27 April 2023

Democracy Technologies: Can you explain the basic idea of the Helsinki Youth Budget?

Johanna Laukkanen: Yes, in short, it’s about giving the young people of Helsinki the right to have a say in part of the budget for the Youth Services of the city. This means helping to decide what kind of ideas and projects we will execute. We have over 10.000 young people who participate every year, and the number is growing, as the corona lockdown measures no longer apply. 

DT: How many young people are eligible to participate?

Johanna Laukkanen: All young people living in Helsinki between the ages of 12 and 17 are eligible to participate. There are approximately 32 000 youngsters of that age in Helsinki.

DT: So you reach roughly a third of this demographic?

Johanna Laukkanen: Yes, we are very proud of that. It’s been a long process and has involved a lot of outreach work that youth workers do all around the city. So they are the ones that deserve credit.

DT: Can you explain what they do in terms of outreach in more detail?

Johanna Laukkanen: They work closely together with the schools in their areas. The youth service department of Helsinki consists of 15 youth work units. Each is in charge of planning and executing activities, running youth centres and carrying out Youth Budget annually in their own district. Each unit will have between 3 to 6 schools in their area and the youth workers will organise a range of activities to encourage participation in Youth Budget. For example, they might have a pop-up event or they might go into the classrooms and be part of the lessons in some schools. This is also a way to gather information from young people about what they care about and what they want to be changed.

This outreach work is really important. It became clear during corona, that one doesn’t reach young people from a distance. It is really hard to reach the youth without meeting them face-to-face. So even though we live in a world where everything seems to be going online, and Youth Budget too is now almost fully digitalised, we find that practically no one will go to the website to vote on their own. To encourage participation, youth workers visit schools and meet young people face to face. For example, voting happens online, and participants vote mainly using their own devices, but almost everyone casts their vote in pop-up events at schools, where either the youth worker or the teacher is there to discuss what is happening, and why they should participate.

DT: Can you tell us a bit more about the first phase of the Youth Budget – the information-gathering phase?

Johanna Laukkanen: Yes, in 2013, when they began prototyping participatory budgeting with youth in Helsinki, they decided to begin with the information-gathering stage. Normally, with participatory budgeting, people come with their own ideas or agendas. For example, they might want a football field built in their area. But we try to turn this around a bit so that we first gather a large amount of information from the wider audience, in order to gauge the needs of the youth in the district as a whole. For example, is safety a concern? We use a questionnaire in order to gather this information and the questions change a little each year. It’s quite a large set of questions!

In the end, this data is available for each of the 15 districts as well as for the city as a whole. Then the youth workers study the data with the youth and discuss not only their own needs but also those of others in the area. With this in mind, the youth begin the ideation process, again facilitated by the youth workers, and note for example that in this area more places for young people to hang out are needed or more camps or cooking classes. From this, they select viable projects, develop cost estimates, and then forward the projects into voting.

In the last two years, we have used AI to help us process all the data that this information-gathering process generates. Last year we had 7.000 respondents to our questionnaire which consisted of 30 questions, out of which 15 were open questions. This means that the amount of data generated is huge! We received more than 90 000 open responses. We are now able to share a large part of the data annually with other sectors and services of the city as well as with organisations working with the youth in Helsinki. We also produce reports from the data on demand on different themes using the text analysis tool. These reports give other stakeholders valuable insights into current trends, needs, ideas and worries among youth, while also avoiding breaking data privacy regulations with regard to individual responses.

DT: What is the AI tool that you’re using and did you do a risk analysis before employing it?

Johanna Laukkanen: We are using Etuma text analysis service, it’s Finnish. We worked closely with legal advisors with regards to data privacy. Specifically, who do we allow to look at the data? GDPR is clearly important here so we are very aware of the issues in this regard. We are constantly working on this and will need to continue to do so in the future. Etuma has been used in Helsinki since 2018, so a lot of risk analysis has already been done before. But according to our knowledge, the Youth Budget data is by far the largest data processed with Etuma in the city. It is also the most vulnerable data in the sense that we are talking about data that consists of responses produced by underaged participants.

DT: What digital participation tool do you use and why?

Johanna Laukkanen: Our website is built on the Decidim platform and has been since 2018. This is mostly because there is a participatory budget for the whole city of Helsinki that began in 2018 and they also use Decidim, and we wanted to create consistency. But before that, we didn’t use a platform – we simply used all sorts of tools. Both digital and non-digital. Regarding Decidim, we are generally satisfied with it. Although we are dependent on the service provider to make changes and adjustments in the code, on the platform. This means that we are less flexible and agile than we would like to be and they can not do everything we would like to. For example, we wanted to do ranked-choice voting a few years ago, but this wasn’t possible. We do appreciate however that it works on a range of devices since the youth use the platform on a whole range of devices from laptops to phones.

DT: What have proved the biggest challenges on this project so far?

Johanna Laukkanen: Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in the Youth Budget has been the fairly rapid growth in the size of the project in recent years. So keeping everyone on the same page is a challenge. In Finland, youth work is largely operated by municipalities, and in Helsinki Youth Services we have around 300 youth workers and a large part of them are involved with the Youth Budget in one way or another. So keeping everyone in the loop and motivated can be difficult – especially as the process takes a full year and involves four different stages. And the next year there is always the implementation of the winning projects! Youth workers have key roles also in implementing the winning projects together with youth and reporting on how the budgets are used. Youth workers facilitate and help young people in executing the projects that received funding. 

DT: What recommendations do you have for those who are thinking about starting a similar project?

Johanna Laukkanen: I always say the same thing on this one: start small! Take a small part of the budget and open it up for deliberation with the youth.

DT: How do you feel about the Helsinki Youth Budget chosen as a finalist for the Innovation in Politics Awards?

Johanna Laukkanen: We were delighted! We have been doing this for a number of years now and this recognition has really helped people here at home in Finland appreciate our work and the progress we have made. It is also very welcome after the really tough Corona times – when we had to work so hard to reach isolated youngsters. We are thrilled.

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