E-Democracy is a process where not only physical governance transitions to digital, but also people are empowered to contribute in decision making process. One such activity is participatory budgeting. The participatory budgeting empowers people to decide together how to spend public money. This can be good thing for many reasons. It better reflects citizen interests, holds policymakers more accountable, improves implementation and, as a result, increases the standard of living.
Portugal is one of the front runner country which has launched nationwide participatory budgeting since 2017, focussing on four policy areas: culture, agriculture, science, education and adult training. An extensive outreach is conducted and ideas are gathered. Post technical analysis of ideas, projects are identified and put up for voting. Then administratation identifies some of the most voted project for implementation. For successful implementation, key partners are identified who have voted, have experience and are driven for the project.
“Basically, ‘PB’ is a tool for citizen participation. Here, citizens influence financial planning through an online procedure. What sounds rather brittle in theory, turns out in practice to deliver a new dynamism and quality.”
The most important aspect of participatory budgeting is involving people to contribute to the ideas, create awareness and engage them in voting process. The Participatory democracy model can be aided through the use of ICT. Some examples where ICT can be used are education, mobilization through processes that shape collective opinion in debates and educational settings. This includes computerized information campaigns, mass public information systems, provision of easy access to users, electronic debates to mould opinions, active learning and participation. The other concepts that can be tried are building virtual communities and horizontal communications in collectively created network, providing citizens conditions to voice opinions and vote. There are icing on the cake that ICT can bring to the table such as real time online voting, budget simulators and monitoring/ making assessments or progress public.
Another aspect where ICT can be applied is formulating strategy that contain an element of assessment of the relationship between power and social actors. For example:
- Identify who hold power over information. This actor provides information to several units through consultation and conversation.
- Identify who hold power over communication. This communication and engagement of public combines ICT and face-to-face interactions to pass on the message for participation.
Though use of ICT to achieve goals of participatory budgeting seems rosy, lack of sufficient resources or ICT knowhow may handicap administration in using digital modes. Not to undermine the digital divide, which is a reality in many parts of the world, government needs to innovate. Some of the possibilities that may be employed by countries are mentioned as under:
- Making computers available in crowded areas.
- Subsidizing purchase of computer and setting up internet for needy families
- Setting up polling stations at the places where people are likely to not have access to computer.
- Mounting computers connected to internet on bus for voting. The bus would travel to remote areas.
- In addition to voting, build message/ programs where people can take virtual visits to participate in discussion and pass message to PB coordination team.
- Introduce forums and chat rooms where citizens and members of government team can participate.
- Free telephone line for voting and information dissemination may be introduced.
While technology hold immense ability to outreach, it cannot replace face-to-face interaction as it is important for citizens and communities to feel the importance of their contribution, the commitment that they bring to the table and the warmth & joy from the concrete results. Internet is available to many people these days but still there are many who have limited or no internet access. In such cases direct communication such as leaflet, caricatures, cartoons, street broadcasts, posters and announcements on local radio/ TV may be provided.
In case of Digital Participatory Budgeting, trust, neutrality and security are paramount. These parameters cannot be compromised and protests on these counts may soon erode confidence of public. Many countries such as Portugal have taken a mixed architecture approach where they employ both digital and human aspects of engagement.