SPECIAL: Brexit, populism and how to find out what people really want

A year's research on how governments can connect to ordinary people

Hello, Apolitical readers,

In this, our first quarterly special, we pick out the big trends and new ideas in how to involve ordinary people in directing what government does: where to spend money, what to focus on, and which calls to make on big decisions.

Top Stories

Was the Brexit vote bungled? How not to consult your citizens
Whatever you think of the result, there is no doubt the process has left Britain divided, belligerent and vulnerable to anti-government populism. Meanwhile, South Australia has run ‘citizens’ juries’ that demonstrate how to grow consensus on inflammatory questions and give some clues on how we could all start to repair our political culture. (Apolitical Reporting)

More than half Reykjavik’s residents have taken part in making policy. Set up after the 2008 financial crisis shattered public confidence, an online platform lets people suggest what the city government should do, and vote on the suggestions. Some 200 policies have been taken on, and 56% of Reykjavikers have participated. (Apolitical Reporting)

Darebin City Council established a citizen’s jury to decide how to use a $2million infrastructure fund

1. Citizens decide where the money goes

More than 2,500 places around the world are trying ‘participatory budgeting’ – where people get to suggest government projects and then vote on which ones are acted on. The idea came out of Porto Alegre, Brazil, where it has been running for decades, but has recently boomed in popularity.

Some notable examples are Paris, the world’s largest, which is disbursing around $600million; Portugal, the first country to try it nationwide; and Ichinomiya City in Japan, where people can directly allocate 1% of their taxes to socially beneficial organisations.

World Bank research finds that participatory budgeting tends to direct funding towards the poor, alleviating their situation. Advocates say it also makes government services more targeted by drawing on local knowledge. One criticism is that it can result in funding for ‘fun things’, like playgrounds or music venues, without tackling deeper problems.

An interesting variation is crowdfunding: cities and agencies directly appealing for donations towards a specific project. Germany crowdfunded a train; New Zealand has crowdfunded the purchase of a national park; in the English city of Brighton, those who contribute to the renovation of the Victorian pier get to vote on the businesses that move into it. Many cities, like London, are now putting aside money to match the funds raised. But one of the neatest tweaks comes from Texas, where people renewing their driving licenses online are invited to help pay for much-needed rape kits.

Germany’s crowdfunded train, the Locomore

Apolitical Reporting (I)

Ghana is texting its citizens information about the cost of building roads and schools. The scheme intends to hook people into the political process using information about the things they care most about. Before the project began, 80% of Ghanaians didn’t know who their local representative was. (Apolitical Reporting)

Oslo keeps kids safe by making them ‘secret smartphone agents’ The city encourages schoolchildren to ‘go undercover’ to report dangerous roads or crossings on their route to school via a geo-tagged app. Officials then fix those things to get more kids walking every day. (Apolitical Reporting)

Kids in Oslo use the Trafikkagenten app to report difficult crossings on their way to school

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2. Letting people know what government is actually doing

Almost nothing that government does is known about by the public, and the things that make the papers are usually blunders and controversies – not the bulk of what affects daily lives. Hence mistrust, cynicism, the stereotype of faceless bureaucrats.

Many places, from small towns to big countries, have recently created ‘data portals’, websites that display government information in easily digestible ways, usually through visualisations. The classic information is budgets. A gold standard example is Sweden’s site for its international aid; you can see how much it spent in, say, Bangladesh over the past 20 years, down to the types of freshwater fish it is helping to categorise.

There’s a neat variation on this idea in the small city of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, which has started issuing itemised receipts when residents pay their taxes. The receipts show what their dollars fund. The average resident pays $297 to local services, including $89 for police, $41 for parks and recreation and $3 towards the city manager’s operations.

As well as seeing what your government spends money on, there’s also a plethora of new tools for seeing what laws it’s writing. The Basque country data portal, for example, publishes the parliament’s legislative calendar so that people know when specific things are being discussed, and lets them comment on proposed laws.

The European Parliament’s ‘train schedule’ for legislative priorities

The European Parliament has created a ‘train schedule’ for its priorities, showing how far down the track each part of its agenda is. And in Germany, you can search through the minutes of hundreds of parliamentary committee meetings to see how the laws get made and who makes them.

One of the most impressive projects, in California, provides searchable digital videos and transcripts of every hearing conducted by the state government. And for each elected official speaking, the website also lists their financial ties to lobbyists and big corporations.

Apolitical Reporting (II)

Taiwan is using social media to crowdsource legislation. It has broken a six-year political deadlock on alcohol sales by having people on Facebook rate statements on the issue as agree/disagree/not sure. The ratings are clustered to find areas of consensus across partisan lines. (Apolitical Reporting)

San Francisco has created a social network for surviving an earthquake.
The app tries to build community resilience by helping users create emergency plans, stock up on the right supplies and, in case of emergency, see real-time information on escape routes and shelters. (Apolitical Reporting)

City72 Tour from SFDeptEmrgcyMgmt.

3. Making government as easy to use as Facebook

The advent of apps and social media has given government lots of new possibilities for connecting with their citizens, or even adopting the way they work. Residents of Santa Monica can use ‘Tinder for urban design’, swiping left or right to make their feelings known on proposed downtown developments. And courts in Melbourne, Australia, have modelled a new digital dispute resolution service on the methods used by eBay.

One of the most popular apps, introduced everywhere from Bangalore to Toronto is the range of variations on ‘See Click Fix’. These apps let you take geo-tagged pictures of broken streetlights, potholes or dumped waste and auto-report them to be fixed. Otherwise, you would have to contact City Hall to report things, or the local government would have to mount inspection patrols.

The UN gives low-income people in Kenya, Peru, Haiti and Nepal the chance to redesign public spaces with Minecraft

Those digital reports represent a crude form of crowdsourcing, which can also work on a vast scale. Mexico City asked riders of its informal microbuses to submit their GPS data to help map their routes, and so let officials plan a public transport network. Almost the entire system, some 29,000 microbuses plying 1,500 routes, was mapped in a fortnight.

The most fun version of this is to gather information via games. The UN has used Minecraft to help slum-dwellers in Kenya, Peru, Haiti and Nepal redesign their neighbourhoods. Disadvantaged people play the wildly popular game to create planning proposals for local officials. The official planners have been ‘amazed to see what young women from slums could design’.

And finally

During the 2011 tsunami in Japan, far fewer people died in towns with good links to authorities. Those with a strong sense of community took faster collective action, evacuating residents and helping those in distress. The researchers say it would save more lives to invest in community than in sea walls. The lesson is clear.

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(Picture credit: Pexels, newDemocracy Foundation, Facebook/Trafikkagenten, European Parliament, Vimeo/SF72, Pixabay)

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