The Piazza di Trevi in Rome

Giving Romans a Voice in Their City’s Budget

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What makes cities such vibrant, lively, and exciting places? At the end of the day, it’s the people who live in them. As the legendary urban planner Jane Jacobs once said: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” 

In other words, cities are made possible through participatory democracy. This system of governance, used by more than 3,000 cities all around the world, is what makes it possible for any citizen to call up city hall and register their opinions or concerns. 

The only problem with participatory democracy? Actually getting people to participate. When people are already busy with their jobs and social lives, civic engagement can sometimes fall by the wayside. To get people to engage, civic programs — and the messaging campaigns surrounding them — need to be designed with an understanding of human decision-making in mind. Minimizing friction and reducing cognitive bias is key to ensuring a healthy democracy.  

In 2019, one of Italy’s biggest urban centers was facing a civic engagement challenge. The City of Rome had €17 million to allocate to urban beautification projects. This budget could be put towards anything from creating new public green spaces, to building sustainable mobility infrastructure, to doubling down on urban regeneration efforts. The municipal government wanted citizens to join them in a process of participatory budgeting: co-creating suggestions and voting on potential ways to allocate these funds. 

But like many other local governments, city officials weren’t seeing as much involvement from everyday Romans as they had hoped. The City tapped TDL to create an evidence-based messaging strategy, leveraging behavioral insights to boost participation.

Vote now, benefit later

Here’s the paradox of civic participation: most citizens want a say in political decisions, but fewer are willing to take the time to make their voices known. This dilemma was a classic symptom of hyperbolic discounting, a cognitive bias that’s hardwired into our brains. We’re programmed to favor short-term rewards over long-term payoffs. 

For many citizens, this means that the immediate hassle of going to vote on a participatory budget outweighs the eventual benefits of having had a say in local governance — even if that engagement could eventually lead to new public parks, green spaces, or bike shares.

How can we counteract this bias? One tried and true strategy is through framing. Behavioral scientists know very well that people often pay less attention to the content of a message than they do to its presentation. Even minor tweaks to the framing of information can have a disproportionate effect on the way it is received.

Reframing the problem

TDL was approached by the City of Rome to help boost citizen engagement on the #RomaDecide campaign. The goal was to collect as wide a sample of public opinion as possible. After all, participatory budgeting serves its purpose best when a maximum number of residents participate. 

We immediately honed in on targeted messaging as the most efficient way to boost public participation. We first conducted a behavioral audit of the City’s existing messaging strategies, identifying opportunities for potential behavioral intervention and developing research hypotheses to be tested. We also conducted a sweeping literature review on evidence-based strategies for civic engagement.  

Based on our initial research and messaging audit, we developed a wide range of framing strategies for more rigorous testing. Each of our proposed strategies was designed to test the influence of various framings and behavioral levers on participants’ intent to engage. Many put traditional Roman values such as family and community front and center; others leveraged cognitive biases such as the endowment effect to create a sense of ownership and commitment to civic engagement.  

To test our hypotheses, we collected data from nearly 10,000 everyday Romans. In order to do justice to Rome’s incredible diversity, we also tested how different communities living in the city differentially responded. This allowed us to understand how we could have the greatest impact on groups whose voices are often underrepresented. 

Good old-fashioned values

After reviewing our data, we devised seven distinct framing strategies to test with the Roman population:

  • Time pressure
  • Self-actualization and social commitment
  • Social commitment and agency
  • Social norms and agency
  • Self-actualization and civic participation
  • Self-actualization and social norms
  • Social norms and family values

Compared to the City’s existing campaign materials, our modified materials resulted in up to a 150% increase in response rate. The most successful were messages that emphasized social norms and family values, reflecting the strong influence that traditional Italian culture still has on citizens’ everyday  decision-making. 

To ensure the best chance of increasing response rates, we went beyond our messaging recommendations and consulted with the City on implementation strategies to put our findings into practice. We advised the City of Rome on defining how our data-backed strategies could be embedded into their institutional practices, and supported the development of an internal behavioral unit to lead this process.

A city for everybody

Our work led to thousands of Romans giving input on government spending — people who wouldn’t have otherwise had their voices heard. And thanks to the increased response rate, the City of Rome was able to allocate their budget in a manner that best suited a higher proportion of their population. 

Participatory budgeting ensures that the people who live in cities get to play an active role in shaping them. But its main objectives are defeated if there are too many barriers to engagement — including behavioral and cognitive ones. Leaning on behavioral levers, like the framing strategies we developed for Rome, can help ensure that local democracies are truly representative of all citizens. 

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