I just saw this link posted on Twitter about how American gargantuan chain store Target is using a Facebook application to get its customers to vote for which of 10 charities they would like Target to donate some of their profits to.
The link came from a couple of public sector types I follow (like this dude and this fella) with the following question: could we have a Facebook application like this for government (specifically local councils I imagine) to get people involved in ‘participatory budgeting’? Presumably the idea being that the council puts forward a bunch of departments/initiatives (children, community safety, recession help, road repairs etc etc) and we all have a chance to say which of these we’d prefer them to spend our money on and in what proportion. Democracy in action, right?
Wrong. Participatory budgeting is a complete sham, just like the Eurovision Song Contest.
1. You don’t get to choose who represents the UK in Europe. You think you do because they’ve got that rip-off tele-voting thing but actually you only get to choose between a few acts that have been pre-selected by the production company to spend your money on and they’re all crap. Just like in participatory budgeting in which the council sets the policy areas you can choose to fund with your hard earned money – no space for innovation or alternative services and you have to just pick the least worst option all with the illusion of democracy.
2. You don’t get to pick whether the UK sends an act to the contest or not and you’ll have the same conversation in your living room every year about how we shouldn’t bother taking part in the contest because it’s a fix anyway and what a waste of money it is. But there’s nothing you can do about it, just like you don’t get to pick whether you pay tax or not and you have the same conversation over and over about how your hard earned money is squandered by the government. Thing is, if we were allowed a national debate about whether it’s worth putting some poor sucker up for Eurovision each year we might decide it is worth it because Eurovision is a beloved institution. At least we would have made a positive choice. If we could have an open debate about whether it’s worth paying tax and having a local authority coordinate some of the things we can’t be bothered to do I think a lot of people would decide that on balance it’s worth it, provided we get better value for money.
3. You get blamed if we don’t win. While we’re in our living rooms shouting at the TV about the tactical voting, the official Eurovision position is ‘well you selected your country’s song, so you’ve got no one to blame but yourselves if you picked a dud’. While we’re all saying ‘but we didn’t pick it! We were given a false choice between a bunch of rubbish options – this is not an expression of our collective will!’ So it is with participatory budgeting – say if you pick ‘Children’ as deserving of the larger proportion of your cash, it’s your fault that the pavement outside your house didn’t get fixed – after all they asked you what you wanted and you told them children were more important than pavements. This, we are told, is a ‘policy trade-off’ and it needs to be explained to us that we can’t have our cake and eat it.
Participatory budgeting makes the government feel better about its decisions. It adds a perceived level of accountability and it educates people about the ‘tough choices’ that government has to make so we pity the hard job of councils. Balancing a shrinking budget is undeniably hard, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to trade off essential services, it should be a challenge to introduce innovation. Redesigning (and co-designing) services so that they meet the needs of the people who really need them, letting those who can fix problems themselves get on with it by freeing up data and removing bureaucracy, having an open debate about the value of public services, letting institutions become porous so that good ideas can easily be introduced, giving back individuals’ data so they can become better informed – these are all things the public sector can do today to make sure that we don’t end up with the policy equivalent of this: