The Gov 2.0 network Gov Loop and Personal Democracy Forum recently launched a special series on ‘Designing Digital Cities’ that explores ideas for how to meet the demands of 21st century citizens in an era where doing more with less has become a priority. GovLoop founder Steve Ressler kicked things off in a blog post asking what ingredients go into a true digital city in 2011 in the context of emerging tools, technology, processes and assets.

Much of the ensuing discussion revolved around how improved wi-fi networks, broadband and IT infrastructure can bring us closer to IBM’s vision of The Smarter City where sensors, data analytics and integrated systems can prevent errors, improve service delivery and reduce costs.

I applaud Steve’s efforts at focusing the Gov 2.0 community’s attention on the role of cities given the unprecedented levels of global migration currently underway as millions of people move from rural areas to city centres seeking new opportunities. The future of cities and how they will feed, employ and sustain the vast majority of humanity is one of the most important issues facing our generation.

As Parag Khanna persuasively argues, power in the 21st century is rapidly shifting away from nation states as cities become the new “islands of governance”. He describes cities as “experimental laboratories” where new solutions to a range of social and environmental challenges have an opportunity to be forged.

The Gov 2.0 community’s emphasis on tools & tech has achieved much in terms of opening up access to public sector data and creating wonderful apps to improve the urban experience. However as former US deputy CTO Beth Noveck recently pointed out: “Gov 2.0 is a popular term but puts the emphasis on technology when our goal was to focus on changing how government institutions work for the better. Our work was not limited to doing the cool stuff of Silicon Valley in the staid world of Washington.”

I agree with Beth and think it’s time for Gov 2.0 champions to ask the hard questions about what participatory democracy really means in a networked world. What options are on the table that can really change how government institutions work for the better? If the Gov 2.0 community is serious about the role of digital cities in meeting the demands of 21st century citizens then I think it’s time to start using participatory processes to bring about the structural reform needed for democratic renewal.

Porto Alegre photo via Wikimedia Commons

One approach that has been used to kick-start more participatory forms of democracy is Participatory Budgeting (PB) which started in Porto Alegre Brazil in 1989 to give citizens a greater say in how the annual municipal budget is allocated. The process works by giving citizens a vote in how all or part of a public budget is determined and has been trialled in over 1,200 cities around the world from Seville, Spain to Kerala, India.

Generally speaking Participatory Budgeting enables citizens to deliberate and decide on spending priorities through collective prioritisation and co-management of resources. It is notable for being one of the few public administration innovations to emerge from the developing world that has been successfully applied to more economically advanced regions.

While PB has been taken up successfully in parts of Europe and Latin America it remains underutilised in most English-speaking countries. To date the Gov 2.0 movement in America and elsewhere has generally overlooked PB. This is a missed opportunity given PB’s encouragement of greater citizen engagement in decision-making and the increased trust it engenders between governments and citizens.

So the question is why has participatory budgeting failed to really take off in countries like the US, Australia and Canada? Perhaps it’s due to the fact that PB itself emerged in Brazil out of a political culture dominated by social movements and civil society actors with more experience in participatory democracy.

There’s also a tendency in America and elsewhere for technological solutions to be seen as an end in itself rather than a means to furthering deeper democratic processes. Yet it’s clear the Gov 2.0 community has an important role to play in promoting a democratic reform agenda using technology to facilitate power-sharing between governments and citizens.

Participatory budget in Icapui, Brazil. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The reality is that government CIOs and CTOs could add new forms of “social innovation” like PB to their toolkit and use emerging tech as a means to advance these promising methods of direct citizen participation.

In Argentina the city of La Plata has taken an interesting multi-channel approach to PB using a combination of face-to-face, web and mobile channels to directly engage citizens in the allocation of the city’s budget.

La Plata’s unique blend of place-based deliberation with remote mobile voting has achieved great success with over 49,000 out of 400,000 eligible voters deciding on a small portion of spending priorities for projects in health, education and other areas of public administration.

Participatory Budgeting is an apolitical, non-ideological instrument of participatory governance that can be utilised by Gov 2.0 actors willing to partner with other stakeholders in order to drive institutional change and democratic renewal at the local level.

But why are these and other successful examples of participatory democracy like PB off the Gov 2.0 community’s radar? Surely there’s more to civic innovation and citizen engagement platforms than just cloud computing solutions and open source startups? Gov 2.0 champions could look to PB as a powerful means to reform public administration and seek to emulate its success in Latin America and parts of Europe.

Photo of the Chicago participatory budgeting vote by Austin Smith, courtesy of Gapers Block.

The direct involvement of citizens in the budget allocation process improves the transparency of public expenditure and puts greater demands on elected representatives to be accountable. There are already notable precedents like Chicago’s 49th Ward which is the first political jurisdiction in the United States to use Participatory Budgeting to directly decide on city budget spending.

There are plenty of resources available for municipal governments, universities or community groups wanting to go down the path towards Participatory Budgeting.

The United Nations and World Bank recognise PB as an exemplar of democratic governance and the Participatory Budgeting Project provide lots of practical advice and support for the implementation of such projects.

To get back to Steve Ressler’s initial question, I think participatory budgeting and democratic reform are the missing ingredients from current debates about what constitutes a true digital city. The time is ripe for Gov 2.0 leaders to experiment with new participatory processes for allocating scarce resources in an era where doing more with less is not just a priority, but a necessity for many.

Thanks to Tiago Peixoto for sharing his expertise on PB and being an admin for this excellent Facebook resource. 

Darren Sharp


Darren Sharp |

Darren Sharp is a leading sharing economy strategist, consultant and researcher.  As founding Director of Social Surplus he develops strategy and facilitates capacity-building using strength-based approaches including asset-based community