This post by Hollie Russon Gilman is part of our ongoing coverage of Boston’s first-in-the-nation participatory budgeting initiative, which is distinct in that it is youth-focused and being driven by the mayor’s office. Read our earlier posts here and here.
By Hollie Russon Gilman, PhD
Students from across the city enter a large room and are given a name tag with a number on it. Energetic music is playing. The walls are lined with poster paper. Over the next two hours, this diverse array of Boston students break into small groups to discuss projects that they think are important to their community. Trained volunteer facilitators ensure that people can speak, listen, and safely share ideas. A particular emphasis is placed on projects that address community need and benefit many people.
This not an exercise; $1 million in city capital funds are at stake. The meeting is one of a series of idea collection assemblies for Boston’s Youth Lead the Change—the first youth-led participatory budgeting process in the United States.
Similar assemblies are taking place over the next several weeks throughout Boston, along with additional mobile assemblies setting up in schools and other central locations. All begin with a multimedia presentation about participatory budgeting: what it is, how it works, and why it matters.
About the video: Each assembly begins with a multimedia presentation about participatory budgeting, including videos like this one from the Participatory Budgeting Project.
The assembly’s atmosphere is social. Between eating pizza and meeting the other participants, young people share their views on pressing community needs and brainstorm ideas for projects that could improve their community.
Projects do have certain parameters. Each must cost at least $25,000 and have a lifespan of at least five years. They might but are not required to fall into one of several pre-determined categories such as parks, public safety, public art, Boston Centers for Youth and Families’ facilities, and schools. On this day, popular project ideas included expanding wifi access, repairing community meeting spaces, improving parks, and building new bus shelters with countdown clocks.
At the end of each assembly, everyone is directed to text “YouthChange” to 877877 on their mobile phones. A welcome message asks for name and age.
In addition to this SMS platform, young people can also participate virtually through the city’s experimental, custom-made Citizinvestor platform. As another supplement to the assemblies, anyone can submit a project idea online through Citizinvestor, which also enables young people to leave comments and “like” other project ideas. In June, Boston residents between 12 and 25 years old will be able to vote on project ideas through the platform. Until then, each idea must be submitted to with a description of the importance of the project and whom it will benefit.
Citizinvestor users have their own profiles, an attempt to infuse the participatory budgeting initiative with a social networking strategy, a priority for the steering committee. Indeed the purpose of incorporating digital media is to reach more young people—via the technology platforms they already use most—than would participate through face to face meetings alone.
The Citizinvestor platform is intended to reduce barriers to engagement including time constraints and lack of awareness. For example, the online platform makes the engagement asynchronous, allowing organizers to avoid difficult scheduling dilemmas. Participants do not need to all make the same meeting time.
While helpful in addressing some of the typical barriers to engagement for the civic-minded, digital technologies alone will not galvanize all the diverse viewpoints desired. Ensuring the participation of traditionally marginalized voices such as at-risk teens, another priority for the organizers, will require grassroots organizing and mobilizing.
Wisely, Boston is deploying a hybrid process of both offline and online approaches for idea collection. Yet a number of questions still remain about who will participate, and whether the city’s offline and online mediums will galvanize certain sub-populations.
There are further questions about the nature, experience, and quality of individual participation in face-to-face and online engagements. Are there differences in the types and quality of projects submitted online and in-person? Will the online and offline idea submission platforms effectively mobilize young residents for June’s vote?
Looking forward, Youth Lead the Change is certainly shaping up to be an interesting and compelling project to study. Data on who participates in the current idea collection phase, for example, may provide important lessons about social networks and how people learn about public engagement opportunities. Many people attend assemblies through word of mouth, including at schools, civic organizations, and from friends. But how do people find out about online engagement opportunities like Citizinvestor? Online patterns of adoption could also shed light on new opportunities for digital technologies to promote civic activity.
At this stage, perhaps the most noteworthy feature of Youth Lead the Change is the combined offline and online methods for participation, suggesting that experimentation can be effectively incorporated and yield lessons even in emergent processes.
To get involved or read more information about Boston’s participatory budgeting initiative, including upcoming events, click here.
Hollie Russon Gilman holds a Ph.D. from the Department of Government at Harvard University. Her research interests include the impact of technology on government transparency and accountability, citizen engagement, and implementing democratic innovations. She most recently served in the White House as the Open Government and Innovation Advisor working on a second term Open Government agenda — including Participatory Budgeting as part of U.S. Open Government commitments.