International IDEA to Host Constitution Building Tech Fair


The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an intergovernmental organization whose mission is “to support sustainable democratic change by providing comparative knowledge, and assisting in democratic reform, and influencing policies and politics”, will be hosting an event on the use of information and communications technologies (ICT) in the constitution making context.

From the announcement (emphasis mine):

The making of a Constitution is one of the most difficult processes a nation can embark on. As well as critical political hurdles of reaching agreement among disparate groups regarding the basic structure and vision for the country, there are a number of other challenges that must be overcome if the constitution making process is to succeed. These include learning from the vast experience of other countries, ensuring the citizenry are kept informed and involved in the process and allowing opportunity for citizens to participate in the process, such that the constitution results from the voices of the people – their hopes, dreams, fears and concerns.

A number of innovative technology solutions have been developed and used by various constitution making processes around the world, but there is no effort to catalogue these products and practices such that new processes can learn from, and build upon, existing knowledge and experience.

International IDEA, in partnership with the Google Docs and Google Ideas, is organizing a one-day “Constitution Building Tech Fair” for technology entrepreneurs to present services, platforms and products that could help in a constitution making process, and have an exchange with leading constitutional experts and practitioners regarding currently unmet needs and challenges for which existing technologies could be adapted. This event will be hosted by the National Constitutional Center, and curated by ICT4Peace.

Sounds very promising. Applications are now open. Deadline is September 10.

Over on ParticipateDB, we currently list about a handful of entries related to constitution making, including three projects from Egypt, Morocco and Iceland. Hopefully, this event will surface many more.


Engaging the Public on Public Budgets LinkedIn Group


Chris Adams, President at Denver, Colorado-based Engaged Public, just announced the launch of a new LinkedIn group focused on “engaging the public on public budgets”. From his post:

Is public engagement on public budgets even a thing? It is if you believe that traditional public hearings (a.k.a. “three minutes at the mic”), posting huge PDFs on websites, or sending out a budget survey without context counts.

For a task most people consider the single most important task of government — creating a budget —there is a lot of room to do better and many places in which to do it.


But what does “better” really mean in the public budget process? Is it public officials heading into the community for informal discussions? Is it harnessing the power of two-way communication that the internet provides? What is the role of leadership — from staff, elected officials, non-profits, the business community and neighborhoods?

There is no single answer for any situation, but when it comes to ensuring that public budgets reflect the public’s vision for our future, the stakes are too high to ignore.

Indeed. Look forward to the conversations.


About That Ladder

Public Participation
Buckled ladder

Buckled ladder” by Craig Pennington is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Editor’s note: This post, after having been sitting in the draft folder for quite some time, got published prematurely by accident late last week. I’ve made a few minor edits and added or edited two of the hyperlinks. The post was supposed to contain a little bit more context, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Over on the IAP2 USA blog, one of the creators of the IAP2 Spectrum, Lewis Michaelson, shared a few thoughts on terminology a while back. According to him, here’s how the Spectrum differs from Arnstein’s Ladder: Lewis Michaelson on What Makes the IAP2 Spectrum Unique

The Spectrum is laid out horizontally instead of as a ladder, because each of the processes on the Spectrum has a legitimate purpose, depending on the decision to be made, the significance of potential impacts on stakeholders, and the amount of time I, as a stakeholder, may wish to commit. In that sense, the Spectrum is non-judgmental.

To Arnstein, consultation is “tokenism”. In her famous 1969 article “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” (PDF), she writes:

Inviting citizens’ opinions, like informing them, can be a legitimate step toward their full participation. But if consulting them is not combined with other modes of participation, this rung of the ladder is still a sham since it offers no assurance that citizen concerns and ideas will be taken into account. The most frequent methods used for consulting people are attitude surveys, neighborhood meetings, and public hearings.

And therein lies the main problem with Arnstein. As I alluded to over on Govloop a while ago, the ladder conflates the public’s level of impact on the decision making process with the ethical soundness of the engagement process. To Arnstein, engaging the public at lower levels of impact (inform, consult) implies ethically questionable behavior on part of the decision maker (“Tokenism”). While that may have been her experience, it’s not a general rule.

It’s not that there aren’t disingenuous decision makers that run sham consultations simply to lull their constituents in. But that doesn’t mean that’s always the case or an inherent quality of consultative public participation processes.

In light of the contributions IAP2 has made, Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation is inaccurate and cannot serve as a model for understanding public participation today.

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Scottish E-Participation Toolkit

Digital Engagement, E-participation, Europe, Resources

Via the #worktogether15 stream coming live from Participation Week, I found this 2014 e-participation toolkit (PDF) by the Scottish Health Council. The toolkit is part of a comprehensive collection of resources on public participation, incl. a set of public participation standards and a couple of assessment reports from previous years.

The toolkit recaps a number of commonly referenced pros and cons of digital engagement (pages 5-7):


  • A lot of people are online already
  • Time and geography are fluid
  • Cost savings
  • Breaks down barriers
  • In-built record keeping


  • Accessibility and usability
  • The “Digital Divide”
  • Reduced level of engagement
  • Information governance
  • Resources
  • Uncivil behavior

The “General considerations regarding e-participation” (page 10-11) are also quite good.


Participation Week Launches in Scotland

Europe, Events, Radar, Uncategorized

The Directorate for Local Government and Communities in Scotland kicks off a weeklong event series today that aims to explore what a more people-centric and participatory government might look like. From Eventbrite:

Participation Week is a chance for all of us involved in public services to learn together about how we involve people more in the development and delivery of policies and services and think about the impact that can make. It will provide space to think about how we put people at the centre of our work, why this matters and explore what we really mean by ‘participation’. As well as an opportunity to share experiences, ideas, tools and techniques, the sessions will include conversations about what support is needed to deliver greater participation.

The program includes sessions on digital engagement and public participation in the planning process.

Follow hashtag #worktogether15 on Twitter for live updates.

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White House Seeking Input on Third Open Government National Action Plan

Open Government, Open Policymaking, Public Participation

As per an announcement on the White House blog yesterday (emphasis mine):

Consistent with the commitment to the Open Government Partnership, later this year the United States plans to publish a third Open Government National Action Plan (NAP) including new and expanded open government initiatives to pursue in the next two years. The first U.S. NAP was published in 2011 and the second NAP — which is still being implemented through the end of 2015 — was published in 2013.

Members of the public are invited to contribute and can do so via email, on Twitter or via Hackpad, which includes a separate document on Public Participation + Open Policymaking.



Irvin and Stansbury: Advantages and Disadvantages of Public Participation

Public Participation, Research, ROI

Figure 1: Advantages of Citizen Participation in Government Decision-Making

A few days ago, I came across this 2007 article in the International Journal for Public Participation (IJP2) by Renee A. Irvin and John Stansbury: Citizen Participation in Decision-Making: Is it Worth the Effort? (PDF).

In it, the authors list a number of advantages and drawbacks of public participation and weigh the trade-offs between the potential benefits and the “potential social and economic costs of community participation” (page 2).


It is widely argued that increased community participation in government decision-making produces many important benefits. Dissent is rare: It is difficult to envision anything but positive outcomes from citizens joining the policy process, collaborating with others, and reaching consensus to bring about positive social and environmental change. This article, motivated by contextual problems encountered in a participatory watershed management initiative, reviews the citizen participation literature and analyzes key considerations in determining whether community participation is an effective policy-making tool. We list conditions under which community participation may be costly and ineffective and when it can thrive and produce the greatest gains in effective citizen governance. From the detritus of an unsuccessful citizen-participation effort, we arrive at a more-informed approach to guide policy makers in choosing a decision-making process that is appropriate for a community’s particular needs.

Advantages to Citizen Participants (page 3):

  • Education (learn from and inform government representatives)
  • Persuade and enlighten government
  • Gain skills for activist citizenship
  • Break gridlock; achieve outcomes
  • Gain some control over policy process
  • Better policy and implementation decisions

Advantages to Government (page 3):

  • Education (learn from and inform citizens)
  • Persuade citizens; build trust and allay anxiety or hostility
  • Build strategic alliances
  • Gain legitimacy of decisions
  • Break gridlock; achieve outcomes
  • Avoid litigation costs
  • Better policy and implementation decisions

Disadvantages to Citizen Participants (page 7):

  • Time consuming (even dull)
  • Pointless if decision is ignored
  • Worse policy decision if heavily influenced by opposing interest groups

Disadvantages to Government (page 7):

  • Time consuming
  • Costly
  • May backfire, creating more hostility toward government
  • Loss of decision-making control
  • Possibility of bad decision that is politically impossible to ignore
  • Less budget for implementation of actual projects

Finally, the article provides “several considerations that may be described as ideal conditions for implementation of enhanced citizen participation in agency decision-making” (page 16) as well as conditions under which “the citizen participation process may be ineffective and wasteful, compared to traditional top-down decision making.”

In conclusion, the authors point to one of the most challenging issues in the field of public participation (page 18):

[…] Evidence for the effectiveness of community participation in environmental management is in short supply, due in part to the inherent problems in measuring the success of environmental policies that may take decades to positively affect the environment. Even more difficult, perhaps, is the prospect of measuring incremental changes in the well-being of the general public as they become more engaged in the policy process.

The search for more robust data to prove the return on investment (ROI) of public participation is something we’ve been following since as early as 2009, and so far there haven’t been any major breakthroughs.

The open data community, which has been facing similar challenges, is slightly ahead of the curve, with Sunlight Foundation last month releasing a new repository of case studies to show open data outputs, outcomes and impacts (A new approach to measuring the impact of open data).

Maybe that’s a good sign that my suggestion from 2012 to create a “common knowledge base” for public participation (a repository of stories, case studies, performance data etc.) will pick up momentum.


San José, CA on Track to Launching Participatory Budgeting Pilot

Participatory Budgeting

Newly-elected Mayor Sam Liccardo of San José, CA continues to advocate for the introduction of a participatory budgeting program for the city.

A quick look back:

Here’s a May 23, 2013 article in the Mercury News that outlines then-Councilmember Liccardo’s original proposal:

The idea is to provide $100,000 for each of the 10 council districts to spend in a one-time resident-identified project. The money would come out of the city’s essential services reserve, along with $50,000 for staff services.

Probably most important, the project would provide a forum for residents to speak up about priorities, identifying and fixing problems within their own communities.

“If $100,000 can keep a library open on Saturday–this is hypothetical–then the library in that district stays open. If another community wants to see enhanced maintenance in four parks, that’s what they get,” Liccardo said in an interview.

“Regardless of the process, we’d expect to see dollars from this fund flow to support neighborhood services and projects. Participatory budgeting will dramatically change who decides, whatever and however they decide. With this effort, we can embark upon a path to enable our residents to play a more prominent role in the decision-making of our city,” Liccardo said.

And here’s his argument for participatory budgeting as shared in the Huffington Post a week later: Smarter Spending Through Participatory Budgeting

Why is Participatory Budgeting a good idea for San José?

The time has come to explore Participatory Budgeting in San José. Why?

First, we can make better decisions if we involve more people, particularly if we involve people who know the needs of their neighborhoods the best. “Crowdsourcing” ideas expands our range of good and creative options.

Second, we will promote civic engagement. Residents who have spent several hours together discussing how to invest local funds in their own neighborhood have done more than make a few budgetary decisions. They have met each other. They have learned from one another. They have become more likely to work together to solve common problems outside of the Participatory Budgeting process.

Finally, Participatory Budgeting makes government more efficient. Every single tax dollar is scarce. By allowing our communities to prioritize the local investments that will have the biggest impact, we create a feed-back loop that makes our government more effective and responsive.

Liccardo went on to host a “community planning meeting” in his council district that June (which I attended), but ultimately the idea didn’t garner enough support.

Forward a couple of years, and participatory budgeting is back on the agenda, but this time with a much higher likelihood of actually reaching implementation. From the Mayor’s June Budget Message for Fiscal Year 2015-2016 (PDF):

City Council District 3 Participatory Budgeting Pilot: San José has a wealth of
community leaders who deeply engage in improving their city through their volunteer energy and creative ideas. Our neighborhood advocates often inform us how they can “do more with less,” leveraging modest amounts of public dollars with volunteer sweat equity, grants from employers and foundations, and personal contributions. Participatory Budgeting has become a proven means of democratizing civic governance in hundreds of cities globally. I’ve encouraged colleagues to step forward to pilot this process, and District 3’s Councilmember Raul Peralez has volunteered. The City Manager is directed to allocate $100,000 in one-time General Fund funding for a District 3 Participatory Budgeting Pilot program for Fiscal Year 2015-2016. (BD # 18 Peralez)

This item was already included in the mayor’s March budget message (PDF), which passed with unanimous support of the city council. However, the budget allocation under discussion then was significantly higher (page 18):

[…] Any councilmember wishing to lead the effort within their own district will take $250,000 of the $2.5 million Essential Services Reserve, with the expectation that they make no other claims or proposals on the General Fund through the FY 2015-2016 budget deliberation process. […]

With a population of slightly over 1,000,000 residents, and ten city council districts, an amount of $100,000 in San José translates to only about one dollar per person, give or take. Based on our collection of historic data from previous participatory budgeting efforts in North America, that’s not a lot. In fact, it might be the lowest per capita amount allocated in any participatory budgeting project in the United States to date, which may dampen citizens’ enthusiasm to spend a lot of time and energy engaging through this new process.

Final adoption of the 2015/2016 budget is scheduled for June 23, 2015.


From Wales: National Principles for Public Engagement

Public Participation

Speaking of guidelines, here’s another interesting resource (which we mentioned in passing a while back) from Participation Cymru, a “partnership of public and third sector organisations” hosted by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA): National Principles for Public Engagement in Wales (PDF)

The ten principles are:

  1. Engagement is effectively designed to make a difference
  2. Encourage and enable everyone affected to be involved, if they so choose
  3. Engagement is planned and delivered in a timely and appropriate way
  4. Work with relevant partner organisations
  5. The information provided will be jargon free, appropriate and understandable
  6. Make it easier for people to take part
  7. Enable people to take part effectively
  8. Engagement is given the right resources and support to be effective
  9. People are told the impact of their contribution
  10. Learn and share lessons to improve the process of engagement

The website includes more information about these principles, including case studies and a list of more than 100 endorsing organizations.


City of Guelph Participant Responsibilities in Community Engagement

Public Participation, Radar, Resources

Via Twitter, I just came across a very nice set of guiding principles for community engagement from the City of Guelph (located in Canada near Toronto, Ontario).

The page lists responsibilities for the key parties involved in the public participation process: the community engagement team, city employee, participant, and council.

It’s a very solid resource, but I found the section on participant responsibilities particularly noteworthy:

Participant responsibilities

Successful community engagement processes require respectful and constructive contributions of participants. Participants are responsible to:

  • Pursue community engagement with the belief that community involvement leads to better decisions
  • Focus on the decision to be made or the question to be answered
  • Recognize the City must consider the needs of the whole community
  • Strive to reach sustainable solutions
  • Request alternative ways of participating if required
  • Listen to understand the views of others
  • Identify concerns and issues early in the process
  • Participate openly, honestly and constructively, offering ideas, suggestions, alternatives
  • Work in the process in a transparent, respectful and cooperative manner
  • Stay abreast of the project, engagement activities and related issues
  • Provide input and feedback within project timelines
  • Encourage others to become engaged, and offer input to the project and engagement activities
  • Provide contact information as requested, to receive updates about the community engagement process

First of all, it’s a really good idea to spell these out, certainly as part of a specific project but even more so as a general guideline to help shape the a city’s overall public participation culture.

Second, there are a couple of items in there that point towards an understanding of participant role that goes beyond simply contributing input in a civil and constructive manner, an opportunity we highlight frequently in our work with clients:

  • Help with outreach (“encourage others to become engaged”)
  • Help with improving the public participation infrastructure (“request alternative ways of participating if required”)

Have you seen similar guidelines, particularly with regard to the participant role? Please share.

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