Can citizens make collaborative public decisions? Boston’s youth led experiment.

Guest post by Hollie Russon Gilman (@hrgilman)

This week in Boston young people ages 12-25 are coming out to vote for a pioneering youth driven participatory budgeting initiative – Youth Lead the Change.  They will be voting on where to spend $1 million capital funds, which are limited to “bricks and mortar.”  Voting stations are located throughout the city including public T stops, community centers, and schools. Since the beginning, the process has been innovatively using digital tools including SMS, Vimeo videos with Mayor Marty Walsh, and Citizenvestor’s custom built platform for ideation collection. People can “like” ideas to decide their favorites. Some project ideas include converting a vacant plot into a youth and art cultural center, technology bundles for public schools and creating an indoor/outdoor performance space.

Participatory budgeting is a process to directly empower citizens to identify community needs, work with elected officials to craft viable proposals, and vote upon projects for their community. Unlike other forms of community input, decisions are binding. Boston is the first U.S. city to have a youth-driven process.

As discussed in an earlier post, citizens can be tapped as both governance investors and co producers. New platforms and projects are aimed at empowering citizens for more broad based governance discussions. Loomio is an open sourced tool where people can start a discussion, build consensus and forge a decision. Madison – among other platforms discussed in the GovLab Academy’s #Crowdlaw Unconferences – gives citizens the opportunity to collaborate on legislation. There is an opportunity to expand on these efforts to create deeper, more tangible impacts on governance decision-making.

Unlike some of these emerging platforms, participatory budgeting uniquely involves direct government involvement from the onset and in person participation. In Boston, typically non-engaged young people have been coming out during their free time to eat pizza and discuss community needs. This often includes late nights after school.

The results of this week in Boston will shed light for others wanting to engage citizens, especially young people, as collaborative decision makers. Youth Lead the Change will illustrate the opportunities, and challenges, of experimenting with digital tools. If young people can effectively work closely with government, there are limitless governance possibilities. Boston’s lessons will be especially timely as participatory budgeting is slated for a wide expansion this fall with nearly half of the New York City council pledging part of their discretionary funds toward the process.

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