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Thursday, 6 October 2011

24. Participatory Budgeting

This is really a guest post by Robin Clarke of the Office of Public Management. I am grateful he offered to write the short piece below as it meant I finally got round to highlighting what is one of the more interesting local democracy ideas around.
According to the Participatory Budgeting Unit:
Participatory budgeting directly involves local people in making decisions on the spending and priorities for a defined public budget.
The idea, which comes in many shapes and sizes, started in Porto Alegre in Brazil where it has been a major part of governance in that city.  As Graham Smith says in his excellent 'Beyond the Ballot: 57 Democratic Innovations from the world':
Of all the participatory initiatives used in developing nations, it is Participatory Budgeting that has caught the imagination of practitioners and academics.

If you are interested in PB (as folk like to call it) then Smith's case study in Beyond the Ballot is an excellent place to start. After that you can dive in to the many, menay reports, posts and articles that are out there.

In terms of what is happening in the UK, this report - 'Communities in the driving seat: a study of Participatory Budgeting in England' - gives a in depth and up to date round up.  However, what is happening in the UK doesn't look much what is happening in places like Brazil.  This is a shame as PB really is one of the more interesting ways to transform the structures of local government in the UK. 

Here is Robin's take:

Participatory budgeting still needs a shake-up?

Somewhere in my distant past I worked at the IPPR think-tank on developing ideas for new democratic processes which could have the potential to liven up the UK’s less than vibrant democracy. Democracy had come to be seen as something which happened once every few years at the ballot box and was then filed away until the next election. To me democracy should also be about the conversations and activities that take place between elections.

Some of the work we did at IPPR did make something of a difference, for example, deliberative approaches such as citizens’ juries attracted interest and even found their way into Prime Ministerial speeches and policy. But other things fell by the wayside or just became a side show never quite realising their potential. I remember hosting a seminar to look at whether we could introduce Participatory budgeting (PB) into the UK context. At the time they did not quite fit into any of my project briefs but I felt sure that they could shake democracy up in a fairly big way. Here was an approach which was not about just consulting people but actually handing direct decision making power over to them. Potentially large budgets could be put in the hands of ordinary citizens.

For the next few years I knew that PB had found a niche in the local government world but I had not read up on the practical detail. Then a few months ago I attended a conference to celebrate 10 years of PB. But the models that were being presented did not look anything life what we had speculated about all those years ago. PB had become a process whereby small areas of discretionary spending were decided by small groups of local people. A typical example would be that a budget of £20k would be shared out amongst 10 local projects with no single project being allowed to receive more £2.5k. The project proposers would get up on a stage and say what they wanted to do with the money and audience would vote. It is not hard to imagine that those projects which managed to pack the hall with the most people would be the most likely to get the £2.5k.

More recently there has been a push by NESTA to scale-up PB so that it deals with bigger budgets and more mainstream areas of spending rather than the small less hard hitting discretionary areas. There should be so many incentives for PB becoming more like the model we envisaged. The coalition government is pretty clear that it wants to redraw the relationship between public bodies and their publics. Local people are to become more powerful. They should be co-deciders, co-creators, co-deliverers…co everything. But this won’t happen unless local authorities are pushed and encouraged to make this change and at present I don’t see much evidence of PB being a tool for driving some of this.


Alan said...

Dave & Robin,

You are right that Participatory Budgeting hasn’t taken off the way it has in Brazil and some European cities. But people have been given a direct say over local public budgets in over 150 places in Britain so far, which is quite a change towards a more participatory democracy.

But we are no where near the transformation that PB has lead to in some Brazilian cities. There it involves tens of thousands of people in the tough decisions about spending priorities for 10-18% of the mainstream budget. PB has had a significant impact on redistributing public services and investment to where it is needed most.

To make the step change a new campaign has been started – The People’s Budget. This is a grassroots campaign aiming for 1% of local public budgets to be spent by Participatory Budgeting. We are working with community groups across the country to advocate that is our RIGHT to have be part of budget decisions over how our taxes are spent. And they’d be probably be better decisions if we were involved! Find out more and be part of it at http://www.thepeoplesbudget.org.uk

Ruth Jackson PB Unit said...


I (of course) agree with Alan. No PB hasn't developed like is has in Brazil or in Europe, but that's because the UK isn't like either Brazil or other European countries. And that's a good thing. The brilliant thing about PB is it's not a 'one size' approach, that you take off the shelf and apply. It's a locally developed and determined process that's based on the needs of the area in question. Thus PB has developed in a UK appropriate way, locally.

Small grants or community grants pots distributed by PB may not be significant amounts of money, but they have produced many benefits in communities - often beyond the participants themselves from increases in volunteering, reduced isolation and depression, increased community cohesion, services more aligned with community needs, revitalising of community relations and trust in councillors, increased confidence and skills (primarily for participants), people more able to speak out for what they want/need.

Good PB processes in the UK have had significantly increased numbers of participation compared to other forms of engagement - Whitby's (Scarborough)first voting event had over 650 people turn out, Manton (Nottinghamshire) had over 24% of their population voting in their recent process and Stanley (Durham) had 850 people vote in their first process. PB has even reached the Shetlands and the Isle of Wight!

Furthermore, the small grants are invaluable to the many very local community and voluntary groups that are vital to neighbourhoods in keeping it going, connecting otherwise isolated and vulnerable people, providing positive activities for young people, revitalising green spaces, to name just a few. Without the funding they'd often disappear and through a process like PB an often 'closed door' process is opened up to the community so the groups know they have the backing of their community if they're voted for, often get more volunteers as a result, and are able to lever in additional funds because they can demonstrate they have the community on board.

Whilst we are strongly advocating for the use of PB in greater proportions of budgets - namely 1% of a public body or partnership budget, in neighbourhood and community budgets, and across a wider range of the public sector - small community grants have been and remain a very valuable PB tool.

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