Using Tech to Improve Government
By Rachel M. Cohen | Aug 12, 2015
In the modern digital era, a growing number of individuals and organizations are trying to figure out how to harness technology to improve democracy. I have written previously about the Personal Democracy Forum—an annual conference of civic tech groups in New York City—and while these spaces can certainly give rise to overblown hype (think HBO’s Silicon Valley but for Washington, D.C.), some innovations really do create opportunities to improve civic life.
One interesting new tool is called Balancing Act. Created by Engaged Public, a Denver-based company, Balancing Act is pitched as a public-budget simulation that local residents can use to better understand how their tax dollars are being spent. It also allows users to share their personal budget priorities, and to explore how to make that work given the available amount revenue. So, for example, if someone wants to see more money allocated for park maintenance or education, they’d have to take money from some other budget line, or indicate that they’d be willing to increase taxes elsewhere.
The tool should not be confused with “participatory budgeting”—a process first developed in Brazil in 1989—in which local community members come together to deliberate how a portion of a public budget should be spent. Balancing Act is about helping citizens engage with the entire budget, and reckoning with how governments really spend the bulk of their tax dollars.
After launching this past spring, Balancing Act is currently being used in Hartford, San Antonio, the state of Colorado, and the Meridian Library District in Idaho. Governments pay annual fees to use the technology—ranging typically from $891 to $3,141 per year—and from there, the governments transfer their data and budgeting info into the system.
I am a bit skeptical of civic tech tools that prioritize engagement over power. This summer, I read Democratizing Inequalities, a terrific book that looks at how we have increasing levels of inequality alongside an ever-expanding number of opportunities to “participate” in civic life. Some scholars have rightly noted that many digital tools offer the illusion of openness and inclusion without actually providing more political power to those who have the least.
Right now, governments can claim to be “transparent” or “open” if they publish extremely long PDFs on their websites; few citizens actually have the time or expertise to comb through these dense documents and make sense of what’s going on. Democracy is consent of the governed, but if citizens can’t understand what their leaders are doing, then consent means little. Balancing Act breaks the information down in a way that is easier for the average citizen to sift through, and that’s important.
“We want to help create the basis for a much more intelligent and thoughtful conversation that reflects people’s actual priorities,” said Chris Adams, the president of Engaged Public, who also thinks that these types of tools can foster more trust between citizens and government. According to the Pew Research Center, just 5 percent of Americans think state governments share data very effectively, and only 7 percent think local governments share data very effectively. When trust in government is low, participation drops.
Adams hopes this tool will be attractive to adults, but he acknowledges that it can be challenging to get people to actually use it. Playing around with budgets, even accessible and comprehensible budgets, isn’t exactly fun. The tool may turn out to be much more valuable for teachers, who can use it as a way to augment civic education. Even if kids don’t want to use the budget simulations after they graduate, at least they’ll have developed a deeper understanding of how budgets actually work.
It’s possible that government agencies will eventually work to make their information more accessible in-house, rather than contract out these responsibilities to various companies. But technological change within the government moves quite slowly, so I wouldn’t expect that any time soon.