5 Tips for Participatory Budgeting Applications

October 6, 2015 12:00 pm PDT | Data as a Service

Every definition of democracy includes some phrase about government by the people. By those terms, online civic engagement isn’t about people engaging with their government; rather it implies people engaging with each other about governance. It is useful for me to go to a portal and see information from my government about taxes or parks. But some of the most critical and opaque data influencing decisions is public opinion: our tolerance for taxation; our support of greenways. Open data is changing the relationship between government and residents. To affect better democracy, we need applications built on open data that change our relationship to our neighbors and countrymen.

Financial data provides unique opportunities for developers to make applications that capture public opinion. Data about numbers is inherently discrete and therefore more easily parsed for analysis. High profile expenditures are already popular political fodder for the press and the public. Everyone is involved — as surely as death and taxes.

Participatory Budgeting is a national movement aspiring to engage the public in the critical conversation about revenue and spending in government. I spoke with experts to elucidate guidelines for developers building Participatory Budgeting applications. The experts who inspired this article are: Ari Hoffnung and Michael Lu of Socrata; David Beasley and Aseem Mulji of the Participatory Budgeting Project; and Kevin Amirehsani, Engaged Public. Here are five tips drawn from this conversation; stay tuned for an upcoming blog post with five more vital recommendations.

1. Find Local Experts

There are people in every city with deep experience with government, either as advocates, activists, or employees of the system. Attend events or contact active organizations to get the skinny on previous initiatives. Whether these conversations were online or off, experienced observers can give you sophisticated intelligence about the problems your app can solve.

2. Find Your Users

Attend city council meetings, town halls, or spend time on forums or blogs dedicated to the issues you hope to address. One of the basic hurdles in civic engagement is user adoption, and people are more likely to use an application they helped to design. Make your minimum viable product match the concerns of your users and you’ll have a strong base for further development. Design discussions don’t need to be formal. Hanging out over coffee or a beer and showing people napkin sketches is a perfectly reasonable start to a great user experience.

3. Go Beyond Numbers and Spreadsheets

People often better understand numeric data when they discuss it among themselves and read various interpretations. Narrative is important for persuasive impact, and allowing your users to build personal stories can bring a community together by articulating values and priorities beyond the spreadsheets. Make room for free text someplace, even with a short character limit. Numbers are the end result, but decisions are still influenced by comments.

4. Implement Strong Moderation for Valuable Discussions

Time is a critical resource for participants, so constraining comments allows the community to shape the discussion. Typical features that limit debate in offline scenarios can be adapted to online experiences: the three minute time limit for public testimony at a city council meeting might be reinterpreted as a text box with a character limit; allow each participant just one comment or two; if you don’t allow direct replies, you’ll be less likely to see personal conflicts erupt in your comment stream. Many successful online communities have moderators recruited from the community itself. This makes for more flexible, appropriate moderation and helps with the transmission of history over long discussions.

5. Use Several Strategies to Present Financial Data 

Often when asked about budgeting problems, people have an idea of where they would like to see more money spent, but the budget must be balanced. Try to provide experiences that define the limits of resources and capture both high and low priorities. Think of a pie chart with handles to increase or decrease the size of the wedges: This illustrates that money cannot be spent without taking money from another source. People may not agree on their highest priority, but if they all share the same lowest priority it’s one step towards reduced spending! If you choose to have users enter numbers in a box or do computation, have thoughtful validation in place and consider interpreting numbers in multiple formats, such as percentages and actual sums.

Next week, we’ll share five more tips that will help you develop Participatory Budgeting applications — stay tuned! For now, explore our eBook on financial transparency for a look at some of the challenges governments are tackling with open data.

 

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