ON THE AGENDA | JANUARY 31ST, 2017 | Megan Rose Donovan

Setting Equity Goals for Digital Tools in New York City

There is a spirit of innovation inherent to PB.

New York City is home to some of the longest-running participatory budgeting (PB) sites. It’s expanded to 31 council districts in 2015-16 from four in 2011-12. Experimentation with digital tools like online project idea submission, project mapping and a remote voting platform have coincided with this proliferation.

“PB implementers have sought technological solutions to the challenges that arise as local government, community groups and other stakeholders are faced with managing this unique form of civic engagement on a larger scale,” writes Erin Markman of the Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center, a group that has led the evaluation of PBNYC since its inception.

Erin described the spirit of innovation inherent to PB in a short case study that Public Agenda included in a new analysis of all 46 communities who did PB last year.

From the outset, PBNYC knew it wanted to develop and use tech to address a defined set of goals. This included streamlining registration, efficiently maintaining contact lists, maximizing outreach resources, alleviating administrative burdens of manual data entry and providing more ways to submit project ideas.

“Technological tools, like all aspects of PB, must be evaluated to ensure they are in the service of the PB process goals, particularly goals such as inclusion and equity,“ she says. PBNYC had to overcome challenges like language access and lack of internet in the home. Based on their experiences, Erin has the following recommendations for communities that wish to ensure engagement practices which utilize technology are accessible and equitable:

  • Don’t expect tech to be the silver bullet. Technology can complement, but should not replace, key aspects of the PB process, particularly paper ballots and in-person outreach by local community-based organizations or other trusted institutions.
  • Be patient and persistent. Good tech takes time: to set up, to test with real users, to train staff and volunteers, to establish proper security measures and to evaluate with diverse stakeholders, including the steering committee, at the end of each process.
  • Evaluate the use of tech. Local researchers are best equipped to develop their own priorities for investigation, but areas of interest might include demographic differences between those who vote digitally and those who vote on paper; how well remote voting technology reaches homebound people or others who could not otherwise participate or others who could not otherwise participate; and whether the use of technology impacts the degree to which PB participants report developing new relationships or skills.

You can read about how San Francisco's online voting system established a new collaboration with the city’s Department of Technology and other case studies in “A Process of Growth: The Expansion of Participatory Budgeting in the United States and Canada in 2015 – 16.”


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