“…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln
When Abraham Lincoln spoke about the relationship between people and their government, he most probably could not have envisioned the way technology would evolve such that those words ring truer than ever today. The involvement of Twitter and Facebook in the Arab Spring might come to mind most quickly as an example of people using technology to affect change in government. In class we focused on another side of this relationship: government using technology to engage citizens in affecting change.
Smart Participation: Today many people have more access at lower cost to government decisions and the ability to provide feedback before decisions are finalized. This plethora of information is prompting new methods for data visualization so that citizens can develop a better understanding of their cities and government. Moreover, tools for increased communication are fostering dialog and community building. Examples of technology increasing participation can be seen in newspapers that publish in blog format to reduce cost and expand readership. Citizens can now help map their cities and enjoy locative media.
Crowd-Sourced City: SeeClickFix is a good example of civic engagement towards a crowd-sourced city where all citizens can improve their city. SeeClickFix is a technology with a focus on transparency, collaboration, and efficiency that lets citizens report issues in their community via platforms such as the web, sms, mobile apps, and Facebook. Founded in New Haven, CT, SeeClickFix is now used by 70 city governments. SeeClickFix tries to address three groups: citizens, government, and media. One potential pitfall with SeeClickFix is that there can be equal weighting as seen by the user between reports of very different severity, e.g., illegal dumping vs. an illegal yard sale. Another concern is that while governments have access to the collective data that citizens gather, the data often is not very accessible to citizens themselves.
“Engagement: Citizens who take the time to report even minor issues and see them fixed are likely to get more engaged in their local communities. It’s called a self-reinforcing loop. This also makes people happy and everyone benefits from that.” –SeeClickFix
Participatory budgeting: Brazil has been at the forefront of participatory budgeting (PB) since the 1990s. In class we specifically examined PB in the city of Belo Horizonte. In 2006, Belo Horizonte engaged citizens in PB allocating $11.25 million for nine of 36 potential projects. The role of technology was unique in this exercise: before this, citizens had to participate in town halls. For this project, citizens could participate electronically by using kiosks around the city. This resulted in 173,000 citizens voting: 10% of the electorate and seven times more than the number of participants in the offline PB process.
Based on the success of the 2006 project, Belo Horizonte conducted an expanded version in 2008 where it used PB to allocate $22.2M for one of 5 projects focused on traffic congestion. Citizens were engaged through videos, mapping, a website and a phone service that included an automated call from the mayor. In this case 124,000 citizens voted. Researchers examined citizens’ dialog on bulletin boards and noted that there was little interaction between comments. Overall, they found that discussions with little control can generate good results.
“[participatory budgeting] has been associated with desirable outcomes, such as reduced tax delinquency, increased transparency and the improved and more innovative delivery of public services”
–Prof. Dr. Enrique Peruzzotti