Combining Technology and Participatory Budgeting For Direct Democracy

| Adam J. Hecktman

Photo via is often posited as government for the people, by the people. The purest form of classic democracy is one in which citizens of a community directly decide on laws and policies that they follow, and how their resources are to be applied. In ancient Athens, citizens all were able to come together to debate and vote on the laws of the city-state. They literally dropped what they were doing, assembled, discussed, and voted. They were, in effect, a legislature made up of all of the citizens of Athens.

While this may have worked for a time in Athens, it would have been tough to apply that same model to the newly formed United States in the 18th century. People were greatly dispersed in terms of their geography. And they were busy tending to their fields, harvesting resources, or producing products of the day. Making their day-to-day living, combined with the time that it took to communicate over a great distance, gave most little (if any) time to educate themselves on the issues that influenced the policy making of the day. So, they entrusted their political power and decision making to representatives. This represented the formation of the representative democracy practiced in Western nations today, vs the direct democracy of Ancient Athens.

Fast forward a couple of centuries. Today, most citizens do not spend 100% of our time tending to our basic needs. And the internet has rendered geography and communication time as anachronistic notions.   In western-style democracies, people are engaged with their governments and communities at unprecedented levels. Could the direct democracy/representative democracy pendulum be swinging? There is evidence to that affect.

Take, for example, the concept of participatory budgeting. Participatory Budgeting is “a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. It enables taxpayers to work with government to make the budget decisions that affect their lives.”[1] While it has been practiced outside of the U.S. for 25 years, it is just now getting serious attention in cities across the U.S.

Joe Moore is an Alderman in Chicago’s 49th ward. In 2009, with the assistance of the Participatory Budgeting Project, Alderman Moore launched the first PB process in the U.S. In Chicago, each alderman gets about $1M in taxpayer money to spend in the ward. Rather than making that determination from the Alderman’s office, Moore invited his ward residents to propose spending ideas, develop project proposals, and vote on which proposals to fund. When residents cast their ballot, they were directly deciding how they wanted to allocate the ward’s $1 million capital improvement budget for the year.  A step closer to direct democracy.

Technology has obviously been a key driver here. The internet enables citizens to learn more about the issues that can influence capital improvements in their neighborhood. It also enables them to learn points of view that would normally require a public meeting. Sites like Everyblock and NextDoor are starting to connect communities from door to door. And the results of the voting have been articulated to the constituency via easy to understand infographics like the ones below.

There is, however, the potential for technology to impact the process to an even greater extent. For example, In order to vote, you need to come to one of the voting sites are located throughout the ward. On-line voting is still in its infancy. Imagine being able to allocate your fixed amount of dollars and see the tradeoffs at the time of voting. Further, we are just at the cusp of community dialog and debate. The internet has a great potential to bring the discussion to the citizens vs. bringing the citizens to a discussion. There is a potential for citizens to use online tools to facilitate discussions on issues, tradeoffs, and priorities.

The work of the 49th ward has obviously started to take hold. Other wards in city have started to replicate the model. Several thousand citizens have participated in deciding how to spend taxpayer money. It’s another step closer to a government “by the people, for the people”.

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Adam J. Hecktman

You may recognize Adam. He’s a regular on TV, you can hear him on the radio, he’s penned numerous articles and is the co-founder of the Chicago City Data Users Group. But some of Adam’s most important work is done behind the scenes in his role as Microsoft’s Director of Technology and Civic Engagement for Chicago. Tech giants, universities and government leaders turn to Adam for guidance on all matters technology, and he happily obliges, helping Chicago overcome challenges and capitalizing on new, exciting opportunities.