Open Government Week 2019

This year, Open Government Week has focused on “increasing the number and diversity of partners taking part in events and conversations”. Countries, citizens, governments and civil society all over the world are taking part, running online and offline events and sharing the work they have been doing to promote open government. There have been webinars, panels, art, rallies, debates, & so much more, including ‘Open Government and Open Data Family Feud’ in Canada and a Public Debate conducted by Deaf Participants in Sri Lanka, with subjects ranging from budget literacy to investigative journalism to gender equality.

Demsoc, through the Open Government Network for Europe (OGNfE), is also committed to growing the number of individuals and organisations interested in open government and improving the quality and effectiveness of conversations being had.

The core principles of the Open Government Network for Europe are:

  • Bringing together guides and practitioners.
  • Creating open safe spaces for discussion.
  • Encouraging peer learning, joining and federating ideas and initiatives
  • Starting in Brussels but expanding, creating a centrally facilitated community owned and driven by members.
  • Creating a neutral space for honest and open conversations.

This year, the OGNfE is focused on helping European Union institutions, particularly the Commission, to become more formally involved with the Open Government Partnership, and to advocate for open government principles. The OGNfE is hoping to open up the European institutions, increasing transparency, accountability and participation; to connect actors in Brussels and beyond together for eventual co-creation of an action plan for open government work in the European Institutions, and to support continuous work on democracy and open government. 

We hope by encouraging the conversation open government in EU institutions, that EU citizens will benefit. By displaying the benefits of all aspects of open government, for both the institutions and their citizens, to even the most adamant of sceptics, we can increase transparency and accountability at EU level – as well as hopefully sparking the development of open policymaking, open data commitments, and other projects. This should in turn increase the number of number and diversity of partners, citizens and organisations involved with open government programmes within the EU. Not only does open policymaking rely on citizen engagement, but if the EU institutions lead from the front and encourage a move towards these practices, nation, regional and local government can follow.

Alongside working directly with European Union institutions, the OGNfE will cultivate a network of citizens, governments and especially civil society organisations, allowing members to link and extend their open government initiatives, to create new projects using the network as a platform, and to move towards a common agenda for the development of open government and citizen participation across Europe. This will be achieved though events such as town halls with political leaders, thematic fireside chats, peer learning opportunities, networking events and in-depth technical workshops, as well as online spaces and dialogues, support and connections.

If you want to get involved in the Open Government Network for Europe, or find out more about the work we are doing you can contact Beth at beth@demsoc.org, visit our website here or find us on twitter @opengoveurope.

You can find out more about Open Government Week 2019, and look back over the activities that took place here or see what else the Open Government Partnership are doing here.

The Greater Manchester Democracy Hub: Helping people connect

Generic image of group of people holding up papers to cast votes.

We recently helped co-host a Greater Manchester Democracy Hub event with The Politics Project. These hubs were started by The Politics Project in London to break down silos and bring together people who are trying to improve democracy from a range of angles. We had a really interesting mix of people take part. You can hear more about what some of these people are working on through the short interviews below that we recorded during the event. Before going any further we’d also like to say a big thank you to The Federation for the use of their fantastic events space. There have now been a number of hubs run between both London and Manchester and so we’re taking the chance to review how well these are working for people. Details of how to share your views on this are below.

The Presentations

We started off the evening with a handful of presentations about projects happening in the local area. Helen Pidd gave a compelling presentation on her Walkride GM campaign which was started after a spate of muggings of cyclists along the Fallowfield Loop late last year. With a new transport infrastructure budget in the pipeline, her campaign is all the more important for making sure the voices of pedestrians and cyclists are heard alike.

We also had pitches by Katie Finney from Jam and Justice who is working with Demsoc currently on the Space in Common project which is concerned with planning in Greater Manchester. Moreover, Nicola Waterworth from Happen Together discussed their exciting projects for International Women’s Day. And we also heard from Hattie who discussed The Politics Project’s collaboration with the People’s History Museum for Peterloo commemorations in 2019.

Discussions on Collaboration

Group of participants around table discuss collaboration
One of the groups discussing collaboration.

Following this there was a chance for people to talk to each about the theme of ‘collaboration’ – including what they are looking for from collaborations, and what makes a good collaboration work. This sparked lively discussions about the benefits and challenges of collaboration. For example, one group emphasised the importance of a shared goal for harmonious collaboration but highlighted the drawback of competition for funding between organisations.

Interviews

During the event I interviewed four hub attendees on why they decided to come to the event, what projects they are working on, what has been successful so far, and lastly how their projects can be followed on social media which I’ve compiled into a short podcast.

During the event I interviewed:

  • Dr Andy Mycock from Huddersfield University about his ‘Voting Age Project’ research project which brings together past and present arguments for lowering the voting age to 16. Follow on Twitter @andymycock1
  • Eve Holt who is a Labour councillor and cofounder of Happen Together CIC which encompasses many campaigns addressing a range of issues including #DivaManc which focuses on encouraging gender balance in Greater Manchester leadership. Follow on Twitter @evefrancisholt.
  • Gary Hart who works for the Houses of Parliament as a Senior Education and Engagement Officer. Follow UK parliament on Twitter @YourUKParl  and get involved.
  • Alice Toomer McAlpine, a member of the Jam and Justice action research project which aims to bring new voices into decision-making in Greater Manchester; and the Meteor, an independent alternative media outlet in Manchester Follow on Twitter @JamandJustice and @mcrmeteor.

There have now been a number of hubs run between both London and Manchester and so along with The Politics Project we’re taking the chance to review how well these are working for people. Are these a good way of helping people connect up? Is there something else that would be more useful, like a shared events calendar, an online directory of local groups and individuals working on democracy, or a mailing list about local activities. If you have views about what would be most helpful for you, and what you’d like to get involved with, please get in touch via mat@demsoc.org

Antwerp’s consensus-based Participatory Budget

Introduction

As part of our work developing the use of digital participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland, Demsoc is showcasing innovative approaches to Participatory Budgeting, particularly where people use digital tools as part of their PB process. Antwerp is doing amazing things, using small, face-to-face group discussions to create consensus. But they have also experimented by using digital tools to support their process.

Hanne Bastiaensen was the project lead and key creative force behind Antwerp’s Participatory Budget. When she joined our team at Demsoc, we couldn’t pass up the chance to ask her about what she’s done in Antwerp. Here she tells us how Antwerp’s PB process works, and reflects on Antwerp’s experiment with digital deliberation, including how they’ve harnessed digital tools to draw people in to their consensus-based process. This post follows up a shorter audio interview with Hanne.

A head and shoulders photo of Hanne
Hanne Bastiaensen

Interview

Why did the city start using PB and what were the aims of the process?

At the start of the process, there were five important objectives:

1. Citizens develop mutual understanding of each other’s needs. We assume that different people have different needs. One of the objectives is that people understand what the needs of the others are and can take this into account. This means that people have to talk to each other. The process itself is therefore important.

2. The district apportions its resources in a participative way. As a principle, it is important that citizens get a say in how the funds are spent.

3. The district uses its resources as efficiently as possible. Citizens have a very good knowledge of the local needs in a neighborhood. We therefore assume that if citizens spend part of the resources themselves funds will be spent more efficiently.

4. Creating support for the spending of resources. In the PB, participants must determine priorities with limited resources. Besides, they get an idea of ​​the cost of different choices. This objective starts from the idea that if people have to make their own choices with a limited budget, they will understand that policy makers also have to do this. In this way, there is support for the choices made by local government.

5. Increased satisfaction with participation. In the past there was sometimes disappointment about forms of participation, where it was unclear whether something had happened with the input of the participants. When participants are given a clear decision-making power on the spending of resources, in a transparent manner, satisfaction about participation will increase.

How does the process work?

The PB of the district of Antwerp has different phases. In a first phase – called ‘start meetings’ – the participants choose which themes they consider important for the district. In a second phase – the district forum – they distribute €1.1 million on the most popular themes. In a third phase, residents can submit projects for the actual spending of this budget. It is also the residents who subsequently determine which projects are being carried out effectively.  

  1. Start meetings
  • Participants decide which themes they consider most important for the entire district.
  • Each table of 6 participants selects 5 themes from 93 themes by consensus.
  • The 12 most chosen themes advance to the district forum.

The goal of these start meetings is that each table of 6 participants reaches consensus on the choice of 5 themes that they consider important. At these start meetings, participants start from what they find important and what they want to focus on the following year. Each participant goes briefly through the points that are important to him or her. Afterwards, participants are asked to select a maximum of 10 ideas that everyone around the table can agree about. In this first round of discussions, it becomes clear where possible agreements lie and where the participants should seek consensus.

In the final round of the start meeting, participants must think more strategically. Participants get the option to choose 5 themes per table. They choose these themes from a set of 93 themes that together include all the competences that the district has. These themes are abstract enough that participants are not arguing for concrete projects on their doorstep; but concrete enough to really mean something. For instance, the theme ‘green issues’ would be too general. Instead, within this policy domain you can opt for ‘pop-up parks’, ‘more trees in streets’, ‘better maintenance of parks’, and so on.

At the start meetings, priorities have to be determined. More investment in youth work? Or in better cycle paths? To be able to make this choice, participants get as much information as possible – to help them make decisions. Not only do they get – in general terms – the budget as it looks without the 10% that will be determined by the PB. They also receive the costs involved in each theme. Each theme has a card with the price on the back. In this way, the participants learn how much a tree in the street costs (including working on the pavement), or they learn that the renewal of the pavement costs €120 per metre.

2. The Forum

  • Each table of 8 participants distributes €1 million by consensus
  • The money is divided among the 12 most popular themes from the start meetings
  • The final result is arrived at by averaging across all tables

In the second big step, the forum, participants can distribute 1.4 million euros over the 12 most chosen themes from the start meetings. Each group of 8 participants can distribute circa €1 million by consensus. In this stage, too, discussion and argumentation is important. To distribute this money, they have to work together and convince each other. The distribution of this money happens in game form. Each participant at the table receives 12 poker chips in his own colour, each worth €10,000. The 12 themes chosen during the start meetings are on the table for the players. Each participant may use their poker chips on the themes they want to invest in. But there are two important rules. A theme is only valid if at least four different participants put some of their money on this theme. Moreover, the money is also only allocated to a theme if at least €60,000 is given to it. In this way, the participants are encouraged to work together and provide arguments to focus on a theme.

Different coloured poker chips placed in a grid representing different themes
Poker chips used to vote for different themes. Image from Antwerp council’s website

The amount applied to a theme not only depends on where the priorities of the participants lie, but also on how much it costs to achieve something meaningful under this theme. Good information is crucial here. Participants receive not only extensive information about what a theme costs but also, for the 12 remaining themes, they receive the budget as planned, including all projects that are already planned. In this way, participants can estimate how much is desirable to additionally invest in that theme. The result of this forum is calculated by averaging across all the tables that participated. In this way, 12 concrete themes will receive money.

3. Ideation

  • People and organizations can submit projects within the chosen themes and budgets
  • The projects are tested for feasibility

In the third stage of the PB process, residents of the district of Antwerp have the opportunity to submit projects within the themes and budgets defined in the previous rounds. All residents of the district can submit projects. The proposers link their project to a theme that has been given money at the district forum.

In addition to submitting on this online platform, project labs are organised. In these project labs people come together who want to work together on ideas. There are people with an idea who need help with the development of the idea, and there are people who would like to help reflect on the idea of ​​others.

Both online and offline, people have to answer seven questions about their project. In addition to what the project entails, these cover added value, pitfalls, and a step-by-step plan. In addition, proposers must decide whether the project is being carried out by the district or whether they will carry out the project themselves.

Later, all submitted projects are tested for feasibility. This mainly concerns whether projects are within the district authority, whether they fit the theme and whether the total budget allocated to a theme is not exceeded by the project.

4. PB festival

  • Residents of the district of Antwerp decide which projects are carried out

The final step of the PB process is  the PB Festival. In this step, participants choose which submitted projects are executed with the available resources of €1.1 million. Every project has a realistic budget. Residents in small groups discuss the projects. Each table selects what they think are the five most valuable projects per theme. Afterwards, all selected projects are presented per table. The project that is at the top of the ranking within a theme – once the votes of all tables have been recorded – is selected to be carried out. Participants choose projects within a theme until the money allocated to this theme runs out.

All projects are carried out within the timeframe of one year. Meanwhile, the new cycle is being started for the next edition of the PB process.

Impacts

What has the process been able to achieve?

One of its main achievements has been to bring diverse people together to talk about the future of their city. The offline discussions encourage people to listen to each other and reach consensus, and it’s great to see really different people deliberating together at a table. As we’ve gone along, we’ve monitored who has taken part with the help of a local university. Where we’ve found sectors of the population who are missing we’ve specifically targeted these people, collaborating with groups who work with these residents to get them involved. After five years our participants were as diverse as the city itself.  We get about 1,200 to 1,500 people taking part in these offline events, out of a population of about 500,000.

Experimenting with digital deliberation

You experimented with digital deliberation within the PB process. How did this process of online deliberation fit in to the wider process? What did it involve?

There were online discussion groups. People could discuss the different themes in discussion groups of 30 to 40 people for two weeks. Together they could argue why they considered a theme important or not important to put money on. Participants could respond to other arguments or provide new arguments.

After two weeks of discussion, the participants were presented with the most discussed themes per discussion group. Then they could vote by indicating their top 5. Just like on the offline tables, the online discussion groups were able to give 5 themes 1 vote. Each online discussion group therefore had as much say as an offline table.

Why did you decide to do this?

On the one hand, we wanted an online version for people who could not easily make time when there were face-to-face meetings. Even though we planned the various meetings – on week-day evenings during the week, during the day, during the week and during the weekend – it is not easy for everyone to make a lot of time for this. On the other hand, we wanted to preserve the deliberative character of the Antwerp PB. That is why we looked for a way in which we could keep the deliberative character online. Working with discussion groups was therefore a logical choice.

What kind of things did you have to think about to make this work?

There are few examples of online deliberative processes. So we had to start from scratch. Moreover, we wanted to preserve the character of the PB process. This means that it must be decisive and in some way compatible with the offline participation process. So we had to think about how we could count the results of the online process with the offline process.

Furthermore, we had to think about the deliberative nature. With how much people do you have to be in a discussion group to keep a group alive? How can we ensure that people enter into debate with each other? How does moderation work? How can we encourage people to return more than once, to see how the debate is proceeding? How do we make this online process transparent? How can we give enough explanation about the PB process without people having to read many pages of text?

What happened in practice?

About 100 people signed up every year to take part  in the online start meetings. The course of the discussions went reasonably well. We did see, however, that it took a lot of effort to ensure that people really started to discuss. We had to send an email regularly with an encouragement to make people look at the platform again. There was also a fear of being the first to post something. Here too, encouragement was needed. The quality of the discussions was ok, but not fantastic. Many people gave their opinion, but it was more difficult to let people react to each other’s arguments. In general, we can say that it went ok, but did not have the quality of the discussions offline.

Why did you stop using this online process?

We did not know how to deal with this online process. On the one hand, we felt it was important to have an online process for people who could not come to a face-to-face event. On the other hand, we did not want to advertise too much. We did not want people who would otherwise come in person to instead join online, because the quality of the discussion was so much higher offline. Because we did not want to fully promote this, we decided to stop it. Instead, we started looking at better ways to use online in the process.

Other ways of using digital

So how else have you used digital tools to support the process?

After we stopped using the online deliberation, we started looking into other ways to use online. Instead of trying to translate a good offline process into an online process, we started looking at other objectives. What we still lacked in the process of the PB is a small commitment. People who wanted to participate had to be able to free themselves for hours to discuss with strangers. This is an important barrier. Online is very suitable for a small engagement.

So we created a very simple voting process online. Residents could use this to easily vote for their favourite projects. But these online votes were given only a limited weighting compared to offline votes for determining which projects get funding. Online votes collectively are given a weighting of 20% for deciding what is funded, versus an 80% weighting for offline votes.

The idea was to give people an easy way into the process, but use this to push people towards in-depth discussion offline. In this way, the online voting process was designed as a stepping stone for offline participation. And it worked. After the introduction of online voting, we saw that the number of new participants in the offline PB events had increased.

Of course we also used online tools in various other aspects of the process. For the promotion of the PB we used digital newsletters, but we also had a website and used Facebook ads. Participants could also register online for the different stages of the process. For communication about the results, the chosen projects, the implementation of these projects, etc, people can go to the website, and read digital newsletters.

Finally, the projects and ideas are presented on a specially designed platform. During the ideation process, people can see which projects have already been submitted and respond to them.

Were there any challenges you’ve had to overcome to use tools in this way?

A first important challenge when using online tools is always the same: how do you involve people who are not so digitally educated? In Antwerp, for every online step there is an offline alternative or people can get help. So people can also call to sign up, they can come over to insert their idea on the platform, …

There is also the challenge: How do you ensure that you get sufficient control over who participates and how do you take into account privacy and sensitivity to fraud without making the process so heavy or inaccessible that people drop out? This is a challenge for every online voting process. On a case-by-case basis, it must be considered what the possible risks are and how best to tackle them.

Are there other ways of using digital tools you’d have liked to explore?

There are many inspiring examples from abroad that are interesting. The one that attracts me the most is the interesting ways to map realized projects. Over the years many hundreds of projects have been realized with the PB. It would be nice to have an overview of all projects that have already been realized in a clear way, such as an interactive map, where you can follow the implementation. For example, you should be able to follow the status of each project, and when there are interesting events of a project, important milestones… When people are very strongly involved in the execution of the projects, it will keep the process alive. Moreover, the realized projects give a nice overview of what is possible and this is in itself a promotion to take part in the participation process.

If you’d like to know more about this topic you can contact Hanne on Hanne@demsoc.org or to find out more about our work on digital PB in Scotland you can get in touch with us on: scotland@demsoc.org

Participatory Budgeting podcast: balancing online and offline voting in Antwerp

As part of our work developing the use of digital participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland, Demsoc is shining a light on some of the innovative ways other people across the world use digital PB. We recently shared a blog post about digital PB in New York City. This time we’re doing things a little differently and have an interview with Hanne Bastiaensen about her work on Antwerp’s Participatory Budget.

What’s interesting about Antwerp’s PB?

A lot. Antwerp’s Participatory Budget is built around offline discussions in which members of the public have to reach consensus to make their voice count. Over time they’ve carefully monitored who they are reaching, and used targeted activities to include those who are missing.

Last year, they took the step of including an option to cast a vote online. This addition is designed to be as straightforward as possible. The idea is that it gives people an easy way to get involved and find out more, and hopefully from here they’ll go on to take part in the offline consensus-building events. The online vote is given only a 20% weighting against an 80% weighting for votes cast collectively through offline events to push people towards these discussions. And it’s worked – the addition of this step has brought new people along to offline events where they sit down with their neighbours and trash out what projects should be prioritised in their city.

How was Hanne involved?

Hanne was project lead for Antwerp’s PB process, from first designing the process in 2013 to delivering it for the next four and half years. Last year she joined our team at Demsoc and is now the Country Manager for Belgium and The Netherlands. Annie Cook has taken the opportunity to ask her a bit more about Antwerp’s process and how a digital vote was used within this.

What’s in the interview?

The first part of this short interview focuses on how Antwerp’s process works, before looking at the addition of an online vote in the second half. With the interview carried out over the internet between Scotland and Belgium the quality has suffered in a few places, but there’s some great insight nonetheless.

Minister for Housing Launches Our New Report on Empowering Tenants

The report aims to inspire housing providers about new ways of engaging with their tenants and giving them greater control over the places they live. The report was commissioned by Wheatley Group, Scotland’s largest provider of social housing, and was delivered with practical support from the Chartered Institute of Housing. We hope its findings are also of relevance beyond the housing sector.

To create this report we investigated innovative practice from other sectors, and from around the world, that could inspire the housing sector. We also conducted interviews and focus groups with staff across Wheatley Group and a variety of customers. This approach helped us create a number of initial ideas that were presented and discussed at a conference that brought together international experts on participation and engagement alongside housing sector staff and customers. A synthesis session with senior staff from Wheatley Group and a series of workshops were also used to explore these ideas further. We are enormously grateful to the panel of experts who took part in the conference and to the many staff and customers of Wheatley Group whose insight this work is built on.

The report looks at new ways of working together and news channels for being heard,  illustrated by examples drawn from around the world. The final chapter looks at what is needed to develop and sustain innovative approaches within organisations in this sector. You can read the full report here.

Keven Stewart, MSP, the Scottish Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning attended the launch of the report in Glasgow and has contributed a foreword to the report stating:

“What comes across loud and clear in this report is that engagement must be genuine. True engagement is not just about solving issues for people but about working collaboratively with people to deliver change. This is what the report describes as moving from consultation to cocreation. It points to fresh approaches, tools and techniques with examples given from across the world.

I therefore welcome this research and thank Wheatley and CIH for commissioning it, and the Democratic Society for carrying it out.

I hope it will stimulate discussion and re-energise thinking on how we engage with people. The examples discussed in the report expand the choices that housing professionals have and offer useful tools to support more effective engagement that builds on existing work.”

If you’d like to know more about this report, or talk to us about engagement and participation in the housing sector please contact Michelle on michelle@demsoc.org

A note about Peterloo

A little intro

Tonight we’re holding a special screening of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo at Cameo in Edinburgh. It’s nearly 200 years since a peaceful pro-democracy rally at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester turned into a bloody massacre, but the events that led up to this atrocity still have significance today.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/demsoc-film-screening-peterloo-tickets-52349684315

I’ll be reflecting a bit more about the film after tonight’s screening, but for now I just wanted to explain a bit about why we’re doing this and what it means to us.

Why are we doing this now?

  • The Peterloo massacre happened on 16th August, 1819 and this year marks the events 200 year anniversary.
  • Peterloo was influential for working class men winning the right to vote, it also led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from which grew the Trade Unions.
  • Almost 100 years later, in 1918, all men and women over 30 were enfranchised
  • A further hundred years later, today, in 2019, in Scotland the voting age was reduced to 16 year olds for the referendum on independence but not for other elections – there are still some in-balances when it comes to voting across a nation (whatever we might be voting for).
  • 2019 marks further steps to open government programmes such as participatory budgeting and widening participation and decision making to citizens

Why are we, at Demsoc, doing this?

  • We are working for greater participation and dialogue in democracy – and Peterloo tells a story of our engagement in the decisions that affect us!
  • Peterloo highlights some of the issues of the time that can still be reflected on today – or are directly relevant – such as inequality, community spirit, representation.
  • Peterloo, itself is an artistic and somewhat more engaging and provocative medium of getting people to think about politics rather than relying on the written word. It’s the sort of thing we’d like to do more!

Why is it important to people now?

  • There is an increasing sense of loneliness and isolation (over 9 million people in the UK say they’re often or always lonely). This has a detrimental impact on individual health and wellbeing and community connectivity and public services.
  • While there is a debate about how technology and social media may affect social isolation, it can also be transformative for how we can engage with politics. (As work like Digital Participatory Budgeting proves.)
  • We may all have the vote now, but we also know that not everyone feels the same way about voting. There’s a sense of apathy for some about voting – and going back to the struggle for suffrage is one way to explore that.

What do we want to get out of this?

  • We want to highlight this important historical event on the year of its anniversary so we can remember those who protested, fought and died for the suffrage rights we have today.
  • We want people to reflect on some of these issues and actively get in touch with us whether that be a comment, idea or question to discuss some of Peterloo’s themes that affect us today.

After the screening we’ll want to chat about what the film meant for people so here are some questions I’ve got in my mind for that!

Questions for you to reflect on

  • Do you think film and other creative outlets are a good way to get people engaged in politics and reform?
  • What do you think would help bring people together in your community?
  • Do you think we should be bringing to light more political historic events?

We will be posting a fuller blog piece on this after the film screening, in the meantime tweet us with your thoughts, ideas and questions @DemsocScotland

#FSF2019 #communityspirit #suffrage #equality

Participatory Budgeting in Musselburgh: Your Voice Your Choice 2

In our first ever podcast, Annie Cook of The Democratic Society talks to Iain Clark of the Musselburgh Area Partnership about Your Voice Your Choice 2. The Musselburgh Area Partnership is one of the recipients of Community Choices funding – supported by the Scottish Government to do participatory budgeting and digital participatory budgeting. 

This is the first in a series of podcasts we’ll be doing about participatory budgeting – as part of our work supporting digital PB in Scotland.

You can find out more about participatory budgeting in Scotland over at the brilliant PBScotland website – and you can check out more that we’re doing here.

PB in NYC: How online & offline can work together in New York

This post is the first of many…

As part of our work developing the use of digital participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland, Demsoc is shining a light on some of the innovative ways other people across the world use digital PB. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts on different examples that illustrate different aspects of how digital and PB work together. We’ll be cross publishing these posts – on the PB Scotland website and on our own blog. This week we start by looking at PB in New York City (NYC).

Why would you read this post?

This is about how NYC has included digital channels within its existing, and growing, participatory budget. If you’re thinking about how to use digital tools to expand and strengthen PB, then this large-scale case shows what can be done. It talks about:

  • How digital participation can make it easier for people to have a say
  • How online and offline channels can be combined to improve inclusion
  • How NYC combines its online idea gathering with an innovative process of community-led review and investigation
  • How open data has helped make the process more transparent

Participatory budgeting in NYC: how did it start?

In 2011, a small number of council members decided to use participatory budgeting to decide how their ‘discretionary’ funds could be used. Since then, PB has grown quickly in New York City. While it’s the second oldest use of PB in the USA it’s by far the largest, with it affecting the lives of four million residents. After the success of a public ballot in 2018, it is now set to be taken citywide.

How participatory budgeting works in NYC

PB in New York is about people sharing ideas for what should be funded, deliberating about them, and voting for their favourites. Each district that’s involved pledges at least $1 million dollars to be decided through the process, which has to be spent on physical infrastructure. The video below from the PB Project explains the basics:

Why is New York City using digital PB?

New York City has used online channels to reach a wide audience and make it easy to take part in PB. Each PB process in New York City is called a ‘cycle’. Cycle 6 saw a 45 per cent increase in voters – up from 67,691 in Cycle 5. The city reports that “while paper ballot numbers stayed consistent, our new off-site digital voting accounted for this growth in participation.”

But at the same time they’ve combined this with offline engagement targeted at the hardest to reach – and with a process of offline discussion and research designed to make sure both the process and its results have a positive impact on the community as a whole.

How does NYC combine online and offline activities to make PB a success?

The process in New York meshes online and offline components. The former is used to make involvement easy for large numbers of people, while the latter helps target harder to reach groups and builds citizen-led research about local needs into the heart of the process.

An online idea map

Anyone can submit proposals. A simple online form is used, which asks people to write a few lines under the headings: ‘My project idea is…’ and ‘So that people could…’. Proposers categorise their idea from a short list of headings and plot it on a map of the city. The result is a visually attractive map that uses different logos to show what themes ideas relate to it.

A screenshot showing NYC's online idea map. A map of New York with coloured pins showing different categories of idea.
Screenshot from New York’s online idea map at:
https://shareabouts-pbnyc-2018.herokuapp.com/14/40.74618/-73.97472

Proposers have to give their name to submit an idea, or can sign in through facebook or twitter. Other than this there is nothing further they have to input, some basic demographic information is asked for, but is not required.

Targeted outreach offline

Alongside this simple online form, targeted activities are carried out offline to involve groups of people that NYC identified as underrepresented and gather other ideas. As well as holding public meetings open to all, districts are required to hold meetings targeted at underrepresented community members and to carry out idea collection at public events and spaces where there is a high concentration of underrepresented community members.

Researching impact offline

In the next stage, Local ‘Budget Delegate’ volunteers – chosen at idea-collection events – develop the proposals, investigate them, and shortlist them for the final vote. They work closely with council staff, and are encouraged to carry out research, including site visits and mapping community needs to help them. The delegates use a matrix to assess feasibility, need and equity of each proposal.

As well as managing down the number of proposals, this stage establishes a greater understanding of local needs and builds the skills and confidence of the volunteers themselves. Significantly, council staff and communities are able to work together productively. And, because the matrix is shared by PBNYC (as a PDF, is on this public Dropbox) along with guides to using the city’s open data and accessing other information sources) it can help to encourage proposers to think more critically about their suggestions from the start.

Opening up voting online and offline

Online voting is made possible through an online platform. In the last complete cycle (cycle 7) a modified version of the D21 platform was used, allowing five positive votes. New York City has a network of ‘Link’ kiosks that provide public wifi, phone charging and calls. These have been used as another way people can vote, as well as providing digital billboards to advertise the process.

Offline, voting is made available in places with high concentrations of underrepresented groups, including the use of ‘pop-up’ voting at subway stations and other busy places. Districts have also used Project Expos with stalls about each proposal where residents can find out more and cast their vote (such as this example from District 39). In cycle 7, 30% of people voted online and 70% offline.

Automated vote counting has been introduced, allowing a dramatic increase in the speed of counting paper ballots, and a quicker announcement of the result.

Council members, community groups and New York Council all use social media to promote ways of voting online and offline during the week of the vote under the hashtag #pbnyc.

A screenshot of a tweet from a council member. The tweet embeds a brightly coloured poster with an image of the council member and the dates of the vote week.
Screenshot of a council member’s tweet about the PB vote:
https://twitter.com/NYCSpeakerCoJo/status/984503920230727680

Building Transparency Online

Finally online tools have a key role to play in making the process more transparent. The results of votes since cycle 4 are available on the council’s PB webpage. So too is the rulebook for the process, which includes a clear statement of the aims and values of the PB process.

Monitoring implementation is a key part of PB. For the New York process there is a tailor-made site that allows you to explore what has happened to projects since they were chosen. This is not a council site but is run by The PB Project, the non-profit organisation which was a key architect of the NY PB process. The site allows users to view successful proposals on a map, easily see their stage of completion, and filter them by which council department is responsible for their implementation. This is made possible using open data about the process shared on the council’s open data portal. At time of writing, the last set of PB results uploaded here was for 2017. Updates on project implementation are also delivered offline during idea collection events each year.

Screenshot of a webpage showing a map of NY with projects plotted on it using different symbols to show their stage in the process. On the left is are categories that can be used to filter the projects displayed.
Screenshot from The PB Project’s myPB site at:
https://mypb.community/project

What makes digital PB in New York special?

Online platforms can make it easier for more people to take part in processes. The experience of New York shows that this needn’t mean sacrificing targeted offline activities. Instead offline and online can complement each other, with online platforms bringing people into forms of involvement that can make a real difference to the people who take part and the communities they live in.

Evaluating the European Citizens’ Consultations

The Democratic Society and European Policy Centre recently published a report evaluating the European Citizens’ Consultations process.

The report includes contributions from members of the European Citizens’ Consultations Civil Society Network that was established in March 2018 to monitor the process and make recommendations for future pan-European consultation processes.

“Rethinking the manner in which we do democracy and finding 21st century appropriate ways to translate our democratic goals into practice is likely to be a long and hard struggle. But it has to begin somewhere, and the ECCs are a good place to start.”

The European Citizens’ Consultations (ECCs) were a project aiming to improve the quality of democracy at the EU level.  They were formed of two strands:

Our evaluation report presents the results of the research and analysis carried out by the Network over the past seven months, as well as a number of recommendations for how to capitalise on the current round of ECCs and how to improve the way they could be executed in the future. 

Three major themes became clear in the reports recommendations: 

  • Communication is key. There needs to be greater clarity around projects of this nature, both in the process and the aims and outcomes. There needs to be strong advertisement of the process as it cannot fulfill its potential if there is low public awareness.
  • There must be a balance between focusing on national issues and EU level issues, to properly inform and engage citizens.
  • It’s important to follow up on the process. Suggestions included pushing for public synthesis of results and an additional Citizens’ Panel to properly complete the process.

We intend to continue conversations about the learning from the European Citizens’ Consultations in 2019 and to use this experience as a starting point for further discussion about increasing citizen participation, and encouraging a culture of openness in and around the European institutions and at the national level in member states. 

Find the full report, executive summary and infographics here: http://www.epc.eu/pub_details.php?cat_id=1&pub_id=8839 

Read more about Demsoc’s involvement in this project here: https://www.demsoc.org/projects/ecc/ 

If you have any questions or want more information about this report, please contact Beth Wiltshire (European Programmes Officer) at beth@demsoc.org