Giving residents a crack at city budgets

Queena Kim Oct 7, 2013

Giving residents a crack at city budgets

Queena Kim Oct 7, 2013

If you’re keeping up with the budget fight in D.C., you might be thinking, “I could figure this out, why don’t they ask me?” Well, in San Francisco, some residents are getting that chance.

The city by the bay just finished an experiment in participatory budgeting. The idea is simple. Let ordinary folks decide how to spend public money. San Francisco is one of a handful of cities around the country piloting the idea.

To show me how it works, San Francisco Supervisor David Chui took me to the Chinatown Branch Library, which is in his district. It was early evening and the place was packed.

There are a lot of seniors here and it was actually our Chinese immigrant seniors that made the push for books in their language,” said Chui. “And as somebody who is a native English speaker, it’s not something I thought about until it was brought to my attention through this process.”  

For the pilot, Chiu set aside $100,000 and asked the residents in his district to help him spend it. Residents attended town hall meetings, debated the issues and voted. Among the things they funded: giving money to local businesses and providing rent assistance to people getting evicted.

A few hundred people took part in the pilot. That’s more than the handful of residents who typically show up at budget meetings in City Hall. But Chui says the city can do better.

“I have 75,000-80,000 constituents, many of whom have no idea that this budget process is happening,” Chui said. “So I think there’s an opportunity with technology to engage many more people.

The idea is to slowly move that process online. They city is still hashing out how that might work. But it’s got a model in Brazil, which is where participatory budgeting started, said Tim Bonnemann, CEO of Intellitics. His startup is among a growing number of companies finding ways to use digital tools to improve civic participation.

One of the smarter uses of technology that I’ve seen with participatory budgeting in Brazil is getting wired vans that take Internet access to those neighborhoods that aren’t as wired,”  Bonnemann said.

He adds that instead of going for flashy, sexy apps, techies need to tackle basic problems like access to technology.

Mick Thompson agrees but says cities have their issues too. Thompson is an engineering resident at Code for America, a nonprofit in San Francisco that helps bring technology to cities.

“There are occasions when city’s think we can just create a hack-a-thon and have this solved in a weekend,” Thompson said.

Thompson says cities don’t always understand that even the best apps and software need to be constantly updated and tweaked and that costs money. And sometimes it just doesn’t work.

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