• Opinion
  • November 27, 2018
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Cities are at the cutting edge of the future of government — here’s why

Opinion: Research shows cities leading on participatory budgeting and civic engagement

This opinion piece was written by Hollie Gilman, a political reform program fellow at New America. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


It is indisputable that we need new models for the future of governance. But what precisely do they look like on the ground? With today’s record-low levels of global trust in governance, there is an opportunity for creativity and imagination to improve the precise relationship between governments and their residents.

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Cities, in particular, offer an instructive testbed for new innovations in redesigning service delivery inside City Hall as well as empowering people in their local communities. This is especially important as globally, urban population growth in on the rise. According to the UN, 68% of the world population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050, up from 55%. If there are 2.5 billion people added to urban populations, what precisely will governance look like for these residents?

Cities offer an instructive testbed for new innovations

Within urban governments, there are exciting innovations tapping into residents’ lived experiences, local expertise, and experimentation within City Hall to re-imagine how cities can deliver public services. Recent research colleagues and I conducted in Philadelphia underscores the vibrant experimentation occurring in communities, and may offer lessons for cities around the globe. Below are three models of urban governance which can help turn hyper-local expertise into larger decision making power.

Institutionalising civic engagement

We are seeing a diverse crop of innovations in city halls across the United States. For example, participatory budgeting, which allows a portion of the population to allocate public funds is gaining traction across the globe.

Since its first use in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 to empower community members to allocate funds, the process has begun to be adopted in Europe. Following its success in Brazil, participatory budgeting experienced a boom in global popularity. Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo has turned over $480 million over six years to a version of participatory budgeting that combines online and in-person voting options.

The World Bank has dubbed participatory budgeting a “best practice” in democratic innovation and supported its use across several developing countries. It has now been used either at the district, city, state or country level in places like Peru (2002); the Dominican Republic (2007); Kenya (2010); South Korea (2005); Indonesia (2000); the Philippines (2012); and in the first national process in Portugal (2017).

In the 2018 midterm elections in the United States, voters approved participatory budgeting in a wider ballot initiative in New York City, alongside the creation of a new Civic Engagement Commission. The ballot measure includes expanding participatory budgeting across every council process.

New York City’s ballot initiatives reflect feedback from a series of public meetings. It demonstrates a promising model of how community feedback can become integrated into bureaucratic structures to support community members.

Human-centred design and evidence-based policymaking

Local government is finding new ways to engage residents, incorporating human-centred design and evidence-based decision-making. For example, the Philadelphia Participatory Design Lab, which colleagues Chayenne Polimedio, Elena Souris and I have been researching with support from the Knight Foundation, has been able to engage residents more effectively in policy formation and design through pilots with the Department of Revenue and Office of Homeless Services.

For example, since the Department of Revenue is legally bound to send most communication through the mail, the Design Lab (which places fellows into City Hall) implemented a simple A/B testing model where different versions of the same message were sent to randomly assigned groups of addresses. As a result, they have more data on which types of messages will resonate with residents. This is especially important when these messages have large consequences for people.

Bringing communities together

Many communities are experiencing polarisation and division, especially as more and more wealth is concentrated in a few urban areas, creating what urbanist Richard Florida calls the “winner-takes-all” of the new Urban Crisis. Cities are simultaneously hubs of innovation and places of staggering inequality.

Cities are simultaneously hubs of innovation and places of staggering inequality

Given these divides, both economic and cultural, there is a push for creative thinking to bring different types of people together. One promising example is On The Table, an event started by the Chicago Community Trust in 2014, which the Knight Foundation has helped expand to 30 communities across the United States.  The concept is simple but powerful. Through breaking bread with new people, people can discuss opportunities to make their neighbourhoods safer and more vibrant.

Each participating city is scheduling a day where thousands of residents share a meal and discuss topics which affect their communal life. Philadelphia’s On the Table day in November 2018 included 400 different gatherings across the city, with roughly 5,000 people participating. Importantly, at these meals, people did not shy away from politically charged conversations, but rather confronted them head-on. This included discussions surrounding race, class, and immigrants.

None of these initiatives on their own will be a panacea for the inequality and myriad of other challenges facing cities. But taken together, they may start to demonstrate the opportunities for fresh thinking and the potential impact of creativity in urban governance. —Hollie Gilman

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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