Politics is expensive. There are projections that the 2016 presidential campaign could be the most costly election yet, running upwards of five billion dollars. But the price of elections has been climbing for some time – since 1984, campaign spending has increased 500% and easily surpassed the rise of inflation, GDP, and the increasing cost of healthcare. And this is just at the presidential level. More than half a billion dollars have already been spent on Congressional races for this election cycle. With the ever-increasing cost of political campaigns – and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Citizen’s United v. FEC in 2010 – there are mounting calls to quell the surge of money into politics. But if we can’t reform campaign financing and stop this trend in the near future, we the people will need to reconsider how to stretch our monetary influence most effectively.
Today, federal, state, and local budgets are strapped more than ever. Fiscal conservatism has a death grip on budget committees across the country, and citizens appear unwilling to fathom tax increases to improve public services. As a result, across America, our infrastructure is crumbling, our schools are failing, and our public servants are struggling to make an impact in their already limited capacities. Governments are desperate for innovative approaches to solving public policy challenges.
With this challenge, let’s start asking new questions: what if we decided to re-think how money might be more effectively spent in the political sphere? What if we started investing in ideas, and the direct impact they can have, rather than on people who might be able to implement them?
What if instead of spending money on politics, we spent it on policy?
Thankfully, new models are beginning to emerge, which help citizens more immediately fund the projects or policies that directly affect them. In a time of deep political partisanship and excessive campaign contributions from massive institutions and dark money sources, there are new ways in which we can take small steps to regain a sense of genuine influence on government.
Participatory budgeting, which enables communities to directly engage policymakers in how public spending should be allocated, is one approach. In this model, citizens have the ability to identify, discuss, and decide on how public funds will be distributed within a government’s budget. Cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and New York have all experimented with this approach in recent years.
Chicago was the first when it began participatory budgeting in November 2009. Since its inception in Chicago’s 49th Ward, Alderman Joe Moore has continued what is now a yearly tradition. And the process is pretty straightforward. Each of Chicago’s 50 council members receives $1.3 million in “menu money,” which is allocated annually. Citizens of the 49th Ward are able to deliberate on and discuss how $1 million of the funds will be spent, while the other $300,000 is put away for emergencies and cost overruns. Participation is also less restrictive than standard voting procedures: you are not required to be a citizen, and the voting age is sixteen. While the money is limited to capital infrastructure projects (as opposed to programming or operations improvements), citizens have a direct influence on how those funds will be allocated in their communities.
While this process is still experimental, participatory democracy hopes to strengthen the bonds between citizens and their government and enables individuals to more directly realize the value of their tax dollars.
There has also been a surge in digital platforms that connects cities with their citizens. A number aim to direct funding of public policy and infrastructure projects – a practice known as municipal crowdfunding. These platforms enable public officials and project designers to solicit funds from individuals and organizations, and to benefit from the exposure inherent to online communities, through potential virality on social media. When they work, these platforms encourage direct participation in city government and promote the achievement of local, communal goals.
Citizeninvestor is one crowdfunding platform that empowers citizens to directly fund local government projects. Lack of funding at the local level is often the barrier to increased development, despite public support. But this platform enables those who are most passionate, even those who are the most directly affected by a public improvement project, to rapidly transform the public spaces they truly care about. And, as Citizeninvestor is designed to continually monitor a project’s progress, concerned citizens can follow along from funding to completion.
A similar platform is Neighbor.ly, which enables investors to loan governments money, in the form of municipal bonds, to fund local infrastructure projects. Traditionally, the municipal securities market has been opaque and overpriced, as individuals who invest in municipal bonds are often at the end of a long supply chain, where bonds change hands between brokers and big institutions, before reaching the end investor. This results in a higher price for the bonds and lower returns when they are sold. Neighbor.ly, as described by the New York Times, is “putting the public back into public finance.” Individuals can more intimately invest in discreet public projects they care about, creating new opportunities for civic capital formation.
So, what might municipal crowdfunding actually look like? Take, for example, minor infrastructure projects – a bike lane needs to be installed, a park is begging to be beautified, a local community organization is hoping to transform an old factory into an event space. These all provide value to a community. But if a city can barely provide basic services, these projects are likely to get buried at the bottom of a wish list and quickly forgotten by those in power.
So communities are beginning to take matters into their own hands. In Denver, business advocates and cyclists banded together to launch a successful crowdfunding campaign to underwrite a new portion of a protected bike lane in the downtown area. This campaign was of particular importance to young professionals in the area. In Denver, millennial residents live four miles closer to their jobs than older commuters, while 16 percent of male and 9 percent of female Millennials use bikes as their means of transportation for their work commute – a rate of 11 times above of the national average.
Other communities have turned to civic crowdfunding to gradually grow projects. Residents of the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York started small, in December 2011, by turning a vacant lot into the Java Street Community Garden. They turned to ioby, another civic crowdfunding site, to raise a modest $625. Less than a year later, they wanted to build on their work in the community garden, paving a brick pathway, planting shrubs and trees, and growing herbs and vegetables. This time, they raised $1,027. Phase III began in 2014, with a much more ambitious goal: $21,687 for solar panels, a patio, a new storage shed, and a rainwater harvesting tank. Once again, their efforts proved to be successful.
A city that is already ripe for this kind of transformation is San Francisco. A recent New York Times article skewered tech companies for exacerbating inequality, increasing congestion problems, and deepening tensions between newcomers and long-time residents. While these monolithic tech companies now dream up ideas like autonomous vehicles, Internet provided by drone, and free municipal wifi blanketing a city of millions, they were all once small, scrappy startups. Tech companies could invest a relatively small amount of resources (money, people, technology) into campaigns that directly and positively contribute to the well-being and social fabric of a community.
Detractors might argue that municipal crowdfunding is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons, which is why relying on the tax base is more of a sure bet. But this approach is not without precedent today. We’ve become more attune to donating money to public goods. Take podcasts for example. The great majority of podcasts are free, with little incentive for the listeners to donate to the organization or person who is investing the time and money into providing a service. Yet, popular podcasts like “This American Life” and “99% Invisible” consistently hit their fundraising goals. Sure, there are still plenty of free riders, but others have decided that their service is of high enough quality to elicit a voluntary contribution. If a protected bike lane was being constructed in front of your apartment or a park was being beautified down the street, the benefits you accrue from these improvements might be worth the voluntary investment.
These relatively new mechanisms are not a panacea for the challenges our governments face when it comes to allocating and soliciting funds for capitalizing public projects. But they leverage technology and innovative policy approaches to enhance the relationship between citizens and their government. And they just might create more nimble policy mechanisms by which we can all work together to improve governance.
If you believe there is too much money in politics, you might be right; but there’s definitely not too much money in public policy. We don’t have the necessary funds to pay for our infrastructure, our social services, or our future ideas. And a national movement to spur investment (in the form of higher taxes) will take time and require a shift of the political winds. But we can start making a difference in our local communities today.
About the Author: Garrett Brinker is a Consultant at the Morris Strategy Group, where he specializes in public policy development, political and economic research, and community engagement. He is currently working for the Democratic National Convention Committee in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and the University of Chicago, and has previous experience working on energy policy, urban policy, and health policy, at both the federal and local levels.