South Australians can now vote on how to allocate $30m

By GovInsider

Interview with Gail Fairlamb, Director of Strategic Engagement, Department of the Premier and Cabinet of South Australia.

A $30 million fund for neighbourhood improvements is nothing to sneeze at - and South Australians have a say in how it will be spent. Their state just launched Fund My Neighbourhood, a participatory budgeting initiative, last week.

It invites citizens to allocate AU$40 million (~US$ 31.6 million) worth of funds to projects that will improve their neighbourhoods. Citizens may also suggest improvements, which can receive between AU$10,000-$150,000 worth of funding.

“If you want to have better street lighting, a community garden, a playground, or a skate park, you can submit an idea,” says Gail Fairlamb, Director of the Strategic Engagement unit of South Australia. She adds that her team received over 200 ideas within less than a week.

With the amount of funding on the table, this is the biggest online participatory budgeting process in Australia, Fairlamb believes.

She shares with GovInsider how her unit is helping the government to “work collaboratively with citizens and bring them into decision-making”, and how going digital played a key part.

When citizens decide

As part of her role, Fairlamb advocates for better community engagement. After all, she explains, “people in our communities are better placed to judge whether a policy, programme or service will meet their needs,” and “involving them early in this process means that they get to influence, shape and raise any potential concerns around the implementation of that policy.”

Fairlamb’s unit set up the YourSAy website as a “central hub” for all citizen engagement efforts. One of them is Fund My Community which, similar to Fund My Neighbourhood, asks citizens to decide on a range of community projects that will receive government funding of AU$1 million (~US$ 783,000) in total.

Among them is an project offering vocational training and life skills to marginalised young Aboriginal people, and a dental care service for women who have experienced domestic violence.

And the benefits of participatory budgeting, Fairlamb notes, are that “the government is clear about its commitment, and the community is clear about what its job is in terms of influencing decision-making”.

“The government is clear about its commitment, and the community is clear about what its job is in terms of influencing decision-making." The digital platform attracts participation from young people, which “as a generalisation, won’t attend a face-to-face meeting, and prefer to participate online”, says Fairlamb.

“Through a digital channel, you can pop online 24/7, and influence a whole range of policies,” she continues. “The general principle around community engagement is that you want to make it easy for people to engage.”

Fund My Community is on its third run since it began in 2014, she adds, and a total of almost 7,500 citizens have been involved in allocating AU$3 million (~US$2.4 million).

Just last month, it was announced that the programme was recognised with the 2017 United Nations Public Service Award, Fairlamb says.

Her unit has now established itself as “a test bed for trialling democratic innovations”. This entails understanding what communities need, co-designing a programme or project with members of the community, testing it over a few years, and then transitioning it out to a government line agency, according to Fairlamb.

What’s next?

A big project in the unit’s lineup is the Open State festival, which launches this week and involves “the government acting as a platform to support different organisations, communities, businesses, universities, and not-for-profits, all hosting different events about how the future will affect us”, according to Fairlamb.

The event will run from 28 September to 8 October, and will feature dialogues on urban planning, smart cities, and technology in healthcare, to name a few. Citizen engagement will continue to play a big part in the South Australian government’s objectives.

Other governments are also implementing initiatives of their own: in India, the government used social media to involve its citizens in cleanup campaigns, while in Brazil, the Open Government programme allows citizens to share in-demand skills with the government.

Singapore, on the other hand, is working with citizens to design neighbourhoods and public spaces that better serve their needs and wants.

The great thing with citizen engagement, says Fairlamb, is that “government doesn’t have to do everything; we’re actually empowering individuals and businesses in our community to take the delivery of some of the government’s priorities”.

And when governments include their people in making policies that affect their lives, it means that there is greater trust between the two - and at the end of the day, citizens do have a say.

Main image by YourFutureSA's Facebook Page;

Image of Fairlamb from Women in Innovation