A group of researchers at Northwestern University has offered to help the City of Evanston with efforts to have residents participate in deciding how to spend $2.5 million of federal aid.

The NU group, headed by Matt Easterday, an associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy, focuses on what he calls “technology for the new civics — producing scientifically supported educational technology to create informed and engaged citizens who can solve the serious policy problems facing our society.”

The City Council has voted to decide how to spend $2.5 million of the more than $43 million the city is receiving in American Rescue Plan Act funds through a participatory budgeting process intended to directly engage residents in the decision making process.

At a meeting of the Council’s Participatory Budgeting Committee Thursday afternoon, Easterday described several projects his group has worked on, including NextGenIL, a networked learning platform for crowdsourcing a policy agenda, and The Loft, an online platform for orchestrating project-driven learning in civic innovation networks.

“Bringing the open democracy process to our own home town is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Easterday told the committee. “Thanks for inviting us.”

Also at the meeting, Sarah Flax, the city’s housing and grants coordinator, told committee members that under federal guidelines the city would need to issue a request for proposals for a consultant to help run the participatory budgeting process, rather than issuing a sole-source contract.

Matthew Ouren.

And Matthew Ouren, the city’s local government management fellow, said it would likely take 12 to 15 months to carry out the public participation program.

Jonathan Nieuwsma.

Ald. Jonathan Nieuwsma (4th) said the committee needed to develop a “lean and efficient way” of conducting the participatory budgeting process that wouldn’t impose too much additional work on the city’s already stretched staff.

Ald. Devon Reid (8th), the committee’s chair, said that at the group’s next meeting, at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 17, he hoped to develop rules for the request for proposals process.

Ald. Bobby Burns (5th) suggested the committee should also start developing a steering committee of residents to help organize the process.

Nieuwsma added that “it can’t hurt to convene some community stakeholders to be part of the process,” although their role might vary depending on the consultant the city decides to hire.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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