The growth in online tools designed for citizen interaction is fostering the emergence of a new form of urban direct democracy.

Community platforms encourage the drive towards participatory city management

At the annual FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards: Urban Ideas in Action dinner in San Francisco on 15 October, a number of startup companies set out their ideas for a new paradigm for the city of tomorrow. All these young companies have been working on projects whose central focus is to create simple, replicable mechanisms for improving the quality of life of city dwellers worldwide. Among the finalists,SeeClickFix has developed a mobile app that enables the residents of large towns in the United States to report non-emergency issues to the local authorities. Originally set up in 2008 in New Haven, Connecticut, to bring a growing graffiti nuisance to the attention of the city authorities, the platform has now become a global interface for collaborating directly with local government. By empowering people to have their say on local issues, this type of initiative gives citizens a useful means of holding the local authorities to account and provides the broad outline of a new form of participatory civic governance.

Making good use of grass-roots information

SeeClickFix is now available in over 25,000 US towns and cities. The mobile app and online platform enable people to report to the local authorities a range of non-emergency problems and nuisances – such as dumped rubbish, faulty street lighting etc – which impinge on the general well-being of the community. In a time of budgetary crisis when the consequences of the financial squeeze are still all too evident, this type of initiative aims to optimise the quality of local public services by directing them straight to problem areas, without necessarily incurring any extra maintenance costs. Using a geolocation system, user information feeds into an interactive map which flags up all the problems reported, and the local authorities are immediately alerted. In the years since its original conception, the platform has morphed into a multi-use space which also allows people to send out petitions and organise public debates. The company makes its data and collaborative tools available free of charge to local government and is now also extending its operations to Europe and Latin America.

Holding local government to account

This practice, which has prompted many a city hall to take seriously the requests posted by residents, is part of a movement to open up the decision-making process across local government. The ‘Participatory Budget’ system set in motion in Porto Alegre, Brazil, has now been extended to other major cities as a result of the pressure that these new mobile tools can bring to bear. The city of San Francisco announced in September its plans to develop online voting and policy debate tools which will get more people directly involved in decisions on the city’s budget allocations. Hollie Russon Gilman, a former Technology Fellow at the White House, argues that San Francisco’s experiment will mark a “frontier” in US direct democracy. Opening up local authority decision-making procedures to scrutiny via a range of reporting platforms will, she believes, foster the emergence of ‘Epistemic Democracy’,a term coined by a researcher at Yale University. Epistemic Democracy draws directly on the ideas and ‘wisdom’ of its citizens, creating an approach designed to promote more informed policy-making. Adopting these new forms of governance can have very tangible results, as for example in Porto Alegre, where proposals by families affected by hygiene issues prompted the authorities to modify the allocation of municipal expenditure, which has helped to significantly reduce infant mortality rates.


By Thomas Meyer
Journalist, Business Analyst