Just released: Open Budget Index

(Originally posted here)

The International Budget Partnership released today the Open Budget Index (OBI). The UK scores first on the provision of budget information to its public, followed by South Africa, France, New Zealand and the United States. On the other hand, 80% of the surveyed governments fail to provide sufficient information on the budget to its public.

The study takes into account an important aspect which is the release of a simplified and accessible version of the budget (citizen’s budget). In this case, only 17 countries provided such budget information in a format accessible to the broader population.

A major finding of the survey is the fact that, even though most governments produce budget information that would be crucial to public involvement in the budget process, these same governments fail enormously when it comes to releasing the information: 51 out of 85 governments surveyed produce at least one major document that is not released to the public.

This is particularly striking given that governments could easily – and with low costs – improve their transparency by releasing this information through the Internet. As the report shows, even though most governments (68) disclose their enacted budget on the Internet, the majority fails to provide other relevant information such as a pre-budget statement. In fact, as has been pertinently underlined, much of the information considered to be “publicly available” (criteria of the study) can be obtained only upon request or the payment of a fee.

An interesting remark concerns how civil society organizations specialized in budget issues can enhance the performance of legislatures in the budgeting process. The OBI report also provides examples of good practices in the processes of budget formulation, approval, execution and audit.

Given the magnitude of the report, the study has its limits: the OBI index evaluates publicly available information on the budget issued by central governments only, leaving aside the subnational level where, in many cases, much of the action takes place.

Nonetheless, it is still a monumental work of the International Budget Partnership.

To access the full report and other relevant information click here.

Vote for your Park: nothing but a bad idea?

(Originally posted here)

The London government has launched an initiative called “Vote for your Park”, where Londoners can decide where to allocate ten grants of up to £400,000 for London’s parks. Voting can be made through the Internet, SMS and postal voting. Since the launch of the initiative there has been criticism about the security of the system and the participatory design of the initiative.

I do not know very much about local governments in the UK and I am not at all a specialist in security issues for online voting. Thus, concerning this initiative, I am going to make only a few general considerations, having some experience in the implementation / evaluation of some somehow similar initiatives (e.g. online / offline participatory budgeting, participatory urban planning).

The vulnerability to fraud in the system is obvious, and the website does not provide any space for deliberation nor sufficient elements for citizens to reach an informed decision. In terms of participatory engineering the initiative is also flawed, as illustrated for instance by the choice of the issue itself: parks. This is probably one of the issues that are more related to citizens’ immediate and short-sighted perceptions of what local means. In this case, most people are likely to vote for the parks near their houses with the exception of a couple of good Samaritans who will think of the most needy ones. In short, the superficiality of the website and of the participatory engineering of the initiative is striking. This becomes even more evident given the amount of locally available expertise that could have been mobilized to make this initiative much more interesting in every aspect, and the causes for this are rather intriguing.

Is “vote for your park” just bad news then? As an external observer I think not. Rather, I would say that it is a bad start, bearing in mind that a bad start is better than no start at all. On the positive side, the local government has launched an experience where citizens have a say on a subject and has politically bound itself to allocate some funds to respond to citizens’ feedback. Despite all of its problems, I would comfortably argue that there is much more potential in “vote for your park” than in most (but not all) of the online budget consultations* or many other so called  “e-participation” initiatives held in the UK and elsewhere that are fairly good in terms of participatory engineering but that fail enormously in delivering substantive results to citizens.

The underlying idea of the “vote for your park” initiative – where citizens are called to decide on the allocation of public budget – is good as a general concept, and it shows some degree of political will in spite of the relatively small amount allocated. There is no doubt that it fails in terms of both security and participatory design. On the other hand, in initiatives where citizens are consulted in an almost perfect participatory design but their feedback is of little or no influence whatsoever, there is a problem of political engagement.

Addressing security and participatory issues is far easier than engendering political will. Those interested in citizen participation in public policies – mediated or not by ICTs – are missing a great point if they underestimate such a fact. If I was to devote myself to a project in public administration, I would prefer to do so where there is a will to deliver substantive results instead of projects with fancy participatory designs and 2.0 websites where the policy outputs and outcomes are most uncertain.  I would rather spend my time dealing with politicians, civil servants and IT providers on the design of an initiative than trying to convince them that citizens can actually make reasonable choices.

* This does not mean that all other e-participation initiatives that are not politically / legally binding are a democratic placebo. Of course, if online budget consultations and other participation initiatives (e.g. online petitions) are expected to be taken seriously and have a real effect in policies, security standards should be no different from those initiatives that allocate funds based on citizens’ feedback. 

Multi-channel citizen engagement: the Ipatinga PB experience (PB part 3)

(Originally posted here.)

Following this series of posts about Participatory Budgeting (PB), I would like to describe an experiment in the coordination of which I had the pleasure to participate, which took place in the framework of the e-Agora Project (co-financed by the EC) in the city ofIpatinga, Brazil.

Prior to 2001, community leaders of the city of Ipatinga collected written proposals for public works from citizens during neighbourhood meetings which were then submitted for deliberation in PB in loco meetings. Since 2001, the city of Ipatinga has pioneered in using the Internet as a supplementary means for citizens to indicate public works that they wish to see submitted to vote at PB (offline) meetings, where the use of the Internet is correlated with an increase in the level of attendance of women and younger citizens at these face-to-face meetings.

In 2005, supported by an intense media campaign (e.g. TV, radio, newspapers), the city administration in partnership with ourselves from the e-AGORA project, launched a pioneering experiment in four of its nine districts using telephony in its PB as a supplementary information and consultation tool.  In the participant districts, our experiment consisted of:

  • A free phone number was provided which citizens could call in order to specify their preferences regarding the allocation of the local budget
  • SMS messages were sent to citizens who registered on the PB website and provided their phone numbers, encouraging them to participate in the process by indicating their preferences and by attending the deliberative PB meetings
  • An automated system of phone calls was deployed, with calls to citizens’ landlines with a recorded voice message from the mayor inviting citizens to the PB meetings, followed by an indication of the date and location (specific to each district) of the assembly.

In this respect, we sent 2.950 SMS to the citizens living in the districts participating in the experiment. Also, out of 30,817 calls effectuated by the system to the landlines of those residing in the experiment’s districts, 29,811 were fully accepted: that is, 96.8% of citizens who picked up the phone waited until the end of the mayor’s message before hanging up.

During this experiment, we counted on an external evaluation led by the Electronic Democracy Center. Below I present the main findings of the evaluation.

  • Compared to the previous year, in the districts where the experiment did not take place, a decline in participation of 16.1% was identified, whereas in the districts where the experiment took place participation increased by 14.7%.
  • Nearly half (48.2%) of those who attended the meetings and who had previously indicated public works to be submitted to vote had done so either via the Internet or the free phone number.
  • Over 50% of those who attended the meetings declared that the telephone calls they received with a voice message from the mayor were the means of communication that most motivated them to attend the meetings.

The case of Ipatinga is interesting not only due to the rather successful results of a multi-channel approach per se, but also because of the complementarities between the onlineand offline approaches that culminated in a deliberative, face-to-face meeting where the final votes were cast.

This online/offline combination is important because, in many cases, one of the aims of implementing PB is to strengthen community ties and to generate a civic event that would be difficult to reproduce in an online environment. For instance, having talked to some PB stakeholders in the UK this seems to be their approach, where they tend to be rather skeptical – and rightly so – about the benefits of fully replacing these face-to-face meetings with virtual online environments. In fact, the e-PB of Belo Horizonte, the boldest experience in the domain so far – which I have mentioned in a previous post – when implementing its fully online PB, did not extinguish its traditional PB (offline), and neither intends to do so in the future.

Nonetheless, it would be interesting to research to what extent the use of the Internet, phones, or any other electronic means for indicating proposals, creates an extra incentive for citizens to subsequently participate in a more costly activity – e.g. a face-to-face meeting – in which they would not have participated if they had not previously engaged in an online activity. In other words, it might be that online participation leads to further offline participation.

Even if this is not the case at all, more proactive uses of ICTs as a means to increase offline engagement can be proven to be extremely valid, as the case of Ipatinga has shown. The use of ICTs in PB are not limited to providing information, supporting deliberation or e-voting as one might consider at a first glance: ICTs can also be used as a means to coordinate and support mobilization that goes way beyond citizens’ computer screens. The case of Ipatinga might have been just the beginning.

Participatory Budgeting and e-Democracy (part 2): the Belo Horizonte case

(Originally posted over 3 years ago here)

This post is based on a paper of mine published by the Electronic Democracy Centre (Zurich University) about the experience of the e-Participatory Budgeting of the city of Belo Horizonte. In part 1 of this post I use extracts from a short article by Dan Jellinek (Headstar) and myself that aimed to present a summary of the published paper. At the end, I will add some information contained in the paper about the votes that was not included in the summary article.

1)     The e-Participatory Budgeting of Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte is the capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, with a population of just under 2.5 million, of whom 1.7 million are electors. Following the introduction of district PB in 1993, a further Housing Participatory Budgeting (HPB) project was also launched in 1996 to help address an increasing demand for housing in the city. In both the district and housing PB processes, a series of assemblies are held enabling citizens to allocate budgetary resources and scrutinise public spending.

Every two years, the city administration and community leaders invite citizens to the official opening of the PB and to the district rounds in each of the city’s nine districts.

During this first round, the administration distributes a form to neighbourhood representatives to be filled in with citizens’ requests for public works. The representatives in turn call community meetings to establish what the priority public work is for their area. The feasibility of each demand is then technically assessed by the administration.

The administration presents the budget available to each sub-district, which is proportional to a sub-district’s population size and inversely proportional to its quality of life index. The sub-district forums pre-select a maximum of 25 public works for each district, and tours are organised during which the sub-district delegates visit the sites of these works to gain a better understanding of them.

The District Forum is the last deliberative stage of the PB, where the city administration indicates the estimated costs of each of the 25 pre-selected works. Based on these indications and on what the sub-district delegates consider to be priorities, they choose a maximum of 14 works. During this forum the sub-district delegates also elect the district delegates that will follow-up and oversee the execution of the public works. The final stage is the Municipal Meeting of Budgetary Priorities, where the elected delegates present to the mayor the public works selected by the PB to be executed by the administration.

In 2006, alongside the regular PB process explained above, the city administration launched a system of Digital Participatory Budgeting (e-PB). Independent of the budget of US$43 million allocated for the traditional PB, a fund of US$11 million was allocated to the new initiative.

The e-PB consists of a scheme where citizens registered as electors in Belo Horizonte, independent of their place of residency in the city, vote exclusively online for one out of four public works for each of the nine districts of the city. The initiative had three main 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 (for a Brazilian language site on the project see http://opdigital.pbh.gov.br/ ).

Traditionally, the level of public participation in PB processes had been very low, composed in general of citizens of an advanced age and of lower socio-economic background; in the previous four years only 1.46% of the population participated in the second round of the process. The internet was seen as a way of making it easier for citizens to take part, reducing the time and cost of participation; the traditional PB required citizens to attend meetings at a certain time and place, whereas with the e-PB citizens were free to vote online within a period of 42 days.

For the e-PB, four public works per district were subject to online voting with the aim of selecting one work per district. Citizens over 16 years old were able to vote through an e-voting platform on the city’s website.

In general, the works selected for online voting were much larger than the public works put forward by the traditional PB process. As an example, in the medium-sized district of Barreiro, four choices were offered to voters: to build a new public sports complex; to build a new library; to renew one of the area’s main streets; or to regenerate the district’s commercial centre. Each project was priced at 1.2 million US Dollars and the sports complex won the vote. This is not a process to be taken lightly, since the other three projects did not go ahead.

The e-PB was heavily promoted and the website provided detailed information on the proposed works that were to be selected. Further information could be obtained by email and a designated address was set up to respond to queries. The online platform of the e-PB offered possibilities for multilateral interactivity and, consequently, facilitated deliberative action.

Participation was opened to all citizens, with a discussion forum including nine different threads, one for each district. Even though  active participation in the forum was low, reaching a total of 1,210 posts, all posts could be seen without logging in by all of those who accessed the link to the forums, and the number of readers was significantly higher than the number of posts.

The total number of votes was 503,266 with a total number of 172,938 voters. The difference between the number of voters and number of votes is accounted for by the fact that voters were allowed to vote nine times as long as they voted for only one work per district. 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 (and using a budget nearly seven times smaller).”

2) Analysis of the votes

Now, I would like to add some relevant information that was in the paper and that was not contained in the previous article concerning the votes.

a) Local does seem to matter: As mentioned before, electors were allowed to cast nine votes each (one for each of the 9 districts). Nevertheless, more than half of the voters (52.1%) chose to vote for only one district and nearly two thirds of voters (73.61%) choose to vote for between one and three districts only. Also, qualitative data seems to confirm that citizens preferred to cast for their vote in an informed manner, rather than behaving as free riders that would randomly cast their votes.

b) Absence of socio-economic bias: At least at the aggregate level, no socio-economic bias was found. In this respect, there is no evidence that richer neighbourhoods produced higher levels of participation. Nonetheless, due to the absence of individual level data such analysis should be taken into consideration prudently.

c) Remote voting was essential: The available data shows that at least 30% of the votes were cast from registered electors in Belo Horizonte that, at the moment their vote was cast, were not physically in the city. In other words, it is probable that nearly 1/3 of the voters would not have participated if it hadn’t been for the possibility of casting their votes through the Internet. 

I would like to write much more about the discussion contained in the paper and on the feedback that I have received from practitioners and scholars since the publication of the paper, but this post is already too long. What I can say is that, to me, the convergence of PB and ICTs might be one of the most promising and exciting venues for e-Democracy for the years to come: experiences similar to the one of Belo Horizonte are starting to emerge everywhere, and I am convinced that much innovation towards citizen participation will be achieved along this path.

Participatory Budgeting and e-Democracy (Part 1)

(Originally posted over 3 years ago here)

Participatory Budgeting (PB) can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of budget allocation and monitoring public spending. Participation may 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.

Added to the normative claim that PB gives citizens the opportunity to participate in decisions that directly affect them, it is expected that citizens as end-users of public services are the most suited ones to identify public demands. In this perspective, citizen participation in PB should naturally lead to a better allocation of budgetary resources and there is some evidence that, when implemented properly, this may be the case.

The first PB was implemented in 1989 in Porto Alegre in Brazil, and in 1993 the number of initiatives had reached 140. Currently in Brazil the estimated number is between 300 and 350 PBs.  Such increasing trend is also identified in Europe, where the numbers of PBs jumped from 6 in the year 2000 to 55 in 2005. I have been making some estimates on this growth and my estimate agrees with those from other experts in PBs in Europe that claim that there should be around 150 cases in Europe right now. This number still tends to grow, particularly owing to the initiative of the UK government that expects to have PBs implemented at all administrations at the local level by 2012. In regions like Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe numbers are also growing, especially due to the efforts deployed by the World Bank and the UN. In 2006, the estimated total number of PBs in the world was around 1.200, and these numbers are expected to be high er today.

In terms of sustainability, there is significant evidence that once administrations implement PB there is a general trend of continuity of the experience due to, among other factors, the political costs that are associated with the extinction of PBs.  Adding to that, there are a number of countries that are inserting PB in their juridical framework, making PB a compulsory practice for local governments, such as Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and Dominican Republic.

Concerning results, I believe that Participatory Budgeting has a great virtue that lacks in most e-democracy initiatives implemented so far: it is directly linked to the delivery of visible and quantifiable public services that have direct impact in citizens lives, such as the renewal of a school or the building of a health center.  Also, there is strong evidence that participatory budgeting may lead to citizens’ empowerment by acquiring skills and competencies (e.g. budget literacy, networking). Such type of empowerment we cannot expect at the same degree from, for instance, signing a petition.

Nonetheless, despite all these virtues, most PB experiences reach a very low level of participation, with most initiatives reaching participation levels between 0.5 and 2 percent of the population. Such a fact is not inherent to PB: surveys in democratic countries have repeatedly shown that very few citizens are willing to participate in political life in ways other than voting.  Thus, for those who are looking for means to increase citizen participation, we should start looking (among other things) for solutions with low costs of participation (e.g.time, transport).  If variance in costs is not the sole explanatory factor for level of participation, by holding all other factors constant one should expect that citizens’ participation would be inversely proportional to the costs of participation.

In this respect, ICTs may play an important role by decreasing the costs incurred by citizens when taking part in PB processes. For instance, instead of having to attend a face-to-face meeting at a certain place and a certain time, ICTs may enable citizens to participate from virtually anywhere at any time in the process by deliberating and casting their votes in the allocation of budgetary resources.  Nonetheless, most of the use of ICTs concerning PB practices so far has been restricted to the provision of information about the process to the citizens. At the same time, it is easy to identify an increasing trend in the use of ICTs in PB practices as means to increase participation (e.g. Internet voting) and to enhance online deliberation.  In the next post I shall look at the e-Participatory Budgeting of the city of Belo Horizonte (Brazil), which is without any doubt one of the most significant e-democracy exercises ever conducted.