From Australia, An E-Participatory Budgeting Experiment

(originally posted at TechPresident)

The government of the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW), in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the economic downturn and stimulate local economies, has allocated the equivalent of US$30 million to the Community Building Partnership program. Aiming to support local jobs, stimulate growth and improve community facilities, the program allocates between US$260,000 and US$ 350,000 to each of the 93 NSW electoral districts. Under the program, community groups are eligible to electronically submit applications for funding to support local infrastructure and jobs in the district. Once applicants meet the requirements, MPs prioritize which projects are to receive funding.

However, the real novelty comes from the electoral district of Heathcote, where MP Paul McLeay is inviting the district’s citizens to decide through the Internet on the allocation of the funds that the government has made available. On the rather 2.0 MP’s website, the legislator uses video to explain the context of the initiative and invite citizens to prioritize the eligible proposals formulated by local community organizations.

From October 6th, citizens will be able to cast five votes each – with a maximum of 3 votes per project – in order to decide which causes are the most deserving of existing funds. According to a local article on the initiative, a system has been deployed to ensure that only residents of the district vote and to keep the initiative from being defrauded (e.g. multiple voting). In this respect, voting is auditable and, apparently in the same way as Belo Horizonte’s e-participatory budgeting system, votes are only considered valid by the system if the information provided is accurate and compatible with that contained in the electoral roll.

In order to alleviate the effects of the digital divide, the initiative counts on the support of local libraries that have made some of their computers available for citizens to access the initiative’s website. Last, but not least, the website will provide tools for organizations and supporters to lead their online canvassing, such as newsletters and website widgets.

E-participatory budgeting, as it spreads around the world, takes various forms. But, ultimately, it is always about leveraging the dispersed knowledge of citizens to shape decisions that invariably affect their lives. It will be interesting to see how the wisdom of the Heathcote crowd will operate in the allocation of their stimulus funds. Probably better than most earmarks we see around. Any bets?

GSA: Engaging Citizens in Government

The US General Services Administration (GSA) has just released its Intergovernmental Solutions Newsletter.
Entitled “Engaging Citizens in Government”, all  of the articles in the current edition should be of interest to those working on the use of ICTs as a means to enhance citizen participation.
To those particularly interested in e-Participatory Budgeting, I have co-authored a small text (p.23) on the cases of Belo Horizonte (Brazil) and La Plata (Argentina).
As to citizen participation in the Brazilian legislative process, I’ve also co-authored “Participatory Lawmaking in Brazil” (p.22).
Table of contents:
Increasing Citizen Engagement in Government
By the People, For the People
Citizen Engagement
National Dialogues Build Communities
Believable Change: A Reality Check on Online Participation?
Reinventing We the People
Data is Not Democracy
Could Citizens Run the White House Online?
E-Petitions Preserves an Old British Tradition
My better Estonia
Participatory Lawmaking in Brazil
Brazil and Argentina: From Participatory Budgeting to e-Participatory Budgeting
Pew: Well-off and Well-educated Are More Likely to Engage
Public Engagement on Fairfax Countys Budget
Citizen Engagement in Oakland County
Washington Goes to Mr. Smith: The Changing Role of Citizens in Policy Development
Ohio Redistricting Competition
Planning for Citizen Engagement
Potholes and PDAs
New Media Makers Pioneer Novel Forms of News
Putting Your Audience to Work: EPAs Radon Video Contest
A Millennial Model of Civic Engagement
Emerging Themes for Effective Online Citizen Engagement
The Importance of Open Web Standards in the Move to Open and Transparent Government

Territorial representation and ideational e-constituencies

(originally posted here)

It is easy to identify an existent and increasing disjunction between representation based on territorial constituencies and the preferences of citizens that, many times, are not circumscribed by any territory. In practice, such a fact leads to a representation deficit, where elected representatives fail to represent – or even to contemplate – preferences of constituents.  In that case, preferences that are dispersed and not contained within a territory have little or no chance of being formally represented. The history of recurrent legislative redistricting ( and gerrymandering) in the U.S is the most visible and institutional acknowledgement of difficulties related to territorial representation.

Such difficulties related to territorial representation tend to become even more present in a context of an interconnected society, where a growing number of old and new interests that were once latent and isolated, become expressed with much more intensity and well beyond geographical limits. Among other reasons, the aggregative possibility that information and communication technologies (ICTs) have given to interests that were previously dispersed renders the gap between constituents’ preferences and the policy outputs of legislatures even more evident.

The bad news is, in such a context, standard solutions such as redefinition of territorial constituencies as a means to deal with the limitations of territorial representation are no longer an option. Moreover, even if some interests can still be represented through territorial constituencies, it is increasingly difficult to claim primacy of territory-based preferences over non-territorial interests.  In short, liberal democracy’s fixation with territorial representation – together with partisan competition – as the only provider of legitimate links between citizens and public authorities is significantly challenged.

Despite the obvious signs of fatigue from liberal democracy (decreasing levels of turnouts, partisanship affiliation) there is also a noticeable renewal of politics  (e.g. activist groups, single-issue coalitions) that are by no means seized by the traditional framework of liberal democracies.  Even if nonterritorial interests are not new to democratic theorists, undoubtedly one can identify the rise of organized interests propelled by the use of ICTs and particularly the Internet, has taken an impressive step –both quantitatively and qualitatively – from the mid 1990s on.

Interesting is to notice that recent researches show that through the use of ICTs – particularly weblogs – MPs are increasingly relating with “e-constituencies” that come well beyond their territorial limits. A research by Nigel Jackson, for instance, suggests that MPs that are using weblogs tend to develop broader, virtual constituencies that are highly interested in politics and that are in competition with the geographic constituency of these MPs who are not and cannot be elected by these “e-constituents”. Such a fact, rather than anecdotal, illustrates well the limits of territorial constituencies. While it stops citizens preferences from being aggregated around one representative, it also inhibits representatives from acting on behalf of an electorate that maybe has more affinity with his preferences than those of his territorial constituency.

One fact is evident and inevitable: the ever growing access to ICTs challenges current representative democratic practices and traditional forms of political participation, with new non-territorial citizen networks, fluid publics and affinity groups constituting major elements of contemporary democracy.  Can ideational e-constituencies complement the system of territorial constituencies as we know it? Maybe not for now, but it is something to think about.

Serendipity for Online Deliberation?

(originally posted here)

I was going to reply to Paul’s comment and this actually became a post.  Having suggested the idea of inversed tag clouds as a means to enhance serendipity, Paul pointed out two cases in which serendipity can be desirable: 1) where you know that all the entries are of a certain standard and 2) where the most popular ones are likely for that reason to be less interesting.

In this respect, I would like to speculate to what extent serendipity can be desirable in large-scale deliberation processes, and how this serendipity can be induced online. To give it a fancy name, “induced redistributive serendipity”.

To make my point simpler, let’s think for instance of a cloud based on the number of views that an article / argument receives. In this case, the most viewed articles / arguments (or their respective tags) become more visible as more people view them, generating a snowball effect of intuitive mimesis.

This is more or less what happens in flawed models such as the ranking system of phase 1 of the “Open Government Initiative”, where interventions at the initial stage can (and often do) produce huge variations in the outcome. In this case, for instance, the idea of an inversed cloud could neutralize these undesirable effects.

Now, consider an online deliberation where, at least in theory, all the arguments are important and should be objects of consideration. Here, a traditional tag cloud could have disastrous consequences for the quality of deliberation. Once more, an inversed cloud based on the number of times an argument is viewed (the least viewed become more visible) could be useful for the purpose of online deliberation.

This could be particularly applicable for large-scale online deliberation. Given that people rarely take the time to go over most of the arguments that are available, an inversed cloud could have a redistributive function. As the most read arguments become less visible and vice-versa, one would expect a better distribution of the number of views each argument receives. Finally, for the participants, this could lead them to come across information that they were not looking for in the first place.

In other words, my question is: could this “induced redistributive serendipity” be used in large-scale online deliberation?

Empowerment: a Systematic Review of the Evidence

On the 1st of June, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in the UK published online the paper  “Empowering communities to influence local decision making: A systematic review of the evidence”.

In this paper, Prof. Lawrence Pratchett and his colleagues provide evidence-based lessons on six empowerment mechanisms:

1)      asset transfer
2)      citizen governance
3)      e-participation
4)      participatory budgeting
5)      petitions
6)      redress

Having worked as a consultant for a short while in this project (where I learned more than I provided), I had the opportunity to glimpse how these great scholars employed top-level methodology and analytical rigor to come up with the results they are now sharing with the broader public.

Among other findings, the research shows that each of the six mechanisms can potentially – to some extent – empower the citizens participating directly in it. Nonetheless, only the citizen governance and participatory budgeting mechanisms provided “evidence of spill-over from individuals to the wider community”.

However, any reference to a main finding would be unfair, given the amount of valuable information provided by this research for academics and practitioners interested in issues related to empowerment.  A full reading is well worth it.

The authors of this report raise the bar by going well beyond the general assumptions and unsubstantiated lucubrations that are, unfortunately, so common in the domain.

You can download the full-report here [PDF].

(originally posted in Facebook’s Participatory Budgeting group)

The Price of Transparency

The use of websites by governments as a means to increase budgetary transparency by providing easily accessible information doesn’t stop growing. The Center for Fiscal Accountability does a great job by periodically tracking these initiatives across the United States and its latest update, in March, provides a listing of 26 websites that have gone live since 2007.

More impressive is the growing number of legislative initiatives across the U.S. aiming at increasing and deepening the information provided to citizens in an easy and accessible way. The Center for Fiscal Accountability report on State Legislative Transparency Effortsshows that since the beginning of this year 34 bills have been sponsored across 21 states. However, between proposing a bill and having it translated into policy output there is a long and winding road where political and organizational constraints may affect the outcomes originally intended by the legislator (assuming that he/she acts in good faith).

For instance, this week the New Mexico Senate voted unanimously to create a searchable, online database of state spending. According to the sponsor of the measure, Sen. Sander Rue, such a measure will “demystify the state budget” and increase public interest and participation in spending decisions. According to The New Mexican, during the Senate floor debate Sen. Rue humorously commented on the measure “I’m doing this purely for selfish reasons: So I can better understand the budget” and added “and if anyone else wants to follow after me, that’s fine”.

However, resistance seems to have come from many fronts, such as New Mexico’s Department of Information and Technology (DoIT). The DoIT makes the obvious declaration that it supports initiatives related to budget transparency (would it ever say the opposite?) but claims not to have the resources to comply with the measure. According to a report prepared by the Legislative Finance Committee the DoIT – in a rather dissuasive manner – claims that depending on the depth of data provided, the fiscal impact on the agency could vary from US$25.000 to US$1 million. That is not all: the agency estimates that implementation costs will range from US$ 1 million to US$ 3 million.

The Legislative Finance Committee (LFC) itself does not see much importance in the initiative either. In its Fiscal Impact Report it states that legislation is already searchable on the internet in various formats such as New Mexico’s state website and the Secretary of State’s website. Last, but not least, the LFC report also adds that “public entities are subject to the Freedom of Information Act and information is available through that avenue.” Finally, the report concludes that in case Sen. Rue’s bill is not enacted, “The public will continue to access State of New Mexico appropriations through the web using other alternatives”. A quick overview of both websites and LFC’s mention of the Freedom of Information act raises serious doubts about LFC’s concept of what easily and accessible information consists of. The bill was approved by the Senate with a score of 38 votes in favor and none against. Now it goes to the House and we shall see what happens next.

Having interviewed many stakeholders in similar processes, I believe that the New Mexico case is far from just anecdotal evidence. Rather, it illustrates the often-underestimated role (positive or negative) that civil servants might have in turning the will of a political agent (in this case Sen. Rue) into a policy output. As Michel Crozier pointed out in 1964, considering the privileged possession of information and expertise, civil servants naturally dispose of discretionary margins that enable them to reinterpret and alter demands that are made to them.  It should be expected that civil servants’ influence and discretionary margin is particularly accentuated when it comes to the highly specialized domain of ICTs, where the asymmetry of technical knowledge between elected officials and civil servants is clearly to the advantage of the latter. For instance, concerning estimations of the amount of resources necessary to implement the system proposed by Sen. Rue the DoIT has the upper hand, and the estimated budget presented by the DoIT (between US$25.000 to US$1 million) is typical of implicit negotiations that take place in processes of this nature: “we can do it of course, but to do it well all depends on what you give us”.

Easy access to information involves many factors and in the end, the website that we will see in New Mexico will be among other things the result of a compromise between actors’ preferences: civil servants might be compelled to implement it, but unfortunately or not, it would be a bad idea to tell the DoIT to just do it.

(find more related posts at the Participatory Budgeting Facebook group)


A Touch of Classics on Collaboration

A while ago I read Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens  by Josiah Ober, and since then I have been thinking about what it contributes to the ongoing debates about collaboration in the public sector, participatory democracy and even WEB 2.0.

At the risk of being unfair to the monumentality of Ober’s work, I would try to summarize it as a work that, building on analytical tools from institutional design and organized collective action theories, demonstrates how the success of classical Athens was linked to the capacity of its democratic system to leverage the dispersed knowledge of its citizens. Putting it in a more elegant manner “Ober explores the institutional contexts of democratic knowledge management, including the use of social networks for collecting information, publicity for building common knowledge, and open access for lowering transaction costs” (synopsis).

For those who are not interested in reading the entire book, one can get a taste of Ober’s work by reading his article Learning from Athens: Success by design published online by the Boston Review. Here are some extracts:

(…) if democracy is now generally regarded as morally superior to other forms of political organization, its effectiveness in delivering the goods remains a matter of sharp contest. How does democracy fare when it comes to assuring physical security, protecting health, and fostering economic growth? We know, for example, from the economist Amartya Sen that famines are all too common under authoritarian regimes but do not occur in democratic states with a free press. Yet Sen also acknowledges that we do not know the effects of democracy on economic growth: “If all the comparative studies are viewed together, the hypothesis that there is no clear relation between economic growth and democracy in either direction remains extremely plausible” (…) Democracy may be right, then, but is it good? What we know is that some democracies achieve sustained success. As democracy is universalized as an aspiration, it becomes increasingly urgent to understand what sets the successes apart.

(…) Ancient Greek city-states (poleis; singular polis) existed in a highly competitive environment in which failure was severely punished, by loss of independence or even annihilation. Destruction, total or partial, of physical infrastructure (sacking) or population (mass expulsion, extermination, or enslavement) was quite common: between a quarter and a third of the better-documented Greek states are known to have suffered such destruction at some point in their history. Poleis responded to such internal and external threats by experimenting with a variety of constitutional forms, with more and less extensive participation by citizens. (…) Athens, it seems, was successful at least in part because it was democratic. Was there something about the kind of democracy in Athens that distinguished it from the less successful democratic Greek city-states?

(…) In fact, Athenian democracy had a distinctive design principle: it was designed for organizing the dispersed knowledge of citizens. Its central governmental bodies, including the Assembly, enabled an active exchange of useful social and technical knowledge among diverse teams of citizens, promoted learning, and thus improved the chances for innovative and effective policies. And as a balance to innovation, Athenian institutions worked to codify rules, archive information, and standardize proven work routines, thus promoting organizational learning over time. Although the relationship between democracy, knowledge, and practical success is not as widely recognized by modern scholarship as it should be, it did not go unnoticed in Athens. Historians and philosophers—Herodotus and Thucydides as well as Plato and Aristotle—all discussed the distinctive Athenian processes for the collection, coordination, and codification of useful knowledge and associated them with the polis’s success.

Ober’s perspective, even though based on classic Athens, enriches and sheds light on the current debate on collaboration, web 2.0 and related issues – a debate that many times (but not always) is polluted by general assumptions and pseudo-theories that lack any analytical rigor and, contradictorily enough, refrains from building upon existing knowledge, be it classical or contemporary. Ober seems a good antidote to reinventing the wheel.


Ps.: If interested, also read “Beyond Empowerment: Building a Company of Citizens” by Ober himself and Brooke Manville published by the Harvard Business Review.

Pps.: You can read the first chapter of “Democracy and Knowledge” by clicking here.

EU Profiler: voting advice application for the 2009 EP elections

(originally posted here)

Here’s a link to a video about the EU Profiler, a Voting Advice Application for the 2009 European Parliamentary Elections.

The EU Profiler has been developed here at the European University Institute with the collaboration of a unique team of international researchers.

A bit more about the EU Profiler:

The EU Profiler is a Europe-wide Voting Advice Application (VAA) or a party profiling website for the European Parliament elections in June 2009. It is designed to help millions of European users and potential voters to discover their positions in the political landscape for the 2009 EP elections.

In order to help voters to make their own preferences explicit and position themselves in a ‘European political landscape’, the EU Profiler offers the users (or voters) an online questionnaire with 30 political statements on which they can indicate their level of agreement or disagreement. When they have completed the set of questions, the programme goes on to state which particular party is closest to the political preferences expressed by the user (voter). Therefore, the EU Profiler allows them to compare their preferences with the positions of all national, as well as, all European parties.

The EU Profiler will be available in all EU Member States in all their respective national languages and will be customized to each country’s national campaign context. The EP elections will also be simulated in a number of non-EU member countries such as Turkey, Croatia, Switzerland and Norway.

The EU Profiler has been developed by the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence which has a unique position to form an international team of social scientists (as the ”officers” of this group and many more). The EU Profiler combines the academic excellence of the EUI with the expertise and the experience of the Dutch company ‘Kieskompas’ and the Swiss consortium ‘NCCR Democracy/Politools (smartvote)’ which are the two leading developers of party/candidates profiling websites and voting advice applications.”


When Desperate Times Call for Participatory Measures

(originally posted here)

41 U.S. states currently face budget gaps, and judging by the forecasts of even the most optimistic specialists, such a situation is far from being substantially changed in the near future. In this context, it is particularly interesting to highlight the few ICT mediated initiatives that are starting to take place at the subnational (state) level in the United States, aiming – at least supposedly – to get citizens involved in the budgetary process.

For instance, in November, the state of New York launched a website (reducenyspending) that provided citizens with a budget calculator that focused on reducing spending: citizens were allowed to cut expenses and reallocate budgets. Once citizens had eliminated the state’s $12.5 billion General Fund budget gap, they were able to submit their budget proposal online. The government of Arizona, similarly, in the framework of its Openness and Savings Strategies (AZ-OSS) website, invited citizens and state employees to participate in the budgetary process and submit their proposals for making savings. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the governments of Arizona and New York took specific action based on citizens’ input.

A particularly interesting initiative is “” launched last Tuesday (January 11th) by Virginia’s governor Tim Kaine. The main driver behind the initiative is to provide an online tool that enables citizens, groups, localities and others to propose project ideas for potential funding from the federal stimulus package. By entering a valid email address into the platform, citizens receive a link to a section where they can propose their projects, which once posted are made available to the general public. It is worth noting that apart from the fact that these demands are made public, thus enhancing the general transparency of the process, the proposals are also registered under a creative commons 3.0 license, which allows the public to share and to remix the ideas, in the best spirit of web 2.0. Considering that it was launched just a few days ago, the number and the overall quality of proposals is quite impressive.

As to the legislative branch, having gone over all of the 50 websites of US state legislatures in the last months, I have found a few cases of the use of ICTs as a means to get feedback from citizens on the allocation of budgetary resources.  For instance, Nevada State Legislature has made available on its website a link to a section called “Public Suggestions Concerning Budget Reductions”. According to the website “The Legislature would like to invite the public to submit comments and suggestions for budget reductions and savings.” The Minnesota House of Representatives website has also set up a section where citizens are able to suggest alternatives on how to confront Minnesota’s budget deficit. However, in both of these initiatives no information whatsoever is provided with regards to the budgetary conditions of the state. The fact that these legislatures ask the general public to come up with suggestions concerning budgetary resources when no substantive information on the budget and its process is provided raises the question of to what extent these initiatives are being taken seriously by those who design them (if one can talk about design in this case).

Another initiative of this kind is the “Minnesota Senate Budget Discussion” website, where the state faces a deficit of more US$ 4.8 billion dollars over the next two years. Launched at the beginning of this year (January 15th), an initial message describes the website as an online community where citizens contribute their ideas on the state budget, helping the Senate to “develop a budget that reflects the values and needs of the communities”.

On the website citizens are able to post their comments on different budget issues such as higher education, environment and transport. In order to allow citizens to inform their comments and discussion, for each budget topic a small text and charts provide basic information, complemented by links to relevant documents and websites.  A glossary section is also provided, where more technical terms are explained in accessible language to the broader public.  Furthermore, citizens are encouraged to contact their local senators and member s of the respective committees responsible for each of the budget topics, with links to the different committees and list of senators. Furthermore, a map indicates the origin of the comments and ideas posted, geographically representing where the inputs on budget issues come from (a functionality that should be particularly interesting for those to whom citizens’ input is directed).

Finally, it is also possible to identify some evidence of a positive degree of reactivity by those responsible for the “Minesotta Senate Budget Discussion” concerning the actual use of the website by the citizens. For instance, given the website users’ particular interest in the “Health and Human Services Budget” topic, a specific section was added with information on the basic costs of Minnesota’s public health and welfare programs.

These times of crisis seem to call for participatory measures. In times of budget cuts and shortfalls governments have an extra incentive to engage in participatory processes in the allocation of budgetary resources: they may engender better allocation of resources and increase the legitimacy of difficult decisions that are not always very popular. Even though the initiatives mentioned above vary enormously across states in terms of prospects and limits (e.g. Nevada and Minnesota), they are illustrative of initiatives that are taking place where ICTs are used to support citizens’ participation in the process of budget allocation at a higher governmental level. In their embryonic stages, the flaws in terms of participatory and technological design – in some cases more evident than in others – could be addressed relatively easily.

However, apart from matters of design, the desirable outcomes that these kinds of initiatives may engender are only possible when governments are able to present substantive results to the citizens that are willing to contribute with their time and ideas. For instance, experience has shown that Participatory Budgeting initiatives have been successful only when governments have been able to deliver results in a timely manner and have taken specific actions to ensure that citizens are aware of these concrete outcomes. Even though these exercises are not Participatory Budgeting experiences – this was never their intent – they  are doomed to fail if the citizens that engage with these initiatives do not have enough evidence that their contribution is seriously taken into account.

The initiatives of New York and Arizona seem to have already failed in that respect. Let’s hope the ongoing initiatives do a bit better. Otherwise, they will just join the long and embarrassing list of initiatives that have only generated skepticism and frustration amongst those who were initially enthusiastic about engaging with their governments. In this case, citizens will not be so keen next time.

Let’s see…


Ps: Susana Haas Lyons has made a few of suggestions on how the initiative could be improved.

Pps: Other initiatives are taking place at the local level, such as in Philadelphia and the Town of Cary (thanks to Stephen Kleinschmit for sending the Cary case).

Find the comments and the references at the Facebook Participatory Budgeting group.