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  • 06.12.14

What Happens When Silicon Valley Experiments With Direct Democracy

Like a few other cities, the city is letting some citizens vote directly on how the city spends its money. But, of course, it’s adding an online twist.

What Happens When Silicon Valley Experiments With Direct Democracy
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

The heart of Silicon Valley is experimenting with a novel form of direct democracy that gives citizens direct control over the city’s budget. Unlike most cities, where budgets are divvied up in closed door meetings, three of San Francisco’s neighborhoods are convening local residents to decide how roughly $300,000 of their tax money will be spent. Through intensive collaboration at town halls, officials will whittle­ down the best ideas into a list of proposals that will be voted on later this year.

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Though so­-called “participatory budgeting” has been tried before, San Francisco plans (of course) on adding a digital twist and allowing citizens to vote for the projects online, in what could be one of the only instances of digital direct democracy in American history.

“What’s unique here, is that there’s a certain level of transparency that doesn’t exist in the previous system,” explains City Supervisor Malia Cohen, who says she decided to jump on the participatory bandwagon after seeing impressive results from last year’s experiment. “They are at the table when these votes are going down,” she says.

“Typically budgets are determined in back rooms by politicians sitting around trying to figure out how to spend the people’s money,” Supervisor David Chiu said, at the announcement of the online participatory budgeting program, last fall.

For instance, last year, residents from Supervisor Chiu’s neighborhoods found ways to increase funding to eviction-­threatened residents, and provide summer jobs cleaning up graffiti. The “project provided a solution to address the dual needs advocated by young people for jobs and neighborhood residents for graffiti removal,” explains Chiu’s legislative, aid, Amy Chan.

To be sure, it’s not entirely a bottom­-up process. The amount of money for each neighborhood is chosen by state agencies and is taken out of funds ordinarily allocated to the budget. Each representative has to believe that the people are better at allocating this particular pot of money. Additionally, the decisions still have to be logically possible and legal. Budget officers attend the meetings to see how suggestions might have to be tweaked or ditched, depending on existing laws.

Research finds that participatory budgeting could help alleviate some of San Francisco’s notorious inequality. On average, researchers find, participatory budgeting distributes funds more equitably, especially to issues concerning the most needy residents. In Brazil, the birthplace of participatory budgeting, researchers found that citizen’s decisions actually reduced infant mortality rates. It turns out that mothers have a much better idea of what their children need than distant bureaucrats.

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During one of San Francisco’s town halls, most of the proposals I witness were about improving everyday pains: better bus stops, improved parking, and sidewalks repairs. The more ambitious projects proposed new farmer’s markets and graffiti­-clean-up summer jobs for idle youth.

“It’s a great way for politicians to really find out what the people want. Politicians, they think they know what people want,” said Chris Waddling, who runs a local news blog for San Francisco’s District 10. “Something like this, where you’re brainstorming, you can really come up with ideas maybe someone hasn’t thought of.”

City officials are still mulling over how to give the budgeting process a digital upgrade. In Brazil, the origin country of participatory budgeting, officials gather ideas from a crowdsourcing utility called wiki­surveys, which ranks ideas through a series of pair­wise questions and the option to offer a third option in a text box.

Princeton University even developed a user­-friendly version of wiki­surveys called All Our Ideas.

There’s demonstrated ways that tech can benefit the direct democratic process. Tiago Peixoto, a World Bank consultant and leading expert in participatory democracy, found that women tend to participate slightly more online than men, which is the reverse for offline participation (49% offline vs. 55% online).

Additionally, in Brazil, SMS alerts have been able bring in social classes that otherwise may have been excluded from the process. “Specific outreach efforts ensure the participation of the least privileged sectors of society,” Peixoto writes to me.

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This is an on­going process. Soon we’ll be able to see the results soon enough of their experiment in radical direct democracy.

About the author

I am a writer and an educator. As a writer, I investigate how technology is shaping education, politics, Generation Y, social good, and the media industry.

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