These days, there’s an app for everything—except democracy. (Illustration: Andrés Moncayo)

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The Birth of the Digital Democracy

Social media has given everybody a voice, but how do we empower those voices?

In 1989, the city of Porto Alegre, one of the most populous in Southern Brazil, engaged its citizens in a remarkable experiment in civic engagement called “participatory budgeting.” As part of the program, the city adopted a bottom-up approach to making decisions about resource allocation, one that designed budget proposals through a process of neighborhood debate and that gave real voting power to representatives in the community.

Twenty-five years later, Porto Alegre is still using participatory budgeting. And according to a study by the World Bank, the practice is responsible for important improvements to quality of life in the city, with much of the change benefiting citizens who live in poverty, a demographic whose priorities are routinely neglected by most top-down forms of governance. Since 1989, for instance, the number of public housing units in Porto Alegre has increased, as has the number of city schools, the portion of the budget that is allocated to public health and the number of households that have access to drinking water and sewage services.

With the success in Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting has spread, in various forms, to 140 other cities in Brazil. And, recently, the U.S. has taken an interest in the approach. Last year, the Obama administration included the goal of embracing participatory budgeting in its Open Government National Action Plan.

Last summer, the city of Vallejo, California, became the first in the country to give its citizens direct budget authority through participatory budgeting. However, one of the critiques of the approach has been that not enough people are taking part. In Vallejo, decisions about how much money should go to community gardens, scholarship programs, and street repair were decided by an estimated 4,000 votes—in a community of 117,000. But even that level of engagement in participatory budgeting is high when compared to engagement in other cities like New York and Chicago that have started to tinker with similar experiments in bottom-up governance.

The challenge highlights a contradictory trend emerging in our digital age. The Internet has enabled more citizens to express their political opinions—not only to their friends and their communities, but to the entire world—yet no corresopnding increase in voter registrations or participation in elections has been observed at a national level. And as mobile devices take a more central role in our lives, we are growing accustomed to broadcasting our activities, our opinions and our expectations more openly, explicitly and in real-time. But how much of this energy gets funneled into the actual instruments of change? Some would say: not enough of it.

“Our biggest challenge here is cultural. We may be used to representing ourselves on the network, on social networks, on forums, on bulletin boards. It’s a different thing to address bills, to address legislation. And that we need to learn as a society, as a community,” says Guido Vilariño, a software developer in Buenos Aires who has been working with members of Argentina’s Net Party to develop tools for open government.

If these tools are to become commonplace in our political lives, then perhaps it makes the most sense to spotlight them on the forums that our citizens are already using for pubic debate. This is the conclusion of a recent IBM-funded report which argues that expanding the use of social media in the participatory budgeting process holds promise in addressing the concern that too few participate in deciding how money is spent in their neighborhoods. According to the report, not enough has been done to achieve this.

“Social media platforms could effectively encourage participation in the participatory budgeting process and in the actual budget voting process. However, to date, social media use in the participatory budgeting process has been limited and sporadic,” claim the authors. “There is a great need and great potential to increase and expand social media platform uses to expand and encourage participation.”

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A Conversation with Charles Prow, General Manager, Global Government Team at IBM

Q: We hear more and more about how government needs to do more to adapt to today’s technology. Can you the discuss the approach it’s taking?

Governments realize that the expectations of citizens have fundamentally changed. So it is no longer good enough for government to be able to provide capabilities in very long cycles of system implementation programs—taking years to upgrade services or make it easier to access employment programs, early childhood programs, programs for the elderly, programs for the disabled.

When I think about citizen demand for faster and easier access to government, I think about what I call systems of engagement. Social and mobile applications are fundamentally—and for the better—transforming how citizens and governments can interact. For example, iPad applications that allow caseworkers to work more directly with clients, untethered from their desks, allowing them to be much more efficient and effective in dealing with individual citizens.

And in the U.S. alone there are about 700,000 caseworkers. Recent industry studies have indicated those caseworkers spend more than 50 percent of their time on activities unrelated to direct client engagement. So there is a major opportunity to improve the lives of millions of people by allowing caseworkers to focus more of their time on helping citizens.

Q: How could those systems of engagement help?

As jurisdictions begin to provide mobile applications to do things that citizens used to have to wait in line for or do by mail, it does two things. It provides the citizen immediate access to whatever particular program or service they’re looking for and it really does eliminate a lot of cost and workload from the jurisdiction—whether it be a city, a county, a municipality—that they’re now not having to provide manually.

Q: Can you give a couple examples of how that’s happening?

We’re beginning to see some results—being able to quantitatively prove, through analytics and social media—that there are steps that can be taken by governments to keep people employed once they get a job and keeping them off of the unemployment rolls.

Then there are examples of cities wanting to take their 311 programs, which provide a broad range of information on and access to government services—from homeless shelters to trash pickup—and put it on a mobile application. It is exciting to see so much happening in this area in cities around the world and we can expect this trend to accelerate in the future.

Q: And how far along are we to arriving at that future? Are government officials buying into these ideas?

Every about 18 months or so we host a forum on social programs. I remember that at the last program, there were large debates about the lawfulness and the efficacy of systems of engagement—social and mobile type applications. At the most recent forum, which took place recently, the conversation had shifted completely and the focus of the participants was on "How can we do mobile and social faster?"

If you listen to government officials that are responsible to serving citizens through these programs, they are way past the intellectual conversation of will this or will this not happen. Their citizens are demanding new ways to engage government and officials see that mobile and social offer powerful new tools for citizens—and employees—that will enhance the ability of government to serve the people. Now it’s all about how fast will it happen and how can we make sure we do it in a secure way.

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Participatory budgeting is only one example of the many tools that governments are using to engage and empower voters. The mayor of Kingston, NY recently introduced a mobile application that enables citizens to report quality of life complaints and environmental concerns directly to the city hall and to track how their elected officials are responding to the reports. And in Germany, politicians are playing with technologies that would allow members of the Pirate Party to directly cast votes on the measures being carried out by their representatives in parliament and to come up with proposals for new ones.

As these tools take hold, we are seeing governance evolve into a conversation, which means that there must be a two-way exchange of information. Government agencies will have to improve the way they use social media to communicate their own agendas, but they will have to use them to listen as well.

This will require monitoring social networks for indicators of public sentiment. With help from IBM, businesses are already starting to move in this direction. Companies who use IBM’s Corporate Brand and Reputation Analysis services have access to real-time data about how what the public is saying about their products and whether those opinions are likely to make ripples.

This October, these services became even more powerful through an agreement with Twitter that will combine it’s vast database with the cloud-based computing power and natural language processing capabilities of IBM’s Watson computer.

“What we’re really doing is now harnessing the power of being able to look at massive amounts of data, some of it structured, some of it unstructured, and drawing conclusions from that,” says Charles Prow, the general manager of IBM’s department of global government team.

These services, which help companies listen and react to customer feedback could just as easily help governments listen to their citizens, and doing so will be vital to the strategy of keeping the public engaged. For, as we all know, it’s not a conversation if only one side is being heard.