Civic Tech Participatory Budgeting Participatory Democracy



Last week the Ash Institute For Democratic Governance and Innovation published Civicist contributor Hollie Russon Gilman’s first book, Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America. What follows is a short Q&A with Gilman about her new book and what the future may hold for participatory budgeting and other civic technology trends.

Civicist: First of all, participatory budgeting is relatively new to the U.S. Although it started in Brazil in 1989, it wasn’t practiced in the U.S. until 2009, and is still quite rare. How is participatory budgeting different in the United States than in other countries?

Hollie Russon Gilman: That’s a great question. Participatory Budgeting (PB) in the United States has so far been working through existing political structures. In some places PB becomes its own structure alongside traditional bureaucracy. The U.S. process has often been implemented on the district level with elected leaders who have capital funds—things that can fund bricks and mortar. In other places, PB funds sometimes come from a centralized pot and are not always limited to capital funds. The amount of money being put into the process in some places is much higher. For example Paris is putting 426 million euros into the process over a six-year period.

Is there a canonical definition of participatory budgeting?

While there are numerous exact definitions of PB, some that are more or less binding, for the tenets of the book I define PB as: (1) a replicable decision-making process whereby citizens, (2) deliberate publicly over the distribution of, (3) limited public resources, arriving at decisions which are then implemented.

The New York Times has called participatory budgeting “revolutionary civics.” How “revolutionary” is it, really?

I think its revolutionary in so far as it is simply about empowering citizens to make governance decisions. In theory, this is not revolutionary at all! But our politics have become so partisan and contested; the very concept of bringing diverse people together has started to seem revolutionary. Perhaps, the most revolutionary aspect is that PB is simply returning politics to a more localized ideal.

The book includes several in-depth case studies; which did you find to be the most interesting or surprising?

Time and time again I saw people who became involved from initial curiosity, or even skepticism, become deeply engaged and staying involved over the course of several months. People stayed because they found the process to be fulfilling and they often forged new connections with neighbors, elected officials, and their community. These relationships were profound and often transformative.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing participatory budgeting and other efforts to increase civic engagement?

A process like participatory budgeting requires resources and time to effectively engage people, including from elected officials, civil society leaders, and people. Further, the funds to run process itself can be difficult to fund raise around. The process is very well structured which takes hard work. In New York City, the Participatory Budgeting Project has worked closely with Community Voices Heard, a local membership based organization that focuses on women of color and low-income families, to support and expand the process.

What are some of the key policy recommendations you make to encourage these kinds of participatory practices?

I have worked with some government officials who are excited to engage citizens in decision making but are also concerned about how to manage the floodgates of citizen input. There is a general concern that in an environment where people are already overworked and understaffed that engaging people without adequate staffing capacity will lead to deleterious results. One potential recommendation is to work closely with allies and strategic partners, including foundations, civil society, and universities, who can lend additional capacity. Another recommendation is to create processes that are fully transparent from the onset. This can help manage participants’ expectations throughout. People understand that some public sector employees have limited capacity; explaining a process to people, including its limitations, can go a long way.

What should we be looking for in the next few years? What’s the next big participatory thing, do you think? What, if anything, should we be wary of?

We will continue to see experiments combining online and offline tools. I think this can offer many exciting opportunities for reducing barriers to entry and engaging previously marginalized residents. As we often talk about with technology, it can be used to strengthen and support participation but we also need to ensure that it supplements, not entirely replaces, face-to-face participation. As further digital tools are integrated into participatory mechanisms, questions surrounding access, equity, privacy, and digital literacy will be front and center.

Can you elaborate on how PB is incorporating online tools?

In 2015 New York’s PB used electronic ballot counting and a partnership with Textizen, which started as a Code for America project. The City Council has created a web-based mapping tool for gathering crowdsourced public input for project submissions. The geo-targeted maps enable people to drop a pin on a map and provide ideas, suggestions, and comments. The maps are powered by OpenPlans open source technology. As covered by Jessica McKenzie on Civicist, in the 2015 PB vote, New York City employed a digital ballot experiment with both iPads for mobile kiosks and computers for in-person voting. They partnered with Stanford University’s Crowdsourced Democracy Team and Democracy 2.1 to test alternative ways of voting with the goal to make voting “as easy an ATM.” For 2016, New York’s PB is slated to conduct the first-ever remote online voting with an integrated online/offline ballot.

This reflects the push throughout global deployments of PB to use more digital interfaces and explore the opportunity for SMS to reach non-traditional participants. The first use of SMS was in 2004 in Ipatinga, Brazil. A World Bank pilot in the city of Jarabacoa, in the Dominican Republic, used SMS to encourage face-to-face participation, using a message targeted specifically at women. As Rafael Cardoso Sampaio and Tiago Peixoto note in Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory Budgeting Worldwide, “online voting can be seen as the gateway for politically inactive or less active citizens. The fact that online participation is generally more affordable can certainly be an extra attraction.”

I am optimistic for the opportunity to leverage civic tech combined a place-based local approach to engage citizens.

Civic Engagement Democracy Participatory Democracy



The People’s Lobby is run entirely online using the digital tools NationBuilder and Loomio.

  • Last month, the City Council in Provo, Utah, voted unanimously to continue the Provo People’s Lobby, an experimental process in participatory democracy in which city residents collaborate online on a policy recommendation that is then submitted to the City Council for consideration and possible implementation. The process, which I first wrote about in March for techPresident, is run entirely online using NationBuilder and Loomio.

    Participants in Provo’s first People’s Lobby were selected at random from a pool of approximately 75 people who submitted or voted on the “pressing issues” they want addressed in their city. Invitations were sent to one person from each of the 25 neighborhoods represented in that pool; ultimately 14 residents participated in the deliberations on the decision-making platform Loomio. Their efforts were guided with minimal moderation from People’s Lobby creator Jeff Swift, Loomio consultant MJ Kaplan, and two political science students at Brigham Young University.

    Recruitment, Swift and his fellow moderators write in a report on the Provo People’s Lobby, required a lot of “handholding” via email and phone calls to get people on board:

    Future efforts will benefit from seeing the results of the first, and we have learned what information is important to transmit at this stage to ensure that participants will understand what they are signing up for and be ready to participate. We also anticipate that there will be a certain level of drop off no matter what we do, and this is acceptable. We are recruiting a small jury of residents and do not need a fully representative body in order for the Lobby to work as designed.


    Passing the deadline extension on Loomio. (Screenshot courtesy of the Provo People's Lobby)

    Passing the deadline extension on Loomio. (Screenshot courtesy of the Provo People’s Lobby)

    Originally slated to last two weeks, the process had to be extended to four because both stages took longer than Swift anticipated. First, participants were provided with the list of pressing issues collected in the month prior and instructed to choose an area to focus on; then, they deliberated over the specific recommendations they wanted to make to the Council.

    “They spent almost two weeks picking a topic; [the process was] extended another two weeks for a total of four, and they still barely had time to craft policy recommendations,” Swift tells Civicist. “It was at the very end of the second two weeks where they were able to agree on a final proposal.”

    “I think I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to settle on a topic,” Swift adds.

    At the end of the four weeks, after five discussions consisting of 205 comments by the participants, three priorities for supporting agriculture and public green spaces in their community were submitted to the City Council. Jeff Swift says he was at first disappointed in these policy particular recommendations because it turns out that these initiatives were already on the City Council’s agenda in some form.

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    “I would have wanted something exciting,” Swift tells Civicist.


    Comment made during the first Provo People's Lobby. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Comment made during the first Provo People’s Lobby. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)

    But that’s the inherent danger in creating democratic processes: making space for people to push for initiatives one thinks are unnecessary (one of the original suggestions submitted by the public in the earliest stage of the Lobby asked for a big box store in Provo, a proposal Swift was relieved they didn’t pursue) or flat out disagree with. “I have political opinions and there’s a good chance that the People’s Lobby will go in the other direction [in future iterations], and that’s ok,” Swift says.

    What the results do show, Swift points out, is that either the City Council is acting on their agricultural agenda but not sharing their progress with the community, or that they have stalled on their work in that area. Hal Miller, a Councilman and the liaison with the Lobby, tells Civicist that the results were received as a sort of “endorsement” of the work of the Council, and that these items have been pushed higher on the Council’s agenda.

    Swift says he is working on changing the mechanisms of the Lobby to prevent this kind of redundancy in the future. It is one of many small changes Swift will make after the People’s Lobby inaugural run. To start, the process will be allotted more time from the beginning.


    Not every resident will have deep knowledge of all or even most issues the Lobby might tackle. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Not every resident will have deep knowledge of all or even most issues the Lobby might tackle. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)

    Then, he will also increase the guidance by the moderators. Swift’s instinct was for them to be as hands off as possible, but that ultimately led to a handful of voices—many of which belonged to current or potential political actors in the community—essentially intimidating less politically experienced participants out of the process. One way Swift hopes they can change this is by beginning the Lobby by meeting—again, still entirely online—in small groups where people are hopefully more likely to feel comfortable voicing their opinions. The small groups will then take their ideas to the others.

    “We’re going to be more conscious about keeping the conversation moving forward,” Swift says.

    Although the numbers in the report on the Provo People’s Lobby are low, Hal Miller and Jeff Swift are both optimistic. Miller points out that Utah, and Provo in particular, suffers from low voter turnout. While a process like the People’s Lobby has the potential to increase civic engagement, it also means there is a steep learning curve as residents find out what it means to be civically engaged.


    Voting on proposals. (Screenshots courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Voting on proposals. (Screenshots courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)


    “It exceeded my expectations,” Miller tells Civicist. “I thought there would be more difficulty composing the lobby, more difficulty to bring them together in an ongoing way, and that it would prove difficult to harness the respective energies of the members of the lobby given that it included members who are well known for their activism.”

    Swift and the other moderators were pleased with the results considering how foreign an idea the Lobby is:

    Considering three facts, this level of engagement was heartening. First, this was the very first time anyone in the world had tried this process. It was frankly a bit confusing to understand and we have gotten better about explaining it. Second, we started with an email list of zero people and grew our list to 90 people. This foundation will magnify our efforts for future efforts. And finally, that marketing was limited to Karen Tapahe’s [Community Relations Coordinator for the City Council] tireless promotion on Facebook and to PR channels. In the future the People’s Lobby team will do more marketing and promotion to get the word out.

    A second experimental round of Provo People’s Lobby will begin in September. After that, the Council will have to decide whether to incorporate the process into their budget. The cost of the first two rounds were covered by an anonymous donation.