San Francisco made headlines last week when it was announced at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2013 that the city is set “to test online participatory budgeting”. From the article (emphasis mine):

Taxpayers are sometimes the best people to decide how their money gets spent — sounds obvious, but usually we don’t have a direct say beyond who we elect. That’s changing for San Francisco residents.

It intends to be the first major US city to allow citizens to directly vote on portions of budget via the web. While details are still coming together, its plan is for each city district to vote on $100,000 in expenditures. Citizens will get to choose how the money is spent from a list of options, similar to the way they already vote from a list of ballot propositions. Topical experts will help San Francisco residents deliberate online.

So-called “participatory budgeting” first began in the festival city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, and has slowly been expanding throughout the world. While major cities, such as Chicago and New York, have piloted participatory budgeting, they have not incorporated the modern features of digital voting and deliberation that are currently utilized in Brazil.

First off, it’s great to see a city government get excited about public participation and to endorse innovation in digital engagement so enthusiastically. So in the spirit of wanting to help them get it right, below are a first few observations, comments and suggestions. Please sound off in the comments if you have things to add.

In an interview with TechCrunch, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee focused very much on the voting part of the participatory budgeting process. And in an address to the conference, San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu, who launched a PB pilot program in his district late last year that ran in the first quarter of 2013, had this to share (check the Youtube video from around the 00:05:30 mark, transcript mine):

[…] And it [the pilot project] was so positive that for next year our mayor and my colleagues at our local city council, we are gonna be devoting more of our budget to this.

Now here’s the problem. When we did it last year, we met in person, we debated it in person. And we counted the ballots, and people cast ballots, on paper. All of you in this room know there are better ways to do this. There are technology tools we can use to accept ideas. There are online forums we can use to debate these ideas. […] And that is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about moving forward for the first time in San Francisco, hopefully with a partnership of folks in this room and city government, with real digital participation. That is the ultimate goal. […] Now, we have challenges trying to figure this out. For example, everyone knows digital inclusion is still an issue. […] But with your help, with the innovation I know that’s in this room, I’m very hopeful that San Francisco will be putting our mark on what digital participation is really about.

Here’s the comment I left in response:

Participatory budgeting is a multi-step process, which usually involves the identification of spending priorities by citizens (ideation and deliberation), followed by the development of specific spending proposals by budget delegates and finally a vote at the ballot box.

Online technology can support each of the phases in various ways.

Does this proposal include electronic voting? That would indeed be new, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned.

Via Twitter, TechCrunch’s Greg Ferenstein responded that “yes, there are plans to have evoting.” However, e-voting isn’t really available yet in the United States. This October 2012 article in The Verge outlines some of the challenges, and things haven’t fundamentally changed since then as far as I’m aware. On the other hand, who better to figure this thing out than the internet technology powerhouse that is San Francisco. We’ll see…

Some went so far as to say that this effort will “open new frontiers for digital democracy in San Francisco”. But will it really? Here’s a note I left on Google+:

Well, a lot will depend on the details, which are “still coming together” at this point.

For a city the size of San Francisco, $100K per district in PB funds isn’t all that much (less than $2/resident). It’s not clear to me how much digital innovation that will buy.

It’ll be interesting to learn where in the participatory budgeting process cycle the organizers see the most leverage for their technology and innovation dollars (marketing and outreach? ideation and deliberation? voting?) and how resources will be allocated between online and offline channels.

On Friday, The Verge picked up on the story. My comment there:

There appear to be a number of misconceptions with regard to what participatory budgeting (PB) is about and how it actually works.

For example, I’m not aware of any PB projects at the city level (either in Brazil or elsewhere) that have relied on an online-only approach. Instead, we see technology being added to an already very robust conventional process (i.e. offline outreach, in-person events). Both must go hand in hand. The question for any public participation project is how to allocate scarce resources (money, staff and volunteer time) to best achieve the desired project outcomes.

Secondly, PB is not just about the voting. At least equally as important is the deliberative process that brings citizens together to learn about the budget, identify community needs and develop practical solutions

At Intellitics, our mission is to help organizations create value by applying technology to support, enhance or extend opportunities for dialogue and participation. I’m the last person to argue that in 2013 digital engagement cannot or should not play a major role when it comes to bringing the public into government decision making. However, judging from the few bits and pieces of information floating around, I’m a bit concerned that San Francisco may be trying to forge ahead with advanced (and shiny) technology when the basics still require a lot of work and attention.

To give just one example, participation rates across all participatory budgeting projects in the U.S. in recent years, since PB was first introduced in Chicago in 2009, have been hovering at relatively low levels (we’re tracking some numbers here). During the 2012/2013 cycle, voter turn-out was less than 1% of the population in David Chiu’s district in San Francisco, less than 2% in New York City (with one exception), less than 3% in participating districts in Chicago and less than 4% in Vallejo, CA.

In my opinion, getting these numbers up should be a top priority for any participatory budgeting effort including the one in San Francisco. But that probably means that the project can’t do without a strong conventional core (traditional marketing and outreach, in-person events etc.). It also means that while technology can play a major role, it’s questionable whether money spent on e-voting at this point will provide the best bang for the buck. Yes, e-voting might make it easier for more people to participate in the final vote but only if they know about, and are motivated to play a role in, the process.

Participatory budgeting in SF will succeed only if the city manages to let the overall strategy drive the tools and technology choices, not the other way around.