Moving beyond just asking for comments on proposed decisions, governments can involve you directly in decision-making and prioritization. Doing this builds trust on both sides of the relationship as the process leads to better decisions and more satisfied citizens. Naturally, there are dangers to be avoided as well as benefits to be earned, and we’ll look at a couple of examples of how this can be implemented: participatory budgeting and deliberative democracy. Because of the depth of the engagement required, these processes are normally heavy on the in-person meetings, but there are ways to utilize online tools to do similar things — or even to combine both online and in-person to get the best of both worlds.
One of the fundamental concepts underlying open government is this idea of building trust between citizens and their government. This is one of the more powerful ways to do this since it takes a leap of faith for the government to trust you with a serious governing decision, and upon receiving that trust (and assuming that the process is properly managed and successful), you come to trust that your government has your best interests at heart. It also gives you an opportunity to understand the complexity of managing government and brings the government’s priorities and perspectives more in line with yours.
Doing this requires a strong commitment on the part of your government to respect the process however. Failure to abide by the rules of the engagement may lead to increased apathy or even anger on the part of the citizens. On the plus side, it’s an effective way for governments to deal with politically difficult issues without ending up as the scapegoat.
There are many methods for engaging citizens in this sort of process, but two that will give you a beginning point for further research are participatory budgeting and deliberative democracy. In participatory budgeting, originally developed in Brazil in 1989 (World Bank report), a portion of the government’s budget is determined through a citizen-driven process. This has been used successfully in many countries over the last 24 years. Deliberative democracy is a more flexible process that involves the selection and invitation of a representative collection of citizens, who are then educated on the issue that is being discussed, and tasked with developing a proposed rule or law for the government to consider. It also has been used in a wide variety of applications, including Tomorrow’s Europe, which spanned all 27 countries of the European Union.
While these methods may employ technology, they are primarily driven by in-person meetings. Nonetheless, processes such as these can be moved online, at least in part, using tools that enable a large number of people to make suggestions and then vote on each other’s proposals. Increasingly, governments are looking to combine online and in-person in order to engage as many people as possible. This can be done in a number of ways, including streaming live video of an in-person event and allowing for remote participants to also provide suggestions and input on the topic being discussed or by using the in-person and online portions to accomplish different things. For instance, a government may hold a smaller in-person meeting with a select group of experts to surface key issues and then formulate an online engagement process to provide for broader discussion of these key issues with the broader public. The reverse process could also be performed – beginning with a broad discussion and then engaging with a smaller group to consider the more controversial or difficult issues raised during the broader engagement.
The International Association of Public Participation has developed a spectrum of public participation, and the activities described in this article are focused on two kinds of public participation goals:
- COLLABORATE – To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution.
- EMPOWER – To place final decision-making in the hands of the public.