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How to use information to support resident participation – experiences from a participatory budgeting project

Helsinki is a growing and diversifying city whose residents have various needs and preferences that can differ considerably from one to the other. However, do residents have sufficient information about the situation and development of the city to pursue their goals through different participation channels? The city’s pilot project aimed to find out how information can be used to help residents submit proposals for participatory budgeting that are tailored to their needs and take into account regional and resident equality. The project also used information design to explore ways of presenting information in a way that would be easy to use, understandable and interesting to as many people as possible.

Interest in civic engagement has waned – the public administration’s ability to innovate increases trust

Although Finland is a stable and successful democracy by international standards, many citizens today feel unable to influence matters that affect them and the development of society. The stability and democratic practices of societies are challenged by issues such as online disinformation and electoral interference. These issues erode trust in the credibility of democracy, the legitimacy of decision-making, and the political system, adding to frustration and polarization (The Finnish Government, 2022).

Participation is more segregated than before, with young, low-income and less-educated people voting significantly less than older, high-income and highly-educated people. The segregation and widening disparities between groups of citizens are a challenge for Finnish society, which was founded on cooperation and seeking compromise (Suomalaisen demokratian…, 2021). The paradox of Finnish society is that citizens do trust public institutions and democracy, but at the same time, they have little faith in their own ability to influence political processes (OECD, 2021).

According to an OECD study, citizens’ trust in public institutions is best enhanced by their ability to meet citizens’ expectations and develop their activities to meet citizens’ needs and a changing society.

Promoting digital services and strengthening the public sector’s innovation capacity and activities are specifically mentioned in the report as ways to strengthen citizens’ confidence in the previously mentioned public sector capabilities. 

Indeed, many different innovations aiming to improve citizens’ trust and reform democracy have been developed to meet the challenges of democracy. Participatory budgeting is this type of democratic innovation that is already being implemented in thousands of cities around the world. The City of Helsinki’s participatory budgeting is called OmaStadi, where city residents can make suggestions and vote to decide how the city will spend EUR 8.8 million. Helsinki launched participatory budgeting in 2018, and so far, city residents have been able to decide on the use of almost EUR 13 million and the implementation of 119 projects across the city. In Helsinki, participatory budgeting has increased the interest of city residents in public issues and their willingness to participate and influence them.

OmaStadi, Helsinki’s participatory budgeting, has been developed in each iteration with city residents and experts. The aim has been to maintain and increase the motivation of city residents to participate and strengthen inclusiveness so that as many city residents as possible can participate. 

Design methods focus on the city resident

Many of the problems faced by city residents in their daily lives today are complex and difficult to solve. Participatory information use is well-suited for dealing with such issues. It frames problems and produces and interprets information in an interaction that brings together various information providers and decision-makers. For example, by combining researched information, experiences, and local knowledge, it is possible to consider a wide range of perspectives together and make decisions that more people can commit to easily (Hällström, 2019).

Against this background, the pilot project was designed in a way in which design methods could be used to focus on the participatory use of information and to create an understanding of the types and nature of the information needed for participatory budgeting. The role of design is understood as needing to focus on people’s daily lives and needs. The aim is for the city to be developed together with the residents while listening to their needs and responding to feedback. The design also renews the city’s operating culture.  

Design-based development is experimental and iterative, alternating between an abundance of data and ideas and summarising them. This project used a wide range of design methods to achieve high-quality user understanding and functional solutions. The development work used the concepts and methods of service and information design, as well as user interface design methods in designing the final product.  

Design development is characterised by agility and experimentation. The final output of development is not defined entirely before the work starts but is developed through feedback, which allows constant improvement and evaluation. Agile experimentation and testing hypotheses and outputs with residents at an early stage were essential for carrying out the project. Based on the feedback received, it was possible to check the validity of the selected development needs and make the necessary changes to the conceived outputs. After identifying the development needs during the development process, extensive user data were collected to define the actual problem and the research questions. Solutions to development needs were then brainstormed and experimented with to move towards final deliverables and further development ideas.

Experimental development is particularly suited for complex operating environments, where there are many actors, and the outcome cannot be logically predicted. Small-scale testing helps to ensure that the idea works and is suitable for the operating environment and users. The main driver of experimentation is fast learning, which guides the experiment design and finding a working solution. At their best, experiments save a lot of time, effort and money when the key issues related to implementing the idea are learned as early as possible (Verkka & Ekqvist 2017).

Resident profiles ensure the diversity of the development work

The development of the project followed a typical design process model. A service design approach to development starts from a holistic understanding of human activities, needs, emotions and motives. The first task was to gain an understanding of the current situation and the problems to be solved. The work was based on feedback and user understanding from previous rounds of OmaStadi. In addition, the extensive user understanding collected in developing the city’s website (Hel.fi) was also used. In addition to these, interviews and a survey aimed at city residents were also carried out. User understanding was also sought through a workshop with city residents and extensive user testing in the early stages of the website’s development. 

Some important end-products of the project included resident profiles and empathy maps used in the service design, which highlight the perspectives of various residents to support the development work. The profiles were created based on the resident feedback collected in participatory budgeting, a survey, interviews, and profiles that had been previously made in another context. City resident profiles and empathy maps reveal what kind of values, motivations, habits or needs the residents have. They also aim to highlight residents’ different abilities, challenges and motivations to participate (Aria 2023).

Four resident profiles were formed based on the user understanding gathered in the project. The city resident profiles are self-confident, dropper-in, active, and snoozer. They all have different motivations for participating and obtaining information, and they also differ in their abilities to process and perceive information.

City residents want to know about the city’s plans and the residents’ views in their own neighbourhoods.
The project focused on examining what kind of information city residents need and hope for when participating in participatory budgeting and the city’s development, in general. A key method for exploring this research question was a survey of city residents, which 133 residents answered. Although the data set was relatively small and is not a representative sample, certain conclusions can be drawn from it.

Three data groups emerged based on this survey and interviews, which especially support participation and brainstorming. City residents want information about the city’s plans in their area, basic information about the local residents, as well as information about their opinions and needs. 

As a basis for their own ideas, city residents want information on what other residents in the area think about different issues and the needs that emerge from the area. Such experiential knowledge is also important to acknowledge and take into account in urban planning. The underlying idea is that the area residents themselves know best what is really happening there or what daily life there is like. Such information would also help residents to tailor their participatory budgeting ideas to real needs and benefit a wider range of residents in the area. At the same time, we recognise the fact that the needs of city residents are diverse, and each person best understands their own reality. By listening to the opinions and views of others, one gains a more diverse view of the needs and realities of the area’s residents. 

Residents are interested in the city’s plans because if their neighbourhoods have shortcomings, residents can contribute their own ideas to complement the city’s planning. The project found that the city’s plans were perceived to be rather hard to find and often compiled into extensive documents, making finding information challenging. When a resident knows what plans the city has for the area, they can also focus on those city plans that have not yet been implemented due to lack of funding and make a proposal to implement the plan with funding from participatory budgeting.

Knowledge increases confidence to participate in the development of the city

Ten interviews were conducted during the project, highlighting the experience of barriers to participation. One key factor is the sense among city residents that they do not have enough information to participate in brainstorming and discussion. On the other hand, they also do not have the time and motivation to acquire information from many different sources and become familiar with it.

Consequently, there is a need for basic, superficial information that would encourage enthusiasm and participation. City residents want to make intelligent choices and need information in order to form well-founded opinions. Important motivations for acquiring information were also the desire to have informed discussions with professionals and other city residents and to consider a wide range of different perspectives. 

City residents want their participation to be easy, hassle-free and possible through digital channels. Residents do not want to make long-term commitments to participation, and they do not want to put too much effort into it. It is also important that participation is safe so that residents do not have to worry about being the subject of negative feedback. Tellingly, almost all the interview participants were part of their district’s Facebook group, but only a small part participated in the discussions in these groups. The interviewees felt that the discussion on the platform is often too abrasive and inappropriate.

Participation is about hearing and understanding other area residents, as well as engaging in dialogue with experts and other area residents in good spirit. Some interviewees also felt that participation made the area more appealing and increased its sense of community, even though they were not interested in participating in collaborative planning.

What they found unpleasant were the previous bad experiences and the feeling that they could not really influence anything with their opinion or input. In some cases, they also felt that the city had not succeeded in communicating how a resident’s participation had affected the outcome of the matter.

What form of information helps residents understand the needs of their area more broadly?

The Local Government Act obliges municipalities to provide residents with sufficient information on matters being prepared in the municipality and on plans that concern residents. Similarly, the law obliges municipalities to use clear and understandable language in their communications and to take into account the needs of different groups of residents (Municipality Act, §29 ).

In accordance with the above obligation, the project aims to produce information for the next round of participatory budgeting.  It will be used to support brainstorming in workshops and events with residents and published on the participatory budgeting website. The project also investigated the format in which information should be presented to support city residents’ participation and brainstorming in participatory budgeting. A lot of information was sought and found during the project, and information design was used to process the information, for which the important principles are clarity, usability, reliability and interactivity. At its best, information design helps people understand information in a new way, which creates new insights, better cooperation and faster communication. Information design also supports data-driven management (Kanerva, 2023).

The experiment found that the available information was often presented as complex tables or charts and long reports, which require a lot of time and expertise to understand. Information design was used to format the information in a way that made it faster to use and easier to understand. The design sought to summarise the information into clear images, infographics or tables. Text alone was not enough for people to engage with the information. However, images and large numbers were more appealing, for example.

According to the respondents, information must be simplified to make it interesting, and, at the same time, people must have the opportunity to learn about the topic in greater detail if they want. The experiment found that maps are a good way to increase the city residents’ understanding of the various needs of their neighbourhoods and the equality of Helsinki’s areas. Presenting the information on a map increases residents’ commitment and motivation to participate in development. 

During the project, a prototype website was also developed to present information on different urban themes and residents at a regional level for Helsinki’s major districts. The prototype was tested with participants. The results of these experiments show that residents prefer concise and clear information. Clearly presented information lowers the threshold for participation and makes issues more approachable. Information also increases the equality of those involved in the development work, in which case everyone, in principle, has similar background information and also more equal opportunities to participate in terms of capabilities.  

“I’m not interested in spending my free time studying laws and regulations; that job belongs to the experts.”

“I want concise information packages, and I don’t want to commit to anything that takes time.” 

The knowledge gained from this project is intended to be used in participatory budgeting workshops, where residents will help to come up with ideas for funding proposals. The aim is to generate discussion about the area’s current state and needs, as well as what kind of things would increase well-being and security in the area. The workshops also aim to increase understanding between city residents about different life situations and the issues underlying different phenomena. Today, people are increasingly divided in their opinions, and the extremes are becoming more pronounced. For example, on social media, social debate largely occurs in bubbles of like-minded people (Ministry of the Interior, 2019).

Bringing information to joint discussions provides a common starting point for city residents to participate and explains phenomena more broadly, curbing polarization in the discussion. 

The fragmentation of information is also a challenge

The project experimented with different ways of presenting basic information, for example, about the residents of Helsinki’s areas and the city’s plans for the areas. Other types of research data were also available, such as the physical activity habits of the residents of the area. The aim was to study how information can support reflective discussion and opportunities for city residents to present their views on what is necessary and desirable in their area. The focus was especially on the residents’ observations and experiences in the area and the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the city’s experts.  

Indeed, the key lesson of the experiment was how to find suitable methods for guiding residents to information, as well as ways to combine the residents’ experiential knowledge with other available information to generate high-quality development ideas that also account for equality. As noted above, the information currently produced by the city is often in a language and format that is not equally accessible to all city residents. Thus, it would be important for information material to better address the resident as the end-user of the information through content design, for example. Visually interesting and clear information packages would steer residents to learn about, reflect on and interpret the information.

From the point of view of information producers, putting together information that is easy to use and compiled into clear summaries is complicated by the inconsistencies and incoherence of existing data collection systems, indicators and methods. For example, this was a finding in a report commissioned by the Ministry of Finance, which surveyed the monitoring and processing data on citizen and customer satisfaction currently collected by the Finnish public administration (Uusikylä, 2023). In developing its services, the City of Helsinki also produces and uses a lot of data about city residents and various phenomena that challenge the city. Similar challenges related to the fragmentation of data can certainly also be observed in the city’s knowledge production, and in order to better use the data for service development, more attention should be paid to the ways of compiling and analysing them. The opportunities offered by artificial intelligence and other new digital solutions for data-driven management and data utilisation should be explored further, and this may require more systematic structuring of information and standardisation of data collection methods, for example.

However, simply making information available is not always enough to motivate residents to participate and influence outcomes. Appropriate methods and genuinely participatory events are needed to motivate residents to use and discuss information. Information supports deliberative, reflective discussion, which also helps to curb the polarization of issues into far-flung extremes. The availability of useful, clear information, combined with methods that support deliberative discussion and decision-making, is a fruitful starting point for participatory budgeting proposals that take into account the needs and equality of city residents. 

Kirsi Verkka is Development Manager for participatory budgeting in Helsinki.


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