When it comes to public infrastructure spending, budget decisions have the power to significantly impact all members of a community. While government agencies may have previously spent their budgets on the items and issues that mattered most to them personally, today’s municipal and federal administrations benefit from working in cooperation with the communities they serve.
Community participation in public infrastructure spending ensures that funds are used in ways that make the biggest impact — and make the most sense for individual communities and regions. The McKinsey Global Institute finds that the rate of return on public infrastructure spending (including areas such as transportation, energy and power, water, sewage, and communications systems) is 20 percent, meaning that for every $1 spent the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) increases by 20 cents.
With this potential long-term economic growth at stake, it’s important that governments are aligned with stakeholders and community members to ensure the best outcome for all involved. In this article, we’ll explore how governments can encourage and facilitate public participation and walk you through some of the key benefits for cities and municipalities of all sizes.
The need for digital community participation on infrastructure projects
When you think of civic engagement, images of a town hall meeting may come to mind. You might be thinking of scenes where community members line up at a microphone to share their thoughts or ask questions directed at members of their local governments.
While this used to be a popular option, the COVID-19 pandemic and the general lack of efficiency of this kind of format has brought to light the need for an updated approach to community engagement — especially when it comes to matters of public infrastructure spending. The traditional town hall format often results in unbalanced power dynamics, disorganized feedback and decision-making, and a lack of diverse representation from the community.
To help remedy these issues, governments can pivot to discussion management platforms like ThoughtExchange. ThoughtExchange helps government agencies run more efficient and engaging town halls by empowering them to make sense of a large quantity of data, better understand citizens’ concerns, democratize the process, and save time and money (which can then be reinvested in the community based on citizen input).
For example, the City of Oakland began using ThoughtExchange for their town halls right as the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak began. Former Director of Community Engagement Yvonna Cázares explains, “ThoughtExchange has saved us so much time by sorting and theming the thoughts and questions, and letting us easily see the most pressing issues.” The City is able to understand their citizens’ concerns much more simply and thoroughly, which allows them to prioritize and focus on the most critical issues at hand.
For example, if hundreds of community members bring up the need to increase the frequency of buses along a certain route, while only one individual requests more buses along a different route, the City is able to clearly understand where their infrastructure dollars are best spent. Imagine if only the latter person had attended an in-person town hall, while the other hundred voices stayed home?
Let’s look at some of the other key benefits of community participation and engagement when it comes to public infrastructure spending.
The benefits of digital community participation in public infrastructure spending
Empowers all community members
The classic town hall format favors community members who are:
- Not afraid of confrontation, and,
- Aren’t deterred by attention.
Not only that, but the majority of those who tend to speak up at town hall meetings are affluent and white. Since issues of public infrastructure spending can be sensitive and high-tension topics, this is even more prevalent here.
True community participation, especially through a digital collective intelligence tool, enables a democratic process that gives everyone a voice. All members of the community are heard from, and all of their concerns are noted equally. ThoughtExchange is designed “based on deep research and knowledge of the types of environments, systems, structures, and dynamics that can make people feel reluctant to speak up,” which makes it an incredibly valuable tool when it comes to matters of fair and diverse public participation in governmental decisions.
If community participation didn’t occur with matters of public infrastructure spending, the interests of select individuals, groups, and members of the government would prevail. For example, the matter of police budgets has been a growing issue in communities around the world. In March 2022, the Vancouver Police Department received a $5.7-billion boost after appealing a previous decision to cut their funding. The final judgment on the appeal was decided by Wayne Rideout, a former police officer and B.C’s Director of Police Services.
Since this was made public, there has been significant debate by members of the public who felt there was an obvious conflict of interest and that they had no say in this huge financial decision. City Councilor Christine Boyle stated “We need a major overhaul of the Police Act to strengthen local oversight and control of the VPD. We should be in charge of how much we pay for the police, and local residents can then hold us accountable.”
With proper community engagement from a diverse group of citizens, the City of Vancouver may have avoided much of the controversy around this topic, or at least demonstrated good faith that the process was fair and inclusive.
When it comes to financial matters such as public spending on infrastructure, transparency is key. Citizens rightly like to know where their tax money is going — and governments have a duty to accurately and honestly provide this information as much as possible.
Community engagement, especially through a digital tool like ThoughtExchange, keeps members of the government accountable. Citizens don’t have to wonder whether their questions or concerns were seen and just ignored — they’ll be able to see their inquiry as all other participants see it, in real-time.
As Yvonna Cázares explains, “[With ThoughtExchange], [community members] can see what thoughts are floating to the top, and whether they’ll be answered later on. It makes everything transparent, that we’re not doing any picking and choosing. ThoughtExchange makes things fair.”
When governments facilitate their budget process transparently, with public participation, the community is able to better trust in their services.
Many of the areas covered by infrastructure spending decisions — such as public transit, clean water, and electricity, for example — tend to impact marginalized citizens the most.
By encouraging public participation when it comes to decisions around infrastructure spending, governments can make sure they’re hearing from the people who will be most affected by any budget allocations. For example, if community members based in rural, lower-income areas don’t currently have reliable access to clean water, they can raise this issue and publicly share the significant impact this improvement could have on their lives and well-being.
When it comes to the actual hearing or town hall, using a digital tool can help make things equitable. For example, if a community member does not speak the same language as those running the town hall, ThoughtExchange features an easy-to-use translation tool so that any barriers to participation are removed. Additionally, by having community members participate anonymously, any biases are avoided and all citizen concerns and thoughts are shared equally. Digital engagement tools also increase participation, since citizens are not required to to attend an in-person meeting that may interfere with work or family schedules.
Builds community engagement and ownership
Instead of a top-down approach, involving the community in public infrastructure spending decisions helps engage the community. Just like businesses who employ collective decision-making processes, governments can ensure their citizens feel heard by encouraging them to share their opinions, concerns, and questions.
When citizens feel as if they have a voice and say in important matters like public spending, municipalities can build a sense of ownership and pride in their communities. With this comes greater compliance and a desire to keep communities healthy and safe for all members.
Engaged members of the public are also more likely to have a deeper knowledge of issues that matter to the local community. As active members of the community, they have valuable insights that members of the government may not necessarily possess. With this, they’re able to provide decision-makers with information and perspective that can help bring issues to light before they escalate, plus improve the overall understanding of the communities most pressing concerns.
Improves the decision-making process
Digital community participation can help governments quickly and easily identify the priorities and preferences of the community.
Instead of the messy data and overwhelming information that can come out of surveys, polls, and focus groups, governments can capture insights in an organized and efficient manner with new approaches to their town hall and other decision-making meetings. For example, the City of Oakland “uses ThoughtExchange’s platform to handle the town-hall questions and organize them, [and can] feel like they have a better understanding of citizens’ concerns and can focus on what is most critical to them.”
Additionally, as Participatory Action Research finds, when citizens who would be affected by something, such as where public infrastructure funds are being allocated, are able to participate in the decision-making process, the chance of finding a solution is much higher. Plus, when community members are involved in this decision-making process, the chances of roadblocks or protests in the future is reduced. By giving people a say in where infrastructure budgets are spent right from the beginning, governments can avoid costly controversies or delays to their projects.
The issue of public infrastructure spending can be complicated. The goals of the government can often conflict with the matters most important to members of the public, which creates the need for fair, efficient, and streamlined processes. With a digital tool like ThoughtExchange, community members can feel heard and empowered by their participation in the decision-making process, while governmental agencies can reduce time and money spent on facilitating these types of issues. It’s a win-win for all involved.