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RSS 2.0

Web 2.0: citizens choose how to spend public money

By Paul McLeay and Cassandra Wilkinson - posted Wednesday, 23 September 2009

2007 was TIME’s Year of You. YouTube, MySpace and Facebook hit the mainstream and everyone - us included - was trying to predict how 2.0 would change the world. For us the question was how the “wisdom of crowds” might change government for the better.

Coincidentally, with the rise of the intertubes, “participatory democracy” or “deliberative democracy” was becoming a hot topic in public policy. It basically means handing over some resources and policy choices to direct community decision making. It is delivering consensus-based public spending in communities all over the world, most famously in Porto Alegre Brazil which has been the subject of dozens of books.

It seemed obvious to us at the time that 2.0 collaboration tools could bring the deliberation movement a little closer.


The Brazilians believe participatory budgeting or deliberation is inextricably linked to socialism but, in most respects, it’s a methodology not an ideology. Getting citizens properly involved in how their government is run works in Brazil because they give people some actual cash to play with - it’s old school many-to-many collaboration.

Meanwhile back at the ranch in Australia, Gov 2.0 remains pretty Gov 1.0 with the government unwilling to give citizens any real authority, instead sticking to the old paradigm of surveys and “feedback”; the Prime Minister perpetually spamming everyone on Facebook; and the Premier tweeting with the energy of a 12-year-old with Tourettes.

Very little has been achieved in the way of real “open source” government even with citizens proposing, critiquing, ranking, choosing and collaborating on legislation, projects or funding decisions.

So we decided to try something different - based on the many-to-many principles of massively distributed collaboration that 2.0 offers. In two weeks the citizens of the electorate of Heathcote will be asked to allocate a pool of “economic stimulus” community grants to the causes they think most deserving.

Any of you who know the Kickstarter micro-finance web site will see where the inspiration comes from. Local community groups will pitch their projects to their fellow citizens and the crowd will decide who gets the money.

You can go to to look at all the wonderful projects that community organisations in Heathcote want funding for from the “Community Building Partnership” fund. This fund makes between $300,000 to $400,000 per electorate available to support community, sporting or cultural groups - if they have a project that can create a job and provide some stimulus to the New South Wales economy.


Usually when there is pork to go around MPs get to say where it goes. A lot of people have wondered if this alternative approach is a good idea because they’re worried people will “pick the wrong things”. We are excited to see what will happen when everyone gets a say.

The voting is all up front: how much each project wants; how many votes the various projects have received. Voting is audited and each citizen gets five votes (with a maximum of three votes for any one project).

So, citizen Mary gets an email from her daughter’s netball club asking her to support their club by going to the website and using all her so they can get the $26,000 they need to repaint the interior of the clubhouse, and retile the change rooms. This sounds a reasonable and worthwhile thing to do. Mary goes to the site and sees a selection of worthwhile and altruistic projects. She finds the netball club and clicks it to vote. The site gets some registration details and then allocates five votes. She can only give a maximum of three to the netball, so she looks around at all the other wonderful work being done in her community and decides one vote goes to a women’s refuge and one vote goes to the musical society. Mary’s daughter gets a vote, too. Young people are going to be the beneficiary of many of the projects, so they should have a say.

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About the Authors

Paul McLeay is the Member for Heathcote and Chairman of the NSW Public Accounts Committee. He is currently collaborating on a Citizens Handbook with Cass Wilkinson.

Cassandra Wilkinson is the author of Don't Panic - Nearly Everything is Better Than You Think.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Paul McLeay
All articles by Cassandra Wilkinson

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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