The next generation of digital democracy tools

Marijel walks by an old neighborhood park every day on her way to work. She fondly recalls visiting the park as a child, running around with friends, laughing away the sticky summer days.

These days the park reminds her more of a vacant lot than a place for kids to hang out. While attending one of her district’s neighborhood assemblies for Participatory Budgeting in New York City (PBNYC), Marijel put forward the idea that funds should be used to improve the neglected park.

The months that followed were both long and short. Walking by the park reminded her of how much waiting was left before she would know if it was on the ballot.

She wondered if anyone had read her suggestion, questioning whether she gave enough information to convince community members to prioritize the park. She wished there was a way for her to stay plugged into the process, to participate in conversations about ideas collected in her district.

She waited.  

The growth of participatory budgeting (PB) shows that people want more opportunities to improve their neighborhoods, and better ways to participate in civic decision-making. But, as Marijel’s story illustrates, the complicated administrative process and workflow remain not only a challenge for staff but also limit broader participation.

The current process creates a high workload for staff and also makes communication and information management among staff, budget delegates, and community participants complicated and difficult to manage.  

PBP’s Participation Lab dedicates its efforts to improving the PB process by researching innovative tools and materials to address the challenges of both running and participating in PB (check out our award-winning project, mypb.info).

That’s why we were excited to learn about CONSUL—a digital tool that facilitates civic engagement by connecting citizens to governments.

Developed by the City of Madrid and collaboratively supported by a network of individuals and organizations continuing to improve the platform, CONSUL can already be used to share, discuss, and vote on proposals within a PB process, as well as to engage participants in debates, decision-making, and collaborative legislation beyond PB (see video).

This video provides a narrated overview of CONSUL’s vision and features.

 

A comprehensive digital tool like CONSUL can significantly improve staff’s ability to streamline different phases of PB, free up staff time for outreach, and increase opportunities for community members to become civically engaged through sustained participation.

As the first organization to use CONSUL in North America, PBP is developing new modules and features designed to improve information management and communication in PB—and beyond!

After our initial development work, CONSUL can display all ideas (submitted in person and online), use comments to facilitate discussion of ideas (not only among staff or delegates, but also including people like Marijel who want to track or follow an idea they submitted!), and allow participants to tag, filter, and search ideas (making it easier to form a community online to support an idea or project).

To further continued development of CONSUL for the contexts and workflows of PB in North America, NY City Council Members Stephen Levin (District 33) and Brad Lander (District 39) have partnered with us to pilot the tool for this year’s PBNYC cycle (2018-2019).

Currently, budget delegates and staff are using CONSUL to view, share, and sort through the ideas collected in their district, and PBP is working closely with both districts to develop proposal sharing and voting features to improve the existing workflow and process. Throughout the piloting process, PBP meets with district staff and community volunteers to collect feedback and listen to their experiences using CONSUL.

This pilot paves the way for a major upgrade in PBNYC and civic engagement programs next year. It is teaching us how CONSUL—and other innovative tools like it—can make participation easier, more visible, and more accessible, bolstering PB’s ability to continue transforming civic participation on a larger scale.

Over 402,000 people have used PB to decide how to spend $300 million to address the most pressing needs of their communities, funding 1,630 projects across the US and Canada. Imagine the transformative possibilities of a PB process that’s easier for both administrators and community members – especially those who face the greatest barriers to participation!

And since NYC voters just passed a ballot initiative to establish citywide PB, it’s even more important to research, test, and develop innovative tools to make it easier for all community members to participate in civic decision-making and grassroots democracy.

To get involved in taking PB technology to the next level, become a PB Amplifier or donate now, and don’t forget to sign up as a tech tool tester!

 

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