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San Francisco wants to let residents vote on the city's budget online next year

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SF Mayor Ed Lee signs city budget
SF Mayor Ed Lee signs city budget

The city of San Francisco wants to give its residents the ability to propose, debate, and vote on budget items online — now all it has to do is figure out how to bring this concept into reality. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and city Supervisor David Chiu announced at a conference this week that they're working to create and test a system for what they call online participatory budgeting, TechCrunch reports. The two said the city wants to get something in place within the next year. But they also noted that while the idea is ambitious, it's still in its earliest planning stages. The aim with all this, they said, is a simple one — using the internet to get more people involved in the democratic process.

San Francisco currently has a budget of about $7 billion and taxpayers have been largely left out of determining what that money is spent on, Chiu said in a speech the conference. "Typically budgets are determined in back rooms by politicians sitting around trying to figure out how to spend the people's money," he said. Participatory budgeting, "Digital inclusion is still an issue." Chiu argues, can change this process. Last year, in his own district, Chiu asked for public input on how to spend $100,000 of the city's budget. The Supervisor says he was inspired to try this out after hearing about online participatory budgeting taking place in a few Brazilian cities. He held public forums to garner proposals, and district residents later voted on how the money was spent. "The civic engagement was amazing," he said. "We had hundreds of residents that came out to propose dozens of ideas for us, and we voted on them, and the top eight ideas got funded."

The response was so encouraging that Chiu then reached out to Mayor Lee to see if the whole city could give participatory budgeting a shot. But after talking with other supervisors, the city government decided the approach would be more effective if it took place online — as it does in Brazil. "When we did it last year, we met in person, we debated it in person, and we counted the ballots, and people cast the ballots on paper," Chiu said. "There are better ways to do this." However, bringing participatory budgeting both citywide and online presents a whole new set of problems for San Francisco. "Digital inclusion is still an issue," he said. "If you are from a low income neighborhood, if you are a recent immigrant, if you don't have access to a computer — how do we figure this out? Those are the types of issues were working on right now."