Participation Made Easy with SMS: Participatory Budgeting and Mobile Tech

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Oct 02, 2009

Tiago Peixoto, a researcher on participatory budget, sat down with us recently to discuss the use of mobile technology for citizens to participate in decision making about city budgets. This new and interesting field is showing some promise in several cities in Brazil. 

Tiago Peixoto Interview from on Vimeo.

Tiego also wrote an article recently for the GSA Office of Citizen Services and Communications that makes the case for using mobile tech in involving citizens in budget decisions in their communities. He writes:

Participatory Budgeting (PB) can be broadly defined as the participation of citizens in the decision-making process of budget allocation and in the monitoring of public spending. Originating in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, PB has spread across the world and has received international praise as a good governance policy. In practice, the implementation of PB has been associated with desirable outcomes such as reduction of tax delinquency, increased transparency and better and innovative delivery of public services.

In a traditional PB process, citizens are invited to periodic public assemblies that are held across the city to deliberate on the allocation of public resources. In this sense, PB presents some problems in terms of the material (e.g. paying for transport) and immaterial (e.g. time consumption) costs associated with participating in the process, that is, attending the public assemblies. These costs have often been reflected in low turnout levels, where only a small percentage of the city population gets involved in the initiative.

Until 2004, this had been the case for the city of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where participation levels in the PB stood at around 1.5 percent of the city’s electors. In 2006, alongside the traditional PB process, the city administration launched a Digital Participatory Budgeting process. In addition to the budget of $43 million (USD) allocated to the traditional participatory budgeting, $11 million was assigned to the new initiative. 

Whereas the traditional PB required citizens to attend meetings at a certain time and place, with the e-PB the city’s electors could discuss and cast their votes online during a period of 42 days, where voting was enabled by the provision of a unique electoral register number.

At the completion of the process, with a budget nearly one fourth that of the traditional (offline) PB, the e-PB attracted over six times more participants, with 173,000 inhabitants (10 percent of electors) taking part in the process. The winning projects, subsequently delivered to the communities, were of undeniable salience and benefit to the citizens. They included initiatives such as the renovation of transport systems and hospitals, the building of educational centers and the creation of ecological parks.

In 2008, with similar success, the city repeated the process with the added possibility for citizens to vote by calling a toll-free number. However, even if lowering participation costs through the use of technology seems to address the issue of low turnout, e-PB processes such as that of Belo Horizonte have been criticized for insufficient deliberation and, consequently, allegedly low quality participation.

In a traditional offline PB citizens must attend a deliberative face-to-face meeting before casting their votes. However, generally, in e-PBs, citizens can vote without participating in a deliberation and without going through face-to-face experiences – that are difficult to simulate online – where individual interests are confronted with collective purposes and community bonds are created and reinforced.

In 2009, the administration of La Plata, Argentina, launched a $4.1 million PB initiative with an innovative participatory design which consisted of two main phases. During the first phase, 40 face-to-face deliberative meetings were held across the city, where citizens were permitted to directly allocate up to 30 percent of the total budget, and to present a list of options for the allocation of the remaining 70 percent of the budget.

The second phase consisted of a larger process of voting among the options previously selected by the deliberative meetings, where a secured system allowed votes to be cast through paper ballots, electronic ballots and text messages (SMS). As a result, during the second phase, a total of 29,578 people  participated, representing over 10 percent of the city’s electors. Particularly noteworthy and elucidating is that the second phase attracted over 9 times more participants than the first, face-to-face phase (3,200).

Such a design, where deliberation and participation levels are equally taken into account, addresses the apparent incompatibility between deliberation and high levels of participation which is frequently highlighted by experts in the field and identified in practice. Furthermore, incentives are created for a variety of citizens – who are willing to bear diverse costs of participation – to engage in the process. By giving citizens who attend the meetings the opportunity to definitively allocate up to 30 percent of the budget and to select the options for the remaining budget to be submitted to vote in the second phase, an additional incentive for residents to attend the deliberative stage of the process is created. The second phase creates an opportunity for a broader section of the population to participate in the process, by voting among options that are the fruit of a previous deliberative process which is equally open to all citizens.

It is well-known that trust in a participatory process is a determinant of citizen participation. In this respect, one can hypothesize that a process with large-scale participation and lowered costs may become an entry point to more sophisticated and costly models of engagement. For instance, taking part in a PB process by simply casting a vote through text messages (i.e. low participation cost), which has a clear impact on the decision-making process, may generate increased trust in the process. Consequently, citizens may be more inclined to attend the face-to-face deliberative stage of the next PB. This could be particularly pertinent if a more proactive approach is taken, for example by sending a text message to citizens who voted using a mobile phone, inviting them to attend subsequent face-to-face PB assemblies. 

Despite its infancy, e-Participatory Budgeting is starting to provide compelling evidence of being one of the few e-democracy initiatives with the potential to deliver its promises. The articulation between online and offline activities, the enabling of different levels of engagement (e.g. sending a text message or attending a meeting) and the use of mobile technology are some of the paths being explored. Further developments in the domain are to be followed closely by those interested in the use of ICTs for citizen engagement

This article by Tiago Peixoto, European University Institute, and Guilherme Lessa, Fábrica do Futuro was originally published by the GSA Office of Citizen Services and Communications and is reposted here with permission.  Video footage was taken as part of ISDT09 in Porto, Portugal. Special thanks to Annie Heatwole of for editing the footage. videos are shot on a Nokia N95.

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