the video above – involves:

  1. Bringing ideas together – Tenants in every Toronto Community Housing building come forward with ideas for improving their community. They then sort through the ideas and democratically decide which are the top priorities for their buildings. Only capital projects are eligible for funding.
  2. A voting event – Ideas are brought forward to big voting events, where tenants from different buildings come together to hear all the proposals and vote on the winners. Tenants present their ideas at these events and solicit support from other neighborhoods. Questions can be asked and ideas are examined for their public good and contribution to improving tenants quality of life.
  3. Voting – One delegate for each building gets stickers which they then use to vote for the best ideas.

These votes are counted and the winners announced. This democratic and transparency process helped over 150 ideas received more than $9 million in funding in 2009.

The process of participation is primarily based on face-to-face meetings and events, rather than any online model. The concept of e-Participation is not utilised in Toronto, in contrast to the next example in Germany.

Berlin – Lichtenberg (e-Participation and Face-to-face)

The Participatory budgeting process in Berlin-Lichtenberg includes online deliberation along with face-to-face meetings as part of its civic engagement process. The Promising Practices in Online Engagement paper highlights this as an example of the merging of online and face-to-face engagement models:

The process combines face-to-face dialogues based on the Open Space technique with online dialogue to provide citizens with multiple channels to participate and contribute their budget ideas.

(Image courtesy of Governance International Case Study)

The budgeting process for Berlin-Lichtenberg consists of five-stages:

  1. Kick-off meeting – An initial meeting is held with residents of the district to welcome participants and introduce the process.
  2. Offline and Online idea generation –  Meetings are then arranged where residents in each of the neighborhoods creates suggestions for budget items. Participation in the idea generation stage was also available online, and through household surveys. A second phase then allows for participants with similar ideas to collaboratively create a final version of their suggested budget item. The online platform is used to collect and track the progress of all suggestions no matter where they originated.
  3. Proposals meeting – A one-day meeting is held where citizen panels edit and aggregate all ideas down to a list of the most noteworthy proposals.
  4. Prioritization of ideas – All ideas then go back to the participants to be prioritized. A written vote, an internet vote and a final citizen assembly are used to select the 20 most important proposals. These results are then submitted to decision markers who ensure the suggestions are feasible for inclusion given the framework of the budget laws.
  5. Feedback survey – A citizen survey is then conducted to see how the people who did not participate react to the prioritized proposals.

Berlin-Lichtenberg’s use of an online engagement medium throughout the budgeting process led to an increase in participant numbers and diversity. Online participants outnumbered those physically present at the various events. An evaluation of the internet platform revealed some interesting findings including:

  • The biggest increase in participation stemmed from the online participation
  • It was a good decision to use a mix of media to inform and engage citizens, since each of the communication channels – citizen assemblies, the internet and the postal vote – showed distortions in terms of gender, age, education and nationality.
  • The aggregation of proposals from various sources and sequencing of votes helped neutralise the influence of organised interest groups.

Germany, however, is not unique in its use of the Internet as an engagement medium for PB. It has been enthusiastically embraced in Brazil (the birthplace of the initiative) as a means of increasing participation throughout the budgeting process.

Belo Horizonte, Brazil  (e-Participation only)

In 2006, the city of Belo Horizonte launched a Digital Participatory Budgeting (e-PB) initiative independent of their traditional Participatory budgeting process. It was allocated a fund of US $11 million which was to be distributed based on an exclusively online e-PB process.

The process involved a scheme where citizens registered as electors in Belo Horizonte, independent of their place of residency in the city, and voted exclusively online for 1 out of 4 public works for each of the nine districts of the city.

The initiative had three primary goals:

  • to modernise the participatory budgeting process through the use of ICTs
  • to increase citizens’ participation in the process
  • and to broaden the scope of public works that are submitted to voting

Tiago Peixoto outlines how traditionally the level of public participation in Belo Horizonte’s Participatory budgeting initiatives had been low. Indeed, in the previous 4 years only 1.46% of the population participated in the second round of the process. Along with this the demographic participating was older and of lower socio-economic background, making the process unrepresentative of the city’s population. Thus, the use of the internet and e-PB was seen as a way of engaging a greater cross section of the community through reducing the time and cost of participation.

Four public works per city district were subject to online voting with the aim of selecting one work per district. The initiative was heavily promoted and the website provided detailed information on the proposed works to be selected. The online forums facilitated deliberative action and discussion on the proposed projects.

At the end of the initiative (lasting 42 days) the total number of votes was 503,266 from 172,938 voters. Voters were allowed to vote nine times as long as they voted for only one work per district. Tiago Peixoto’s analysis of participation levels highlights its engagement success:

These numbers therefore correspond to a participation level of around 10 per cent of electors, nearly seven times more participants than the traditional participatory budgeting.

This is, without a doubt, the highest level of participation ever seen in a Participatory Budgeting programme anywhere in the world; and indeed is surely one of the most significant e-democracy exercises ever conducted.

Traditional PB versus e-PB

Is e-Participation the answer?

The different engagement mediums used for Participatory budgeting have significant affects on the level of participation. While research shows that the Web is not replacing traditional methods of civic engagement, it’s use for increasing participation and expanding the diversity of those contributing cannot be understated.

Tiago Peixoto in his analysis of the success of e-Participatory budgeting in Belo Horizonte concludes:

However, one can safely hypothesize that the ease with which participants could vote – with the Internet as an enabler – and the salience of the initiative along with the citizens’ view of their own participation as decisive in the process, were definitive factors in the attainment of such a high level of participation. Despite its novelty and relative flaws, the e-PB is a unique experience and an initiative that cannot be ignored by anyone interested in the use of ICTs as a means to enhance participation, and its future developments should be followed closely.

This, along with Berlin-Lichtenberg’s use of the internet, highlight how online engagement strategies can be utilised to further public participation in Participatory budgeting. Relying exclusively on face-to-face meetings as the engagement model can serve to limit participation, community reach and the diversity of ideas. Consequently, the merging of online and face-to-face engagement looks to be the solution to greater civic involvement in this form of democratic and transparent budgeting.

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