Félicitations Madame Mayor!

28th November 2016

Victoria Boelman is the Principal Researcher in Government Innovation within Nesta's Policy and Research Team. This blog was originally posted at Nesta

In late 2014, just a few months after her election, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo set out to deliver on her ambition to turn the city into a more collaborative one, where residents play an active role in the ideas and decisions which shape its future.

The first step was to introduce a participatory budgeting programme. The idea itself was not a new one. Participatory budgeting, the process by which citizens make proposals for how a proportion of a city's budget should be spent, with the winning ideas selected by popular vote, dates back to the 1980s in Brazil. But digital technologies are now reinvigorating the process with more and more cities and towns adopting the approach, from New York, to Barcelona, to the small communities of Brechin and Montrose in Scotland.

Here at Nesta we are busy exploring when and how digital tools can change the way in which citizens engage with democracy and the institutions which govern them, at a local or national level. One of the key issues, as we explored recently is understanding how and when the crowd is wise - in this respect, participatory budgeting is a great example. It asks people to come up with solutions to problems in their community, on which they are the experts, and in which they are highly invested. The nature of the process gives ample opportunity for the plurality of voices to be heard, while also encouraging collaboration and consensus building among participants with similar agendas, and finally giving everyone the opportunity to vote for those ideas which matter most to them.

In 2014, Paris did not have time to crowdsource the proposals or even to widely promote the initiative, but nonetheless over 40,000 people voted on 15 proposals put forward by the City Council. In the second year, a new dedicated website was launched, the residents of Paris suggested over 5,000 ideas and more than 58,000 people voted.

These first two attempts taught the team behind the process some important lessons. There are three I want to highlight here. First, although perhaps not so surprisingly, raising awareness and achieving participation is hard, and so is the process of managing and processing so many ideas. It takes a lot of time, money and proactive outreach to run a programme at this scale.

Second, digital is only part of the answer. While the website is invaluable, in the first round only 60% of people chose to vote online. The online activity is also supplemented with a huge number of offline workshops, groups and civil society-led activity which galvanises people at a local level to take part. For the process to become truly representative of the city this will continue to be essential, helping to bridge digital, generational, socio-economic and linguistic divides.

Third, it seems that even though people are experts in their own lives and communities, they may still need support and some gentle nudges to encourage them to tackle some of the harder problems in society. Many of the initiatives in the first rounds related to environmental improvements such as cycle lanes or sports facilities, rather than initiatives to tackle problems of social cohesion, for example. Some of this may reflect the novelty of the process - once people see what can be achieved their ambitions will grow.

It may also reflect the constraints on the budget, which means that funded projects cannot incur significant ongoing costs for the city, inevitably constraining what can be proposed, and that many decisions about public services are made at the federal rather than municipal level. But it may also reflect the intrinsic challenge of tackling ‘wicked’ social problems, such as the long-standing isolation of some suburbs where poverty, unemployment and disengagement are high and opportunities few, and/or the lack of participation from the groups most affected by them.

Over the last year the Paris team have responded to all of these issues - increasing the size of the team working on citizen engagement, strengthening relations with civil society and continuing to invest in offline and online promotion of the programme. They also slightly restructured the budget to reserve a proportion exclusively for the most deprived areas of the city. Another proportion was reserved for spending on youth and education projects, with schools being encouraged to participate and children's votes determining how that money is spent. Those children in turn may have educated and encouraged their families to take part.

All of which makes the results of the 2016 round of participatory budgeting in Paris a significant achievement. Last month, over 158,000 people voted in the latest round, a 39% increase on 2015, deciding how to spend €100 million. Even after excluding the school votes, almost 93,000 adults participated. It is now twice as large as the New York participatory budgeting scheme, the biggest in North America.

We hope now that Paris will dig into the data and continue to grow the amount of information it captures. Who were the voters and how representative are they of the population? Interestingly we already know, for example, that less than half of adult votes were cast online, and a third of those who did vote online were under 30. Over half of those voting online also voted for at least one project in one of the most deprived areas. And what led to the increased rates of participation? What difference does it make to reserve portions of the budget for specific groups? We look forward to learning more.

Image credit: Jess Wood, Flickr, CC-BY-2.0

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