Just like any social innovation, democracy is liable to evolve and improve over the course of time. Today, our democratic systems have the unique opportunity to be greatly enhanced by modern advancements in information and communication technologies.
The potential for these technologies to support democratic decision-making can be realized in what we call "eDemocracy". The application of eDemocracy can impact governance in both direct and indirect ways. From voters accessing the internet to inform themselves about a candidate, to politicians using online engagement platforms to directly consult citizens on major policy issues, eDemocracy has all the makings of the next big milestone in the progression of democracy.
In particular, eDemocracy can have a significant impact for all levels of government in the budgetary process. Budgeting is arguably one of the most important activities that happen in the democratic governing of society, second only to elections. The administration of budgets directly impacts the well-being of communities, so it is only fair that the voices of community members are empowered to influence the spending of public funds. This is why it is so important that governments make use of eDemocracy tools in the form of online budget consultations. Budget consultations enable elected officials to receive direct and specific feedback from citizens on budget proposals and help plan future budgets, while allowing citizens to help direct the allocation of funds in ways that reflect their needs. The result is a win-win for both elected representatives and their constituents.
Currently, most democratic participation methods practiced across the world have not fully embraced the possibilities of eDemocracy and budget consultations. Voting in elections is the main form of the peoples' participation in representative democracies. This governing system is not short of flaws, perhaps none more pronounced than its inability to consistently do what it proclaims to do: aggregate and represent the peoples’ will. Politicians can easily lose touch with their constituents and fail to fulfill their mandate of serving the people that got them elected. Wealthy donors and special interests can also have a disproportionate influence on governing bodies, effectively highjacking much of what democracy promises and aspires to live up to.
Alternatively, some propose direct democracy as a solution to many of the problems with the representative system. In a direct democracy, citizens make decisions on policy initiatives, leaving no room for governments to do anything except represent the will of the people. In theory, this system promises greater government accountability, full transparency, and greater civic participation. In practice, such a system has its own set of flaws: imagine the time and expense consumed if every citizen voted on every issue. Civic involvement may even drop from fatigue that sets in over the contentious nature of the issues and the extensive amount of participation required to arrive at a decision.
What is needed is a combination of representative and direct democracy facets. eDemocracy, in the form of online budget consultations, can achieve some of the benefits of direct and representative democracy. Since government budgets only happen once a year, eDemocracy can fulfil direct democracy's promise to influence policy in a more direct manner while avoiding referendum fatigue.
Online budget consultations are especially convenient if the goal is to increase the scale of civic engagement, particularly among constituents in geographically dispersed locations. Because the consultation is online, this allows for greater outreach than traditional town hall meetings, especially when these meetings favour populations that live near the venue. Budget consultations also present a unique opportunity for citizens to gain their own knowledge on the civic and democratic processes, as they are exposed to budgetary scenarios that require them to analyze budget trade-offs and shortlist priorities.
Powerful tools for implementing an online budget consultation are budget simulators such as Citizen Budget, which have revolutionized the way we perform budgeting engagement. A budget simulator is a tool to successfully involves citizens in the kids of complex budget decisions that often require making strategic trade-offs between desired spending outcomes, in order to avoid running into deficits. Citizens gain an appreciation for the complex decisions elected representatives face and are empowered to express what they think is the best way to use public funds. Governments are able to collect citizens’ input while increasing community buy-in and insights on how to be responsive to the public’s views.
Online budgeting consultation tools like Citizen Budget aren't the same as Participatory Budgeting (PB) processes. PB is a process in which municipalities allocate a certain amount of money to citizens and asks them to come up with proposals for how the money should be spent. Unlike Citizen Budgeting, PB has an explicit bottom-up rule that governing bodies must adopt the final budget participants come up with. Ethelo, the technology that powers Citizen Budget, can also be used for PB processes. The main difference is that PB has bottom-up initiatives (citizens build their own projects, propose them, and decide), and Budget Consultations come from the top-down (government consults citizens, and influence their decisions based on the citizen’s inputs).
The state of a democracy will most likely never arrive at a perfect manifestation of all its ideals. Of course, this does not mean we should not make improvements and reach for its horizon. eDemocracy can be the next stepping stone, with the potential to make our democratic institutions more accountable, transparent, and equitable. Engaging citizens with online budget consultation tools like Citizen Budget is just the beginning of tapping into the potential to make our democratic practices more inclusive and efficient.
The bottom line: budget consultations make our communities stronger. They empower stakeholders to influence budget decisions while ensuring public funds are administered efficiently, all while creating the social license that governments need to implement their programs.