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. 

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