Digital tools enable citizen budgeting

A man votes at a small, desk-style voting booth.

The popular narrative in this election cycle is one of popular disillusionment and cynicism with government.  Yet, this national narrative overlooks the power and energy of citizens coming together in their communities to solve problems.  Across the country, people are working with their neighbors to strengthen their communities, re-imagine engagement with elected officials, and leverage new technologies to improve governance.  These are some of the topics I address in my recent Brookings book with Harvard’s Ash Center; Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America.

The book looks at an array of civic innovations, from the rise of open government data for community-based decisionmaking to civic crowdfunding where people pledge small-dollar amounts to fund public works. Diverse examples include structured listening processes that empower people to set mayoral priorities and the multi-stakeholder Open Government Partnership that promotes greater government transparency and accountability.  The book highlights the power of deliberate, structured participation opportunities to improve public decision making.

In particular, the book examines the rise in the United States of participatory budgeting (PB), a process that empowers community residents to allocate public dollars.  Beginning in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 after that country’s long military dictatorship, the process created a mechanism for transparency, accountability, and civic participation.  Unlike advisory or consultative processes, PB allows citizens to make binding decisions and work directly with public officials to craft viable budget proposals. Though the process takes on different local flavors, there are some commonalities. Community residents identify local priorities and a subset of people work with government officials to craft viable budget proposals based on community need. These proposals are then returned to community residents for a vote, and public officials then implement the winning projects. After the World Bank declared PB a best practice in democratic innovation in 1996, the process quickly spread across the globe.  It is estimated that PB has now been implemented in 2,500 localities across the world.

The process only came to the United States in 2009 when Chicago Alderman Joe Moore put $1 million of his discretionary “menu money” into the process.  Since then, it has grown throughout the country, with the support of The Participatory Budgeting Project and other civil society organizations such as Community Voices Heard in New York City.  While working at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, I explored opportunities to support PB as part of the United States Open Government Partnership and National Action Plan with existing federal dollars.  The process continues to grow, with over $50 million in public funds allocated across the country.

New York City continues to serve as the largest implementation of PB in the United States. Beginning with 4 districts and $5.6 million in 2011, the process has grown to 28 districts with over $32 million being allocated by residents. For the 2016 vote the organization Democracy 2.1 worked with the New York City Council to set up a digital ballot option.  

“For the first time, residents of all 28 participating districts could choose to cast their PB ballot digitally,” explained Lex Paulson, international counselor for Democracy 2.1, the city’s digital partner for PB. “Adding a digital system behind the in-person process allowed NYC to standardize voter registration, print fewer unused ballots, and let voters vote find their ‘home’ ballot at any voting site across the city. When done the right way, digital tools can help make PB more accessible, more inclusive and more affordable for cities of any size.”

Just in the last few weeks, a record number of 67,691 people voted in the New York PB election. The digital ballot represents an opportunity for the City of New York to innovate the application of digital tools in service delivery.  It can serve as an exemplar for other cities working to modernize and foster citizen-centric government.

Participatory budgeting and other civic innovations suggest the opportunity for experimentation and digital tools to provide new opportunities for citizens to engage with the state. These innovations may not be a panacea for status quo politics in the United States, but they do suggest that we can more creatively equip citizens as problem solvers and civic participants in 21st century society.