“You can judge a community by how they spend their money,” said Buncombe County Commissioner Ellen Frost on June 16, as she and her colleagues geared up to vote on the county’s spending plan for the fiscal year.
And if citizens want a say in decisions that may profoundly affect their lives, they need to play an active role in helping shape those budgets, says Eric Jackson, co-founder of local civic tech startup DemocracyApps.
Citizen activism is particularly crucial at the local level, he believes, because “It’s this level of government that actually has to get stuff done. There’s a connection to reality there that they can’t really get away from: People notice when the garbage doesn’t get picked up.”
Political leaders in Washington, he maintains, are “too far away, and they’re driven by concerns [we] have very little impact on. But in the city, I can make an impact just by showing up.” Local officials, notes Jackson, “can’t get too far from the people who elect them. … They’re not that hard to find. There’s much more potential for actual relationships.”
Part of the problem, as he sees it, is that “The budget is complicated — and it’s dull as dirt. One great way to exclude people is to make it boring and hard to understand.”
Technology, says Jackson, can help break down that barrier, and that’s the idea behind DemocracyApps. When the city and county release their annual 200-page PDF spreadsheets, he notes, “There’s not exactly a rush for everybody to read it. Let’s lower the barrier, so people can participate in this conversation. And to be honest, when your competition is a PDF of tables, it’s not that hard to win.”
Knowledge is power
That local focus, though, isn’t reflected when folks go to the polls.
In the May 2014 primary, for instance, a mere 15 percent of registered Buncombe County voters cast ballots. The number rose to 46.7 percent for that fall’s general election. By comparison, 69 percent of the county’s registered voters turned out for the 2012 presidential election.
This discrepancy is pretty typical, notes Chris Cooper, who heads up Western Carolina University’s political science and public affairs department. “It’s a national problem: People are less engaged in local politics and know less about them than they do national politics. Part of that is the media: It’s a lot easier to access information about national politics. It would be impossible not to know who Barack Obama is, but a lot of people don’t know who the mayor of their town is or their city manager.”
And last fall’s 46.7 percent figure, continues Cooper, is “actually probably even high for local elections. The turnout for local elections in off-years is very low: 20 percent is not out of the ordinary.”
In Jackson’s view, we’ve got it all backward in terms of making a real difference. Locally, “We have all these important conversations happening.” But the fact that so few citizens are taking part in the discussion, he argues, shows that “We’re not equipped to do it very well.”
“The idea that we hold a community meeting and people show up and talk for 3 minutes — that’s not a scalable model of public participation. If everybody showed up [to speak], the whole thing would collapse instantly.”
And that’s where technology comes in. “We have Twitter and Facebook and various other forums. People are engaged in conversation — about trivial things and about the important things.”
Initially operating through Code for Asheville, a volunteer-run civic tech organization, Jackson and DemocracyApps co-founder Jason Mann created avlbudget.com last year to help foster a better-informed public.
The interactive site provides detailed spending breakdowns and compares current expenditures with those of prior years, helping city residents understand where their tax dollars are going and how priorities have changed over time.
“Starting with the budget is smart,” says Cooper. “We pay taxes but most of us don’t have a real sense of where it goes. … Tying it to people’s personal lives and personal stories and even self-interest is how you get them involved.”
It takes a community
But the site didn’t happen in a vacuum.
“When we decided we were going to start doing this, we invited everyone on City Council to meet with us,” Jackson explains. Budget Manager Tony McDowell, City Manager Gary Jackson and Council members Gwen Wisler and Gordon Smith, he notes, were “all inside discussing numbers on this beautiful day. It was like, OK, this is actually really cool. We had a great collaborative relationship with the city.”
And meanwhile, Eric Jackson and Mann were broadening their vision. By mid-2014, the concept had evolved into DemocracyApps, which aims to expand its sphere of influence to all of Western North Carolina — and, eventually, beyond. Originally a business venture, the organization has recently shifted to pursuing nonprofit status, in hopes that grant funding can make the project both sustainable and financially viable for its creators, Jackson explains.
In the meantime, he continues, what they do know is that “This feels important,” because technology could be key in promoting widespread public participation.
Cooper concurs. “Our democracy is built on knowledge and participation,” he says. “The more we get of those two things, the better it will run. … Putting out more understandable information about where your tax dollars go could help solve that problem.”
So far, DemocracyApps has set up sites for Asheville’s and Buncombe County’s budgets and helped the city of Raleigh feed its numbers into the code.
Jackson acknowledges, though, that technology will take you only so far. It’s up to community members to take the information the apps make available and run with it — whether that means contacting local officials, speaking up at a City Council meeting or maybe staging a protest.
“We’re under no illusion that we’ll solve the problem,” he emphasizes. “The technology alone solves nothing: People solve things. But technology can be a tremendous enabler. Everything we’ve done so far is really just a symbol of what we want to do in the future: make things more accessible to people, easily.”