More Tips for Successful Participatory Budgeting Applications

October 13, 2015 12:00 pm PST | Data as a Service, Public Finance

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.

Last week, we reviewed five tips for building successful participatory budgeting applications. With help from 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 more tips that will help establish guidelines for developers building participatory budgeting applications.

1. Cut the Jargon

When you ask people to examine financial problems, you will probably need to provide some description of the terms involved or the issues at hand. Keep this exposition and interpretation concise and approximate to the data. Minimize jargon and keep your writing short. User experience research has shown that users will simply skip long blocks of text on a webpage. Give context to options with brief explanations in place.

2. Be Inclusive

Participatory budgeting is not exclusively concerned with voters or citizens. Avoid language defining your users as such, and use terms like ‘residents’ or ‘taxpayers’ instead. Government can spend efficiently when programs, facilities, and services are a close fit to community values. Aseem Mulji of the Participatory Budgeting Project spoke to the importance of marginalized groups — youth, immigrants, incarcerated people. Can we reform the prison system if offenders can’t vote? How do we improve education when youth has no political power? Government efficiency depends upon understanding the needs service users.

3. Authentication Is Important — But Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Democratic theorists are quick to point out that any kind of authentication or use of personal devices can’t reach every demographic. Such arguments are often used to discourage online initiatives altogether, quoting a “digital divide’ and implying technology is privilege. Yet true equity of participation by any single method is less likely than every citizen having the same phone. According to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Americans have cell phones, and especially “younger adults, minorities and lower-income Americans” depend upon a smartphone exclusively for Internet access. Consider the fact that voter turnout in the last election was the lowest since World War II and ask yourself if it’s fair not to use digital outreach.

Most of the people I interviewed considered some authentication a good idea and the easiest way to go about it is through mobile devices or online registration. Ari Hoffnung felt allowing users to self describe their identity, perhaps by choosing their neighborhood, would be useful for legislators concerned with the input of their own constituents. However, all were more concerned with having a low barrier than fraud detection or schemes for taxpayer verification. “The risk is low to nonexistent,” Hoffnung commented, adding, “At the end of the day, it’s advisory.”

4. Online/Offline Hybrids Are Really Hot

All of the experts I interviewed had worked in projects that had both online and offline components, and emphasized face-to-face meetings as elemental for democracy. Hoffnung said residents had to be willing to confront their neighbors, not in violent way, but just to say, “Hey, I don’t think we should invest in parks this point.” Technological tools can’t substitute for in-person interaction. Instead, they’re used to capture data, make information more accessible, and transmit results.

Some examples of hybrids: Kevin Amirehsani described an Engaged Public process where users sat at a table in small groups to discuss the issues then entered their responses into a single laptop. Hoffnung suggested attendees at an event could download an app with a code they acquired on-site.

5. Experiment

Participatory budgeting and other online engagement initiatives are in their infancy. Especially in the field of authentication, we need to explore ‘good enough’ solutions to establish community, yet provide valid analytics. Still, there must be a low barrier of entry for participants. Peer verification schemes, self reported identity, and offline integrations are solutions that respect user privacy but give leading information to legislators. The future of feedback features depends upon developers thinking outside the box.

Financial transparency is key for participatory budgeting to succeed. Find out more with our free eBook on financial transparency, which explores some of the challenges governments are tackling with open data.

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