Participatory budgeting - is civic tech’s role fuelling disillusionment with democracy?

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez March 20, 2019
Panthea Lee, co-founder at Reboot US, provides a fascinating insight into how civic tech can be better used in advancing the role of participatory budgeting.

Panthea Lee, co-founder Reboot US
Panthea Lee, co-founder Reboot US

Participatory budgeting - or PB - has been around for approximately 30 years. It began in Brazil, where following years of military dictatorship, the Workers’ Party sought out mechanisms for redistributive social justice - as a way to reallocate resources to the poor, the marginalised.

The fundamental principles of PB are that it allows citizens input into the purpose of government or city budgets, where they have a say on how the budget is allocated. Citizens work side by side with government on designing projects to allocate the money. And in many places around the world, citizens then also monitor the implementation of these projects.

PB - as highlighted by Panthea Lee, co-founder at Reboot US - has been labelled as a ‘Hope for Democracy’. Speaking at mySociety’s TICTeC conference in Paris this week, Lee provided a fascinating presentation on how PB has developed in recent decades and gave insight into Reboot US’s research on what is working for PB and what isn’t. In recent years, civic tech has played an increased role, by providing turnkey solutions for governments and cities to implement PB programmes (e.g. Consul).

Reboot US sought to find out if PB is living up to its billing as the ‘Hope for Democracy’ and to find out if learnings could be gleaned from PB in different contexts. Lee explained:

“We live in an era where liberal democracy is failing. Where people having growing mistrust of government, of their political institutions, of the political class. And people don’t really know how to engage with government, how to change this. We know we should show up to vote, but we feel that our elected representatives don’t represent our interests.

“So, PB tries to change that. It tries to bring people into the process of government, so that they can input in solving the challenges that are most important to them.”

Lee said that in the last 30 years there have been over 7,000 implementations of PB globally - adding that it has spread faster than liberal democratic regimes themselves, focusing largely on local, bottom-up, civic participation.

However, Lee added that PB is suffering from being a ‘bit of everything to everyone syndrome’. Reboot US looked at four examples of where PB is being used, including:

  • Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, where PB was used at a national level.
  • Madrid, where 100 million Euros is allocated each year to PB and sees 10% participation from citizens in the city.
  • Mexico City where 95% of PB decided projects are actually implemented
  • Seoul - one of the world’s largest PB implementation with a third of the municipal budget allocated


The findings

Less said that on evaluating whether PB is in fact the ‘Hope for Democracy’, it all depends on “what you think the problems of democracy are”.

Reboot US found that what PB is excellent for, is giving citizens a ‘first rate civic education. Lee explained:

“People for a long time, in many countries, have been told that politics and governance is something that they don’t understand, that they can’t participate in it. When people talk about government not working for them, usually they’re just talking about the tip of the iceberg - the programmes that are offered, the services that are offered. What they don’t actually see, or we don’t often talk about, is all the other steps and process for actually determining whether or not the right policies, programmes, or services are implemented.

“What PB does is brings people into this process on how to identify different needs and challenges, how to prioritise and negotiate between them, how to allocate funding, how to design projects. The PB process itself is really fantastic at this.”

And whilst technology was not the focus of Reboot US’s research, the organisation did get notice some interesting results. If you believe that technology lowers the barriers to participation, Lee said, and that by enabling more people to participate, this should, in theory, result in more citizens engaging in the civic and democratic process. A consequence of this, hopefully, is that government is more responsive and accountable to citizens. But was this actually the case? Lee said:

“What we observed doesn’t quite match with the theory. Technology amplifies the needs of those that know how to use technology. We know this. So, with PB we’ve seen different processes that favour the privileged. People with the time, the capacity, the energy, that know how to use the process to achieve their ends. And so one of the observations with Mexico City and why there’s been 95% implementation of winning projects, far higher than many other places, is that the folks that are submitting projects are basically folks embedded in the political structures already.”

On whether more citizens engaged with the civic and democratic processes, Lee noted:

“Well, we see more citizens exercising their civic voice, certainly. But the signals and noise ratio can be overwhelming, to the point where people actually disengage and don’t want to participate anymore. In Madrid, one year there was 200,000 proposals submitted one person said “I’m done, this feels overwhelming, I’m out”.”

And on whether government is more responsive and accountable, she added:

“The challenge is, with these processes, a lot of the times the proposals getting submitted are not actually implementable by government. So it is either: not within that government’s jurisdiction; it does not meet civic codes; it is motivated by racism/xenophobia. So I think a big part missing is thinking about how to integrate these proposals and help government to understand these proposals. How to integrate them into the way government is doing things.”

See this slide below for a comparison between the ‘aspiration’ and the ‘reality’:

A problem

Therefore, Lee concluded, Reboot US noticed that PB, and civic tech, can actually facilitate “democratic disillusionment” by citizens and government. They participate, proposals don’t move forward, governments get overwhelmed, the proposals aren’t useful, etc. She said:

“So while PB can inspire democratic renewal, one of the things that my team found was that civic tech + PB runs the risk of accelerating democratic disillusionment. So, what to do?”

Lee noted a couple of examples where civic tech and PB have been useful and lessons have been learnt. For instance, instead of using civic tech to enable the front end engagement between citizens and government, technology could be used better behind the scenes to get a deeper understanding of citizens’ wants and needs. She explained:

“First thing is to help people, help citizens, find others that share their interest and frustration. And nurture their engagement. The key here being nurture. Civic engagement is not something that happens naturally, but we know we have to foster and support it. But we often don’t know how to go about that.

“In Madrid, with those 200,000 proposals, they started doing data analysis on it - what were the patterns and themes that came out and how can we help people matchmake? Four of the themes that came out that were common were children, the elderly, environment and sport.

“And so they invited people who submitted proposals under these four themes to meet each other, to say ‘could you develop better proposals than you would on your own?’. There was co-design work and the city invested in designers, and writers and technical specialists to help develop through their proposals.

“They were then rigorous, well considered, were things that government could take forward and they had an active, engaged community around it.”

Equally, Lee noted how South Korea is using technology to not necessarily take every proposal forward, but to use the data as an indicator for what people want and need in their local communities. She said:

“In Seoul they’re looking at the proposals that are submitted and even the ones that don’t move forward, they’re using them as proxy indicators to understand what public services citizens are dissatisfied with. And then funnelling that data into the relevant ministries, departments, agencies, to take care of.”

My take

As was noted in my previous story from the mySociety conference this week, the civic tech community is in a period of ‘maturity’, but it needs to go back and question the assumptions it built its movement on. Iteration is key and Reboot US’s findings highlight some incredible examples of where PB works, when done correctly. Democracy is messy, but participation and having a stake in your community should always be the aspiration. Let’s hope that the lessons learned can be used to refine this incredibly exciting area.