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City and County of San Francisco – Budget Deliberative Forum Story

Case Story

Community:City and County of San Francisco

Population: 824,525

Summary: Keypad Technology Supports Deliberation

In 2005, San Francisco gave randomly selected participants an opportunity to discuss and rank local services using “real time” keypad and computer technology. This allowed the results of many small group deliberations to be aggregated and shared.

Approximately 300 residents participated in small group discussions facilitated by trained volunteer facilitators or city staff. Participants received information on different budget scenarios, discussed the options in small groups and expressed their preferences on the choices offered. Five San Francisco supervisors observed the meeting to hear first hand from constituents.

The most common priorities identified were good government, jobs, economic development, education, public safety and quality of life. These priorities informed the mayor’s 2005-06 budget, which sought to preserve and expand funding for vital services in these areas while making civil service reform the centerpiece of a new initiative to increase government accountability and efficiency.

Such technology has the potential for increasing participation to involve a significant number of residents and to generate and clearly demonstrate a group’s collective judgment on desired service and budget priorities. In this case, despite attempts to recruit a representative sample of participants in the discussions, the agency remained concerned that the activities did not fully involve all sectors and ethnic groups of the community. Budget and time constraints contributed to difficulties in recruiting a fully representative sample of residents.

The former city budget director believes the dialogues yielded useful information for agency officials, but cautions that high-quality deliberative civic engagement is expensive and takes more time to do effectively. The use of public engagement has to be integrated early enough into the budgeting process to be useful to policy-makers and worthwhile to the public.

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