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The role of technology in participatory democracy

09.17.2013
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Participatory democracy has come a long way since its inception in Porto Alegre in Brazil back in the 1980′s.  Despite this progress however, the movement has not really gained traction in large, western democracies yet.  There are signs that this is changing however.

In Chicago for instance, there are already benefits emerging from greater civic cooperation.  The cities five P-TECH high school/college hybrids for teaching science, technology and math got off the ground thanks to the combined efforts of the mayor’s office, the public schools, city colleges and IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions and Verizon.

Arguably the most exciting move however is in San Francisco, where they are launching a first stab at participatory budgeting.  It will be the first American city to allow citizens to vote directly on portions of the budget via the web.  The scale of things will be small to begin with, with each city district opening up around $100,000 of expenditure to the public vote, but hopefully in time it will scale up.

Citizens will get to choose from a list of options, with experts providing their own opinion to help them decide.  It brings about a notable shift in how democracy is traditionally supplied, and links to the notion of epistemic democracy, which suggests that the most valuable thing citizens can bring to a democracy is their knowledge and expertise.  So just as employees can drive corporate strategy making, citizens can drive policy making.

Such thinking formed the basis of Richard Pascale’s theory of positive deviance.  He found that when problems require behavioural change rather than technical change, it tends to work much better when you find out from people on the front line what is happening.

It’s a form of intelligent crowdsourcing, and no doubt the policy makers in San Francisco will be hoping to replicate the success that has been seen in Brazil.

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