A novel online platform to put city council spending to the public vote is being tested by business and technology experts at Brunel University London.
Designed to encourage engagement and put decision-making in the open, EMPATIA stands for Enabling Multichannel Participation through ICT Adaptation.
Four European cities are test-driving the free, open source, open data software to see if it improves participation, decision-making and voting mechanisms.
“It could change how Europe does Government,” said Operations and Information Systems Management lecturer, Dr Uthayasankar Sivarajah. “People are more comfortable to voice their opinions through an online channel.”
Backed by Europe’s Horizon 2020 research programme, EMPATIA aims to improve inclusion, decision-making, voting mechanisms, transparency and accountability.
Brunel Business School is analysing how well the £1.3m EMPATIA pilot handles participatory budgeting – when ordinary people decide how to spend public cash. Researchers will track public spending decisions via EMPATIA in Lisbon, Portugal, Ricany in the Czech Republic, Milan, Italy and Bonn in Germany.
With trust and voter turn-out low across Europe, along with budget cuts, electronic public voting on spending seems a clever fix-all. EMPATIA tracks projects full circle. It starts when citizens suggest ideas for public spending projects, for instance improving a local park or repairing roads. The second stage is when unworkable ideas are filtered out and others get merged and refined. The best ideas go to the public vote and the project’s progress is monitored.
In the first analysis of its type into online participatory budgeting, Brunel’s technical and user behavioural evaluation will rate how many people use EMPATIA, what users feel about it, and what they think about the concept. They will also look at its socio economic impact and ask if the councils save money on their current approach.
The platform is intended to complement rather than replace traditional local government, says Dr Sivarajah. “You will still have the voice of the people, but at the end of the day some kind of logical decision still lies with the authority. But this will help hold them accountable because people will see project progress in real-time, so whether it is going through or has been turned down, and if it has, why. It is for a social good.”
The results are due out in December and so far, different cultures have different responses. “Italy’s pilot is facing challenges because of layers of bureaucracy, while Lisbon is well ahead, said Dr Sivarajah. “The Germans are also keen and have a democratic engagement team to spearhead it.”
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Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
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