In some way or another, we all pay taxes to the cities we live in, and we benefit regularly from city services. But few of us are aware of how exactly our money is spent on municipal projects. Also, while the structures of democracy ensure town halls and the ability to petition our representatives, even fewer of us feel a sense of agency in guiding the decision-making process.
I recently learned about Citizinvestor, a site that attempts to bring crowdfunding to city projects in the United States. Unlike most crowdfunding sites, not just anyone can join: they have to be city officials, and the project has to be approved for moving forward. Citizinvestor steps in with the funding side—city officials can go directly to their constituencies to seek funding. The city gets the funds it needs, and citizens know exactly how their dollars are being spent. As with Kickstarter, projects are only funded if they meet 100% of their goal.
In a recent TEDx talk, co-founder Jordan Raymor introduced the notion of the government as a vending machine, where citizens can choose what projects they want to pay for and engage with. This has dangers, of course—a project like this could detract from the sort of systemic change that many cities require to provide more equitable services for all citizens, not just those who have access to credit cards and the time to check a crowdfunding campaign. But Citizinvestor isn't mean to replace regular government functions. It does, however, provide a platform for accountability.
While citizens can't post a project directly, they can propose them online for officials to review.
"We believe that by requiring that project creators be government entities or their official partners, we are making government projects more transparent," Raymor noted of the project's potential to bring greater accountability. "Prior to Citizinvestor, if a government project goes over budget (that's never happened in your city, right?), citizens are mad, stories may get written, but it's impossible to understand how much of your money went to that particular project. With crowdfunding, you know exactly how much you gave to any given project and all hell will break loose if a project goes over budget or doesn't happen for one reason or another."
Designers will be glad to hear that, though only city officials can start a project, anyone can suggest one. A proposal by a street artist in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa received 157 likes, and these like function as a sort of petition for officials looking for a new project to pursue.
A quick look at existing projects shows a wide variety of engagements, from a space for entrepreneurs in Murrieta, CA, to new trash bins in a park in Rhode Island's Central Falls. Each of these projects has raised thousands so far. While there's plenty of reason to be skeptical—whose projects will be left out? what's the motivation for government officials to participate?—a project like Citizinvestor demonstrates the potential for new technologies and methods to bring new pathways to local civic engagement.
"As we explored this problem," Raymor explained of the project's genesis, "we discovered evidence that, if given the opportunity, citizens would be willing to pay, above and beyond what they already pay in taxes, for the government projects they care about most."