Plants and benches in Kontula – visualising participatory budgeting
Participatory budgeting is a form of direct democracy where citizens actually have a say in how part of the city budget is allocated. The total public budget cannot easily be allocated based on local preferences only - any budgeting decision usually needs considerable amounts of data and analysis to actually uphold the commitments the city has made to the communities and services that depend on it. However, on the lower level of budgeting - allocating funds between several competing projects or funds earmarked for a specific purpose - there is a strong case to be made that decisionmakers actually do not possess the data needed to make most of the money they have at their disposal.
The same, of course, theoretically holds on the level of the budget as a whole, but the larger the budgetary changes and sums involved, the more data we will need and the slower the process of redirecting the funds will be. Therefore, if we want public budgeting to become more cost-effective and fact-based, we will benefit from a bottom-up approach, in which aggregating local data over long periods of time will slowly allow even larger decisions to be based on enough data to be effective.
The City of Helsinki is committed to opening as much data as possible related to the decision making inside the city. We're publishing information about the political decision makers, such as committees, the city board and the city council, and the non-political civil servant office holders. Currently we have decision data on about 300 office holders and about 50 political decision makers.
Participatory democracy and what developers can do to help
Even after the birth of the civil society, there has been a considerable gap between established governmental bureaucracy and the needs of the average citizen. Even though democratic mechanisms are in place to elect and dismiss decision-makers at the local level, voting once every four years can hardly be considered a sufficient method of feedback between residents and the politicians making decisions on their immediate surroundings.