Civic Innovation Is Flourishing in Cities Right Now

Op-ed: From participatory budgeting to citizen assemblies, local governments around the world are experimenting with new ways to increase civic trust and equity. 

Residents walking on a sidewalk in Chile

(Photo by mauro mora / Unsplash)

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This summer, cities around the world are unveiling and expanding new tools and initiatives in the name of civic engagement and digital innovation.

From Los Angeles to Lisbon, local governments are testing different models of outreach and participation with the promise of increasing trust and equity in civic processes and institutions. Ranging from online portals to citizen assemblies, the wave of experimentation in policy and design responds to historic levels of distrust and disengagement in government at all levels.

The question remains whether these new tools deliver on their promises to effectively bring underrepresented communities into decision-making processes and increase transparency and equity in bureaucratic systems. The fear is that one-off civic innovation pilots add a glossy coat of paint to already broken systems without addressing the underlying problems.

But the promise of local experimentation is for other cities to learn from what works and what doesn’t. Local governments have always been laboratories for policy reform and can provide opportunities to scale successes, and hopefully sustain a greater commitment for public participation in the civic realm to fundamentally shift how we govern.

In Brazil, the birthplace of the participatory budgeting movement, there is a newfound commitment to advancing collaborative governance. Participatory budgeting, which was first tested in Porto Alegre in 1990, gives community members a say in how the local government spends its budget. The idea spread across cities in Brazil and around the world. This year, Brazil launched the Brasil Participativo digital platform to host a nationwide participatory budgeting process, the first of its kind. This summer, residents will be able to log on to the platform to directly participate in the country’s four-year budgeting plan and submit proposals.

The U.S. has seen an uptick in participatory budgeting processes aided by federal resources, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act. From Nashville to Evanston, cities are unrolling participatory budgeting pilots; Boston announced an inaugural Office of Participatory Budgeting, signaling a sustained commitment to the Brazilian policy invention. New digital platforms, like Brasil Participativo, are increasing access to participatory budgeting and allowing initiatives to scale quickly. New York City launched The People’s Money 2023 which provides an online platform for a citywide participatory budgeting program where any resident ages 11 and up can cast an online ballot to vote for community-proposed projects. The platform is powered by Decision 21, an online tool built for public decision-making. which has primarily been used by cities across the Czech Republic.

Other cities are looking towards online platforms to increase transparency and information sharing around complicated and inaccessible bureaucratic systems. The L.A Times launched Shape Your LA, a new web-based app aimed at breaking down local power structures and providing a guide map for engaging on local issues. A user inputs their address and the platform offers a roadmap for accessing city services, navigating jurisdictional boundaries, contacting local officials, and live-streaming county board meetings.

Citizen assemblies are another co-governance tool making headlines. Through a citizen assembly, a group of randomly selected residents are chosen through a lottery process to deliberate on local issues.

Lisbon is the latest city to make citizen assemblies a permanent component of their governing process. Selected residents reflective of Lisbon’s demographic makeup were joined by technical experts to create “15-minute city” policy and design proposals. Participants deliberated on ideas ranging from creating a culture pass for city facilities, increasing multi-purpose public spaces, and launching an awareness campaign about the city’s waste system.

Bogotá continues to evolve its model of citizen assemblies. In addition to hosting a citizen assembly composed of randomly selected citizens who deliberate on policy issues, the city launched an open online platform for all citizens to contribute their ideas to the city’s governance. The city’s public innovation lab, Demo Lab, facilitates digital consultations on its site which allows residents to gather online, debate topics, and contribute ideas, including what should be on the City Council’s agenda.

The U.S. federal government should look to cities around the world, including Brazil, Lisbon and Bogotá, which are pioneering and embedding public participation as an everyday practice for policymaking. As millions of federal dollars from ARPA, IIJA and IRA flow to U.S. cities, there is an unprecedented opportunity to transform how we govern. Cities like Oakland have already used tools like participatory budgeting to include community residents to decide how federal funds should be spent.

It is particularly exciting to see cities apply co-governance tools with increased scope, timelines, and dedication of resources signaling a more sustained commitment to civic power beyond pilots and test runs.

These models leverage digital tools to bring more people into the conversation about how cities should be governed, a conversation we need to continue to have in order to keep our civic muscles engaged and our institutions accountable.

Institutionalizing what works, through the dedication of offices for participatory budgeting like in Boston or making citizen assemblies a permanent feature of policymaking like in Lisbon, helps to fundamentally transition local bureaucracies towards more open and collaborative systems.

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Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman is a Senior Fellow at New America's Political Reform Program and an Affiliate Fellow at Harvard's Ash Center. She is the author of “Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America” and most recently co-author of “Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis.“ She served as Open Government and Innovation Advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. 

Grace Levin is a Master in Urban Planning student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Prior to graduate school, she worked on community outreach projects with the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department. She majored in anthropology and sociology at Middlebury College. Grace was a Community Service Fellow with the Harvard Joint Center For Housing Studies and a Fellow with New Urban Progress. She is interested in issues of housing, community development, and innovations in local government.

Tags: participatory budgetingcommunity engagementcivic engagementparticipatory planning

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