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.

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