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Business - Written by on Monday, February 16, 2009 18:16 - 12 Comments

Collaborative public policy-making, the Freiburg way

Getting citizen consultation in public policy writing is a difficult task.  The first challenge is  finding a venue for citizens to voice their opinions.  By all accounts, the Web has improved this process – Obama’s Change.gov website gathered input from over 125 000 citizens.  But the the next challenge, and the more taxing one, is tying the input to to policy-writing in a formal way.  Change.gov, although it had an impressive user base, was really little more than a suggestion box.

This begs the question – how can Web 2.0 tools improve on this model and move beyond the suggestion box?

One innovative case of public policy consultation can be found in the city of Freiburg, Germany.  In 2008, the municipal government of Freiburg invited its citizens to partake in a participatory budgeting exercise.  The goal was to gather citizen input for the drafting of the 2009/2010 municipal budget.   With the help of software company TuTech Innovation, the Freiburg government created a website that used discussion forums, wikis and a new innovation – the budget slider.

budget-slider

Citizens who registered for the website could manipulate these sliders to create their own individual budgets, by moving the sliders up or down to either increase or decrease spending to any one of the 22 budget areas.  The key constraint was that the total budget had to balance to 2008 levels, so spending increases in one area necessitated economizations in another.  Citizens were also invited to provide written justifications for their changes. 

Following the completion of the process, all of the individual budgets were aggregated into one single “Citizen’s Budget”, which gave a clear picture of the participants’ wishes for the 2009/2010 municipal budget. 

Overall, 1800 citizens registered to use the website, with 1291 writing individual budgets (750 of whom provided written justifications).  Although this is less than 1% of the city’s population (217 000), it still represents a sevenfold increase over the roughly 150-200 citizens who might show up for an offline, townhall consultation process.

Building on the Change.gov model, this input was actually used as a focal point in the local government’s debate over the drafting of the actual budget.  In one case, 400 000 Euros were redirected to childcare spending, a change that may not have occurred without the widespread support that the measure received in the Citizen’s Budget.

Also building on the suggestion box model, the final Citizen’s Budget was drafted into a report that was published by the municipal government.  This allowed a great deal of transparency, as this budget could now be compared to the actual budget that was written into law, also providing an improved degree of government accountability. 

Overall, this case demonstrates the new relationship that’s possible between government and citizens.  Simple tools like the budget slider can add a whole new level of transparency to the public square dialogue.



12 Comments

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Twowan
Feb 16, 2009 19:00

Good experiment but, in my opinion, direct democracy begins with information. I want to see the entire accounts, every bill, every pay check, every municipal contract, being presented, in real-time, online for all to examine. Large groups (like citizens of a town) are very good at data mining. It would take them just a few weeks, if not less, to identify all the areas of mismanagement and, possibly, incidents of corruption. Real questions could be asked and elected officials would have to be a lot more careful in their financial planning. We should not judge politicians on what they say that they are going to do but just on what they really do. Twowan. Check my profile.

Bart
Feb 17, 2009 8:55

This will take some time to form a good opinion, but here are my first thoughts.
I seem to remember something from high school about the difference between a republic and a democracy being more than just an informed citizenry. I will have to refresh myself on the differences. I like the consensus building possibilities, but the implementation might have jumped into the middle of the process. What I mean is that consensus building is at times more effective when a clear vision and mission is agreed upon in the beginning. The creation of a balanced budget is more a constraint than a vision. What should the city look like in five years? That said it is possible the aggregation of many interest might lead to a shared vision if the construct allows for buy in to be realized at the individual level. The big question seems to be, how does each input become more valuable than a factor determined by the number of votes it receives? How can we enable citizens to take another’s input, internalize it, and push forward toward this now shared goal?
I will get back with you tomorrow with all the answers. Just joking.

Alex Marshall
Feb 17, 2009 9:34

Twowan and Bart – Thanks to both of you for your thoughts.

Twowan – I absolutely agree with you that transparent information is very important. I would love to see more real-time information, and I think that in many instances, government would be more accountable if they knew that citizens had the ability to scrutinize expenditures to the degree you’re talking about.

Bart – Excellent theoretical questions, and I’m not sure I have the answers either. I don’t think the Freiburg case is by any means perfect. But I do think that we’re finally seeing some potential that future developments can build upon. As for how well these future developments can address your questions, we’ll have to wait and see.

Notional Slurry » links for 2009-02-24
Feb 25, 2009 1:22

[...] Wikinomics» Blog Archive "Following the completion of the process, all of the individual budgets were aggregated into one single “Citizen’s Budget”, which gave a clear picture of the participants’ wishes for the 2009/2010 municipal budget. [...]

Onderweg naar gemeente 2.0 | Ambtenaar 2.0
Jun 25, 2009 7:56

[...] breder en laagdrempeliger worden georganiseerd. Bekijk de voorbeelden van online consultatie in Freiburg (Duitsland) en Wellington (Nieuw-Zeeland) maar [...]

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Jul 6, 2009 15:46

[...] a system that would allow people to allocate their own time in a structured way (similar to the Freiburg budget example). I’m envisioning a system where resources are finite but can dynamically allocated; where [...]

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[...] a system that would allow people to allocate their own time in a structured way (similar to the Freiburg budget example). I’m envisioning a system where resources are finite but can dynamically allocated; where [...]

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[...] people think more carefully about using it. Fourth, the size does not matter. Like in the case of Freiburg’s participatory budget model, a small town like Manor can also serve as a role model for open government [...]

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Jul 5, 2010 12:03

[...] [...]

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[...] governments think about using crowdsourcing instruments like the participatory budget model of Freiburg or platforms like Manorlabs one of the biggest concern is: How can we prevent that lobby groups or [...]

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[...] governments think about using crowdsourcing instruments like the participatory budget model of Freiburg or platforms like Manorlabs one of the biggest concern is: How can we prevent that lobby groups or [...]

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[...] next order of sophistication for something like this would be an interactive budget chart a la Freiburg model, where citizens could use the visualization to propose their own balanced budgets as a way to [...]

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