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 “stimulus.viriginia.gov” 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 stimulus.gov 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.

 

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