Interview with City Councilmember Jumaane Williams regarding Participatory Budgeting

I was fortunate to sit and chat with Councilmember Jumaane Williams, of the 45th Council District, around his efforts in participatory budgeting. Initiated in NYC in 2011, participatory budgeting is a project meant to engage the community in allocating funding towards local projects, but also meant to empower the community to engage with their local City officials. Each of the Councilmembers (4 participated in 2011) allocated funding from their discretionary budget just for the PB project. The constituents held town halls, debated what the money should be used for, proposed projects, and eventually culminated in a vote for the top project ideas. The votes were held in schools, community centers; votes were tallied on poster board, with markers. Democracy in action.

What happens when people were given a power they were not used to? Did the project lead to a strengthening of the bond between constituents and their local government? Will participatory budgeting continue to grow in the coming years? And how can technology influence PB, but also civic engagement on a larger scale? These were some of the questions I spoke to CM Williams about.

Some of the points that he brought up, the “initial hesitation when people are given power” I find to be the most interesting. How can you empower people if they won’t trust the source? There is a fundamental divide between some communities and their government, and it isn’t the kind of divide that can be filled by any one thing in any given amount of time. It takes a generational effort among both the citizens and their elected officials to build a bond of mutual trust, something that I think participatory budgeting lays a wonderful groundwork for.

In looking at how technology can help bridge that gap, I also think it’s critical to keep in mind the “digital divide” that Williams talks about. Those of us in design school and blogging and live tweeting often times forget that there is a basic technology divide, and I would even go so far to say that there are far more people who don’t understand than who do. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t design tech programs that help link and connect people, but like Williams says, “we need to get people to understand the importance and have access to technology.” The last part – access – is critical. Not everyone has an iPad or even a computer, but everyone has a phone. Everyone has a TV. We should be looking at ways to utilize the technologies that we know are universal to engage people in the technology sphere, as a way to bridge that gap between government and citizen.

“Make [technology] something that people WANT to do” is the key.

Participatory budgeting attempts to do something broader which I feel is the core of its nobility. It reveals a part of government to people, brings down the curtain, lets people see the inside. I know the old adage “there are two things you never want to let people see how you make – laws and sausages” but I don’t agree with it. People should be given much more credit than they are currently allowed, and participatory budgeting is a way for local government to make that first step in establishing that trust. Does budgeting have to be something that only politicians understand? Does it have to be stuffy and hearings and rhetoric? Or can it be hands on? Can it be, dare I say, fun? Engaging? Accessible – in both a literal and metaphorical sense?

The steps Councilmember Williams, along with his colleagues, have taken so far in bringing law making to their constituents is a great feet. One that needs to be duplicated and tweaked and expanded on. Like Williams says, “technology is part of the squeaky wheel.”

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