The first TICTeC Labs subgrant project provides practical examples
How has civic tech helped protect the health of a small rural community in Chile, engaged citizens in decisions about their local areas in China, improved the electricity supply to a village in Kyrgyzstan and assisted people with visual impairments to take part in participatory budgeting in Argentina?
This month sees the first output from our TICTeC Labs subgrants.
TICTeC Labs is our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech, supported by the National Endowment for Democracy. Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion – Civic Tech Surgery – on a topic affecting the civic tech community, followed by an Action Lab, a working group who meet to discuss the challenges and commission some work to help provide solutions.
Tackling the challenges
At the first Civic Tech Surgery, in October 2021, the challenges of public-private civic tech projects, as well as possible solutions to tackle them, were discussed by Aline Muylaert of CitizenLab, Amanda Clarke of Carleton University, Gabriella Razzano of OpenUp in South Africa and Ebtihaj Khan from Code for Pakistan, with valuable input from our Surgery attendees.
Action Lab #1 then convened to decide what would help the global civic tech community to work more effectively with public and private institutions. They agreed to commission a piece of work that showcases examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements and benefits for governments/public institutions and their citizens, aiming to promote the benefits of civic tech and inspire and motivate government actors to start similar civic tech projects in their contexts.
Showcasing successful projects
The Action Lab #1 subgrant was awarded to People Powered, who approached the organisations who were highly rated on their digital participation platform to provide examples where their work has resulted in clear improvements and benefits for governments, institutions, and communities.
The case studies all include key lessons learned and recommendations on how to use digital platforms effectively:
- Digital platform and training boost participation in rural Kyrgyzstan – this World Bank project demonstrates how the government can empower local communities to make decisions, facilitated by a digital platform.
- In China, a popular social media platform is harnessed to increase participation – China’s Participation Center developed a “mini app” for the popular WeChat platform, and engaged 3000 of the 3,044 neighbourhoods in Chengdu city in participatory budgeting.
- Participation must be designed to ‘leave no one behind’: Argentina case study – Argentina’s municipality of Rosario is so committed to digital transformation that it has integrated it into every aspect of its operations, from education to participatory budgeting, including a commitment to make the process totally accessible to individuals with visual disabilities.
- Chilean institute harnesses digital platform to engage young people as change agents – Youth are the leaders of tomorrow (and today!), and progress toward a sustainable environment can only be made with their full engagement. Chile’s National Youth Institute understands this, and knew that to involve as many young people as possible, a digital platform was needed. It chose CitizenLab, and this post explains how the institute uses it to find and develop new leaders.
Every now and then, we in the mySociety research team are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to explore specific themes in civic participation, in partnership with some of the leading philanthropic bodies in our field. Last year, we worked with the Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network to examine Participatory Budgeting. These organisations were keen to explore where there might be opportunities for the Participatory Budgeting field to be supported or developed, and alongside academic experts Brian Wampler, Stephanie McNulty and Michael Touchton, the mySociety research team conducted a wide-ranging review of some of the key questions surrounding Participatory Budgeting, and interviewed a number of practitioners and global experts.
You can read the full report here.
One of the truly fascinating things about the spread of Participatory Budgeting over the last 30 years is how it has evolved, mutated and emerged in almost all corners of the world. The model conceived in Porto Alegre 30 years ago is very different from the implementations of Participatory Budgeting operational today in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia and North and South America. That is not necessarily a bad thing of course. Projects and frameworks for participation must evolve with changing attitudes, must be culturally appropriate, and must work within the resources available. However, the very reasons that implementing bodies have for doing Participatory Budgeting have also changed.
While many practitioners view Participatory Budgeting as a very process based activity, there are many differing opinions on what it is actually structured to achieve. In Brazil, this model was developed as a new political offering to build a fundamentally redistributive programme, allowing citizens with the greatest need to input into real-world budgeting solutions to leverage funding into the poorest neighbourhoods. This concept of redistribution has, based on our research, appeared to have waned in the majority of places, with the focus of Participatory Budgeting now firmly upon the commonly accepted ideal of broad citizen participation, with the merit assigned to the act and volume of participation by the general populace in local budgeting.
There is nothing inherently wrong about this shift in focus, but it does raise questions around scale, legitimacy and programme outcomes. What are institutions really trying to achieve when implementing Participatory Budgeting? Is it redistribution, is it genuine participation, or is it the appearance of genuine participation? And is there any desired outcome beyond having citizens participate? Is the high cost of engaging the most disadvantaged citizens offset by the educational benefits of small-scale Participatory Budgeting exercises? Do implementers want these programmes to be large scale but relatively ‘light touch’? And if so, does that devalue the process of participation or exclude disadvantaged citizens or minorities? Is it right that those citizens able to mobilise support and votes for specific projects are most likely to be from comparatively wealthy and educated sections of society? Does the scaling potential of digital Participatory Budgeting platforms gentrify the process? And what is the point of investing in exercises such as Participatory Budgeting when the political and bureaucratic institutions overseeing them are evidently corrupting or subverting the process?
This research project was incredibly compelling, and while we reluctantly concluded the project with more questions than answers, we hope that these points will focus the international Participatory Budgeting community towards genuine development that will benefit all of the many hard-working and dedicated practitioners around the world.
Image: Chris Slupski