As civic innovation grows throughout the Boston area, participatory budgeting is an excellent example of how technology can improve government transparency and quite literally engage citizens in an online process to determine how a city’s budget is spent. As defined by Wikipedia, participatory budgeting (PB) is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, and a type of participatory democracy, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. Participatory budgeting allows citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects, and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent. When PB is taken seriously and is based on mutual trust local governments and citizen can benefit equally. In some cases PB even raised people’s willingness to pay taxes.
I’ve observed successful participatory budgeting processes in Chicago, Boston, Somerville and recently Central Falls in Rhode Island. The entire process was powered by a Microsoft partner: Citizenvestor. (Great name too, right?). I recently sat down with Tony DeSisto, Co-founder of Citizinvestor to learn more about the company and their work in participatory budgeting. Our conversation is summarized below.
- What is Participatory budgeting?
We funded this project in Boston in 2012, it was our first successfully funded project on the site. We also built the participatory budgeting site for last year’s Youth Lead the Change program in the City. We funded two projects in San Mateo County in 2013: 3 Months of Bicycle Sunday and Restore the Thornmint . We did a number of projects around Chicago, including our largest to date, Spirit of the American Navy, but nothing with the City of Chicago. I would categorize what we do, civic crowdfunding, as one of the new and innovative funding methods, like participatory budgeting, that democratizes the budget process and allows people to invest in their community.
- Tell us about a successful (local) project?
One local project that we love to highlight is Central Falls, Rhode Island. This is a small one-square mile city that went bankrupt in 2010 and elected a 26 year old Mayor in 2012 to help bring the City back. We were one of their first partners and helped them fund permanent trash cans and recycle bins for their main park. The project had arisen after the Mayor met with middle school students who equated the trash in the park with a lower sense of self worth and lack of pride in the City. Not only were the funds raised, but during the project, a cleanup was organized through the site and over 100 people showed up. Central Falls is now a customer for our new product, Citizinvestor Connect, a custom white label site for civic engagement and crowdfunding. Here are two stories about the project, Boston Globe and CNBC.
- How does Citizinvestor help?
Citizinvestor helps by providing a platform and the tools necessary for our local government partners to successfully raise the funds they need. We also provide a best practices guide and some templates to help them with the marketing of their project. Our Connect product not only helps our partners raise funds, but also emphasizes input from the community and increases engagement.
- How can technology help drive civic engagement?
Technology is a key component in driving engagement. Today more than ever people have the tools and forums to let their voice be heard and participate in the decision-making and governing process.