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Online Participatory Budgeting Engages Citizens to Build Better Communities

photo courtesy of
Voting keypad at Newcastle Udeice event 2009

Social media and new technologies can bring new ways for communities to interact. Yet the growth in online technologies is a fast moving picture with potentially good and bad outcomes. In recent riots in the UK social media was blamed for facilitating bad behaviour by the social underclass. Following demonstrations over the shooting dead of a black resident of a poor part of London, during copycat demonstrations across the country criminals used the private messaging systems of Blackberry phones to congregate and loot specific stores selling trainers or TV’s. Politicians labelled them as part of a morally deficient Facebook generation. A number of individuals who posted comments on Facebook suggesting looting, even where it never took place, have been jailed.

Yet we have also seen the power of new technologies in the Middle East and China, or even in the electioneering by President Obama, where it has been part of a democratic upswelling. So we know new technology is powerful. But can that power be harnessed to create better cities and communities?

Examples you may already know about:

  • Council and local authorities are using new media to consult.
  • Using budget simulation games to engage citizens on budgetary discussions.
  • Using mobile phone apps to give and receive reports of public works, like pots holes that need filling or abandoned vehicles that need removing.
  • In the UK there is increasing pressure for councils to publish data on all items of expenditure over £500 sterling (approx $850).

Online and Offline Democratic Processes Complement Each Other
In the UK the Participatory Budgeting Unit  a not for profit organisation campaigning for participatory democracy has been promoting the direct decision making of local people over small amounts of public expenditure. This technique,  known as participatory budgeting (PB)   has proved really successful in engaging local people, and creating a platform for deeper deliberation and involvement in neighbourhood management.

But with fiscal pressures local councils in the UK are increasingly asking if they can instead engage just online. They see new technology as a way to reach into a younger community, but also save money. But there was a risk this could cheapen what was already happening. Ability to click on a mouse isn’t obviously a route to becoming a more active citizen. So the PB Unit produced a discussion paper on what they call ‘e-pb’ or online participatory budgeting aimed at officials considering using online participatory budgeting.   The report's primary message was to plan carefully and not rely on a single on or off line engagement strategy.

Local councils already use voting handsets for PB events. But the next stage is remote or virual events using computer of asms voyting. The PB Unit is hoping to transfer learning into the UK as it’s aware that there are interesting innovations going on. Cities in Latin America have been doing online democracy for a while. The PB Unit believes one of the most interesting is the e-participatory budget of Belo Horizonte, in Brazil. There the council organises an online vote open to all residents older than 16, in order to prioritise investments at the district level that require much more than the amounts available. In order to participate, citizens have to access the e-voting platform through the city’s official website, where information on the various public works is provided. In 2006, 25 million R$ (around 14 million US$) were made available to the digital PB and 110 million R$ (around 61million US$) in 2009-20101.

Three online PB programmes in Brazil were put forward for the prestigious "Vitalize democracy through participation" Reinhard Mohn Prize 2011 prize, voted for online by over 11,000 German citizens prize. View videos below:

Read PB Unit's full Report >>

1 Case study in “Learning from the South: Participatory Budgeting Worldwide – an Invitation to Global Cooperation“ By Yves Sintomer, Carsten Herzberg, Giovanni Allegretti, Anja Röcke.


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