FAQ'sUp one level
Some of the FAQs are reproduced with kind permission of UN-HABITAT from their very informative book 72 Frequently Asked Questions about Participatory Budgeting, part of their Urban Governance Toolkit Series. The full book can be found here. We didn't see any point in producing our own answers when a very good resource was already available.
Other FAQs are from our own experiences of what practitioners frequently ask us, and some of our best responses. Feel free to ask us another, if you can't find it here, through the Ask the Expert section
- What is Participatory Budgeting?
- Where did participatory budgeting originate?
- Which countries are using participatory budgeting now?
- What are the benefits of participatory budgeting?
- When did participatory budgeting start?
- What are the benefits of the participatory budget for the city and its citizens?
- What are the benefits of the participatory budget for the local pubic administration?
- What are the dimensions of participatory budgeting?
- What are the basic conditions necessary to implement participatory budgeting?
- In what conditions is it not advisable to undertake participatory budgeting?
- what are the principles of participatory budgeting?
- How much does the process cost to the municipality and how are these covered?
- Who participates in participatory budgeting?
- If participation is limited, does that not take away legitimacy from the process?
- How do the excluded and marginalised participate in PB? Isn't there a greater risk of social exclusion?
- What is the role of the third sector, universities and professionals in participatory budgeting?
- Does volunteering play a role in participatory budgeting?
- How can the private sector be integrated into participatory budgeting?
- Is there participatory budgeting in rural areas?
- How can more people be encouraged to participate e.g. electronic voting, etc.?
- Reaching out beyond the ‘professional meeting goer’. How do we ensure that the community decision-makers are representative?
- How feasible is it to use PB for mainstream budgets?
- What happens when the community wants something and there is no ‘owner’? Making groups formalise themselves can result in bureaucracy and stifle innovation and sustainability.
- Is the hype greater than the effect?
- How do you get elected members to be passionate about PB?
- What's different about PB (compared to other engagement)?
- How important is deliberation?
- Is there a chance that one community/voluntary group will hijack the outcome?
- How many people tend to participate in PB?
- Where does the money come from?
- Can PB be implemented once, or does it need to be repeated?
- Who needs to be involved when planning a PB programme?
- How can PB improve the commissioning of public services?
- Can PB be used to decide which services to cut?
- Does PB disempower elected members?
- Is PB merely a ‘token gesture’, giving the illusion of influence over tiny sums of money?
- Do residents have the skills and knowledge to make informed spending decisions?
- Will PB only attract ‘the usual suspects’
- Are PB events merely a ‘beauty contest’, where the cutest bids win through, irrespective of quality?
What is Participatory Budgeting?
Participatory Budgeting (PB) is citizens making decisions on a public budget. However, how PB is defined and implemented is different around the world. This is mostly because PB has a range of benefits and different localities and countries adopt PB to fulfil one or more of the benefits, and a different emphasis is placed on those outcomes - meaning that the objectives and process then change to suit the purpose. Thus, PB is an umbrella for a whole range of processes worldwide. The litmus test for whether or not it's PB (or another form of engagement) is neatly put by a participant in Brazil: "If it feels like we've decided, its PB, if it feels like someone else decided, it's not".
Our agreed definition with the Department for Communities and Local Government is:"Participatory budgeting directly involves local people in making decisions on the spending and priorities for a defined public budget. PB processes can be defined by geographical area (whether that’s neighbourhood or larger) or by theme. This means engaging residents and community groups representative of all parts of the community to discuss and vote on spending priorities, make spending proposals, and vote on them, as well giving local people a role in the scrutiny and monitoring of the process and results to inform subsequent PB decisions on an annual or repeatable basis."
Where did participatory budgeting originate?
Participatory budgeting has been most frequently identified as developing in the Brazilian City of Porto Alegre in the early 1980's. Porto Alegre has received much international praise for the way it has used PB to improve its administration of the city, and it has been the centre of much research into citizen engagement around public spending. PB was also developed in other Latin American cities at around the same time, and has spread to many other cities. As it has moved from city to city PB has always been adapted to the local situation, and so there is no one pure model of PB. Many other parts of the world have also been recognised as innovators in citizen participation. Developing, from different starting positions, similar experiences and principles of PB as those used in Porto Alegre. For example in India local people have been trained to read and question public budgets, and this has enabled citizens to have greater influence over public spending. In the 1980's New Zealand developed models of city administration that some have describe as forms of participatory budgeting.
Which countries are using participatory budgeting now?
From its early development in Brazil PB has been adopted worldwide. Across the globe, from Fiji to Canada, and from Finland to South Africa there have been many local government programmes that have acknowledged the influence of Porto Alegre in the way they are now engaging with citizens. Estimates vary but there are probably well over 1200 different experiences worldwide, operating on every continent. Most frequently reported are those in Latin America such as Porto Alegre, but PB is being promoted by international bodies such as the World Bank, the UK Department for International Development and the Asian Development Bank in countries as diverse as Zimbabwe, Estonia, India, China and Canada.
What are the benefits of participatory budgeting?
Each model of PB is different and will have different effects but there are three main ways that PB is regarded as offering benefits.
- It can improve the democratic process, widening participation and re-invigorating the role of local authorities, local councillors and civil society, and increasing trust in public institutions.
- It can improve the effectiveness of public spending by improving the way money is invested, how service provision is monitored, and by increasing the knowledge available to the local authority and public bodies when undertaking service planning.
- Finally it strengthens the community and voluntary sector by investing in services essential to poorer communities, so enabling their development, by increasing the number of people taking part in local democratic processes, and it builds social capital by creating forums for local groups to meet, negotiate and take decisions together.
When did participatory budgeting start?
While there were earlier partial experiments, the PB formally came into existence in 1989 in a few Brazilian cities, in particular Porto Alegre. Outside Brazil, from 1990 onwards, in Montevideo, Uruguay, the population was invited to provide direction to the use of the resources of the Municipality in its five-year plan.
What are the benefits of the participatory budget for the city and its citizens?
Most scholars and participants of PBs agree that one of their most important benefits is the deepening of the exercise of democracy, through the dialogue of public authorities with their citizenry. Another benefit is that Participatory Budgets make the state accountable to its citizens and contribute to the modernisation of public management. In many Latin American cases, the Participatory Budget is a tool to re-order social priorities and promote social justice. Citizens go from being simple observers to protagonists in public administration, that is to say, full, active, critical and demanding participants. In this region above all, the PB gives citizens better opportunities for access to works and services like basic sanitation, street paving, transportation improvements, and health and educational centres. By participating actively in the Participatory Budgeting process, the citizens define their priorities, and in doing so have the chance to significantly improve their quality of life, in a relatively short timeframe. In addition, they have the possibility to control and monitor the execution of the budget. On the other hand, the PB also stimulates processes of administrative modernisation and feeds into the strategic planning process of the municipality.
What are the benefits of the participatory budget for the local pubic administration?
The Participatory Budget:
- Improves the transparency of public administration and efficiency
- in public expenditures.
- Encourages citizen participation in decision-making and in the
- allocation and oversight the use of public funds.
- Demands increased accountability of public leaders and managers.
- Enables collective prioritisation and co-management of resources.
- Generates increased trust between the government and the population.
- Creates a democratic culture within the community and
- strengthens the social fabric.
What are the dimensions of participatory budgeting?
The Participatory Budget is a multidimensional process:
- Budgetary/financial dimension
- Participatory dimension (these two dimensions are the foundation
- of the process)
- Normative and legal-judicial dimension
- Spatial/territorial dimension
- Political/governance dimension
What are the basic conditions necessary to implement participatory budgeting?
There are a number of basic preconditions for the implementation of a Participatory Budget. The first is a clear political will of the Mayor (or leader of the council and councillors) and the other municipal decisionmakers. Political will is necessary to sustain the entire process. The most visible manifestation of this will be in the implementation phase, when commitments are concretised into tangible investments.
The second is the presence and interest of civil society organizations and better still, of the citizenry in general. This condition is decisive for the sustainability of the exercise.
The third is a clear and shared definition of the rules of the game. These rules refer to the amounts to be discussed, the stages and their respective time periods, the rules for decision-making (and in the case of disagreement, the responsibility and decision-making authority of each actor), the method of distributing responsibility, authority and resources among the different districts and neighbourhoods of the city, and the composition of the Participatory Budget Council. These rules cannot be decided unilaterally. They must be determined with full participation of the population, and subsequently adjusted each year, based on the results and functioning of the process.
The fourth precondition is the will to build the capacity of the population and the municipal officials, on public budgeting in general as well as the Participatory Budget in particular. This entails explaining the amounts, sources of funds and current system of expenditures. It is also important to clarify which areas of public spending are the municipality’s responsibility and which rest beyond the local authority.
A fifth condition is the widespread dissemination of information through all possible means. Dates and venues of meetings, and the rules of the game which have been decided upon, must be shared with the population.
Finally, the sixth precondition is the prioritisation of demands, set by the population and linked to technical criteria that include an analysis of the existing shortfalls in infrastructure and public services. This is important in order to facilitate a fairer distribution of resources.
In what conditions is it not advisable to undertake participatory budgeting?
It is not advisable to implement a PB when the preconditions mentioned in the answer to 'what are the basic conditions necessary to implement participatory budgeting?' are not present. Additionally, it is not advisable if one or both of the parties, either the government or the citizenry, are not open to change and shared management of public resources. It is also better to avoid participatory budgeting if honesty and transparency are lacking in the local administration. To implement a PB in that context would provide legitimacy to, or hide, practices that are contrary to the basic principles of participatory budgeting.
When the local conditions are not ideal at a given moment, this does not mean that the interested people or institutions should abandon the idea of Participatory Budgeting. More limited initiatives can be undertaken, such as attempting to introduce more transparency into the budgeting process. The organization of Forums or other activities, with the presence of legitimate representatives of civil society can be a mechanism to press for the opening of a public discussion of the budget and citizen control of it. Many cities are right now undergoing a preparatory stage for Participatory
what are the principles of participatory budgeting?
The fundamental principles are participatory democracy, as a political model, and good governance. If indeed these principles are considered universal, each city or country converts them into practical means, reflecting their needs and
the local context.good governance.
The PB Unit have developed values, principles and standards for PB which relate to PB as its implemented in the UK. The values are:
- Local Ownership
- Representative Democracy
- Shared Responsibility
These values are not unique to participatory budgeting, but they are key to ensuring good quality, meaningful PB. All good practice PB incorporates these values to some degree. We have produced some guidance on the values, including matrices to track progress and good practice case studies. To download the guidance click here or visit the resources section on the website for more information.
How much does the process cost to the municipality and how are these covered?
The Participatory Budget implies a series of costs for the local government. To implement a Participatory Budget properly, four types of resources are needed: a)municipal staff committed and trained to implement the process, including being willing to work nights and weekends, b) means of transportation to be able to circulate throughout the neighbourhoods and transport the municipal staff, c) ample communication resources in order to share information with the public, d) personnel for the technical, economic and budgetary feasibility studies of the prioritised demands. In addition, to accelerate the process and ensure its quality, it is important to have resources to transport people who live far from the meeting places and to train functionaries as well as citizens, and in particular delegates, in the Participatory Budgeting process. Cities that have not planned for these costs have, in general, faced difficulties and, in some cases, have even suspended the activity. Therefore, it is important to do a cost/benefit analysis before deciding to implement a Participatory Budget.
The Department for Communities and Local Government commissioned SQW to undertake an extensive national evaluation of PB. One of the questions the research was required to answer was how much does PB cost to implement. SQW found that this was impossible to answer definitely as it varied so much from initiative to initiative. To an extent - how much was spent depended on how much was available to spend. Some areas had very little so only allocated part of 1 FTEs time and a few hundred pounds for flyers and venue hire. Others have dedicated entire teams of FTEs and a few thousand pounds for publicity and events. It also depends on the type of process - those that undertake postal ballots will incur more postage and printing charges than those that have a single event - although the cost of the venue may outweight the cost of postage.
To download the full evaluation report click here
Who participates in participatory budgeting?
This is an interesting question that some researchers in Spain are currently researching to try and answer. They are undertaking research in about 20 countries around the world, including the UK. In the UK, Edinburgh, Conwy, Luton and Stockport were involved in the research. The results have yet to be published.
However, prior to undertaking the international research, the Spanish researchers undertook similar research in Spain and found that there, between 1-3% of the population of an area undertaking PB, actually participated. Generally, they found at the profile of participant was an adult male that was educated. However, they also found that over time, if PB was repeated in subsequent years, that this profile changed to include a greater number of women and younger people, to the point where they were actually in the majority (if PB had occurred for more than 2 years in a row).
Most of those that participated were already a member of a local organisation of some sort, whether that be the tenants and residents association, a local sports club or a women's group. And a quarter of those who were members, were members of multiple associations. The researchers conclude that the growth of PB is sustained and developed through a strong community and voluntary sector which provide many of the initial participants, at least in the initial years.
The researcher also found that participants had a higher interest in politics than the general population, and ideologically, the majority of the participants were left-leaning (which is different from the general Spanish population, who are more generally centre or centre-right).
These results are from Spain, however. The larger research project should provide a broader picture as well as a UK specific picture in the near future.
To read the full Spanish research report, click here.
If participation is limited, does that not take away legitimacy from the process?
It is definitely a risk. Therefore, one of the most important goals is that the PB process gain legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of citizens, including those that do not participate. This legitimacy is achieved through a strong communication effort from the municipality so that everyone feels invited to participate and so that they have access to the main financial information and the decisions made in the Participatory Budget.
Other appropriate instruments are public opinion polls which can serve to verify thelevel of recognition of the process and its legitimacy among the general public, as well as referendums, which allow for the voting approval of certain particularly
sensitive decisions. Another important goal is that the participation, although quantitatively limited, includes citizens from all social groups and does not leave anyone marginalised from the process. For this reason, special attention should be paid to the inclusion of women, youth, the poor and vulnerable, and groups who face discrimination (ethnic minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities etc.).
How do the excluded and marginalised participate in PB? Isn't there a greater risk of social exclusion?
There is always a risk of social exclusion in any form of engagement or participation, particularly one that is open to all and not restricted by strict representation of the population (citizens panels are a good form of ensuring representation). However, PB enables all to participate and provides incentive for them to do so in a way that other engagement methods don't. If the values of PB are embedded in a process - values of accessibility in particular - will help to ensure any exclusion is minimised.
The best practice examples of ensuring good representation and involving those that don't traditionally get involved, utilised their existing community development networks and included engaging with marginalised sections of the community in spaces where they felt comfortable. For example, some initiatives have roadshows and take these to the post office, pub, chemist and supermarket to target those that perhaps might not feel comfortable in the town hall. Others use community researchers, and provide support in completing any written forms or applications.
What is the role of the third sector, universities and professionals in participatory budgeting?
All of these sectors provide invaluable support, guidance and momentum to PB, both locally and nationally. Locally the community and voluntary sector is key to supporting individuals and groups in putting forward ideas or projects, and in providing the groundswell of people to participate in making decisions.
Academics have been important nationally and internationally in undertaking research into PB which as ultimately provided the evidence needed to maintain and develop the credibility of the approach. Academics will continue to provide this as they are best placed to answer some of the questions that practitioners are both too busy and too involved to answer fully.
Professionals support PB in a number of ways. Whether they be associates and consultants providing training, facilitation and support to practitioners, or whether they be providing training to individuals and groups locally to give good presentations or help monitor and feedback process. Videographers have been instrumental in capturing and relaying the process through video, often a more important tool in convincing the sceptics than any number of reports or evaluations.
Does volunteering play a role in participatory budgeting?
Participatory Budget Processes are always undertaken with a great amount of voluntary effort, both from civil society and from the various instances of local government. Volunteerism is expressed in every stage of the PB cycle, as much in the elaboration of the budget as the execution phase. In order to reinforce citizen participation and voluntary action, some cities have included this dimension as a criterion for the prioritisation of works. Furthermore, the analysis of the experiences indicates that the Participatory Budget channels social capital, stimulates voluntary action and reactivates traditional community voluntary practices, for example, the mingas (or minkas) in the Andean region. In Cuenca, the value contributed by the community in labour, material and equipment doubles the value of the projects financed by the Participatory Budget.
How can the private sector be integrated into participatory budgeting?
Up to now, the participation of the formal private sector in Participatory Budgets has been limited. Generally the focus has been between the public sector and citizens because the public sector is accountable to citizens for it's funding. The private sector isn't accountable in this way - only to its shareholders. However, with the development of Corporate Social Responsibility, local businesses are taking a much more active role in the communities that they're based.
A few initiatives have involved local businesses in providing money to the overall pooled pot of money to be allocated by PB, and others have involved the private sector by requesting prizes for raffles or the use of venues or catering at minimal cost or free of charge.
Given the increasing squeeze on public finances and the growing awareness of businesses as part of the community, it will be intreresting to see how the private sector becomes more integrated within the PB process. The main issue to be aware of is that whilst involvement from the private sector is welcome, it should be the community making the decisions and owning the process, not the private sector.
Is there participatory budgeting in rural areas?
Yes, and over the past few years, there has been a significant increase in implementation in rural areas across the UK. Town and Parish councils in particular have shown enthusiasm and innovation in developing PB models which suit their situation. There are different issues in rural areas that need to be addressed, such as lack of transportation and distances between places, which mean that sometimes a single voting event isn't the right format.
Rural Action Yorkshire recently developed a toolkit specifically aimed at Town and Parish councils, to help them implement PB within a rural setting. To look at it click here
How can more people be encouraged to participate e.g. electronic voting, etc.?
To answer that, we think you need to ask yourself two questions – firstly what’s the purpose of the project, and then secondly, who then do you want to involve to achieve the purpose? For example, if it’s a young people’s pilot – then you want to involve young people and agencies that work with them. Or maybe the project is in a certain geographical area (e.g. a neighbourhood management area), so you’d want to involve all the people in the area – would that include young people too or is there a cut off age? Maybe it’s a project with older people – what’s the lower age limit or maybe it’s linked to pension status? Once you know who you want to involve you need to think about how you currently engage the different groups you want to involve and if those engagement mechanisms are effective. If so, use them (no point reinventing the wheel). If not, then some community research and development may be needed with certain groups to understand how best to encourage their involvement in PB. It may well be that electronic voting will engage with some key groups, and if so, you should consider if that’s an important mechanism for involvement.
More people can also be encouraged to participate over time. Word of mouth is very effective. If participants in the first event enjoyed themselves and see the benefits of their involvement, they’ll tell their friends, family and neighbours. If they see the projects they voted for being implemented in their neighbourhoods they’ll be convinced that their vote counts and convince others to vote too.
Reaching out beyond the ‘professional meeting goer’. How do we ensure that the community decision-makers are representative?
I think this is probably one of the most common questions we’re asked. And at times we wish we had a nice little tool that we could give to everyone and say ‘there you go, use that and you’ll have perfect community representation’. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that! We live in a democratic country where people have free will – you can’t force empowerment upon people – that’s a bit of an oxymoron! It’s virtually impossible to 100% guarantee complete representation of the community at anything and PB is no exception. However, like with other engagement mechanisms, there are various activities you can do. Some communities are easier for representation than others. ‘Hard to reach’ groups should be targeted through community development to promote PB to them in a way that engages with them. Asking for representation information (age, address, ethnicity etc) at events (on registration forms or feedback questionnaires for example) can help to monitor participation from event to event, and may help you target under-represented groups for the next event. Think about arranging transport for certain groups or providing crèche facilities so that those with children can come. Choose a date and time sensitively. If you are really concerned you can restrict the amount of funding for certain themes or require a minimum to be spent on certain themes (for example, older people and younger people, or projects for different neighbourhoods in a community) although this isn’t ideal as it moves away from the values of PB
How feasible is it to use PB for mainstream budgets?
That depends on the budget. PB is not about using 100% of a budget. It’s only ever been a small percentage of an investment budget, so it’s not affecting core service provision. The maximum percentage allocated by PB in Brazil was 18% of the investment budget. We would never suggest you ask the community if they’d rather fund schools or bin collection, for example! There are certain statutory duties public agencies need to perform and these budgets can’t be open for discussion. However, other budgets have more flexibility. For example, in Salford they devolve a proportion of the highways budget. So local people can decide which highways schemes they want in their area based on the issues. They can decide whether to have traffic calming or pedestrian crossings, whether to remove a tree out of the pavement or have more lollipop people. That doesn’t affect core business – highways are still maintained – and the money is still spent on highways – the difference is, instead of being annoyed by the road works, the residents have asked for the project and know why they want it.
What happens when the community wants something and there is no ‘owner’? Making groups formalise themselves can result in bureaucracy and stifle innovation and sustainability.
In Bradford and elsewhere, the approach has been deliberately ‘light touch’. Local people with ideas they wished to deliver themselves could choose to become formally constituted as a group, or merely nominate a local organisation (church, school etc) to act as banker for any monies received. It also needs to be borne in mind that one person’s ‘bureaucracy’ is another person’s ‘robust accountability regarding public funds’: the trick is to strike the appropriate balance between the two.
Is the hype greater than the effect?
PB processes need to demonstrate over time that money will be spent at least as well as through other methods. This is based on the notion that local people are the experts with regard to their communities. There is to date little hard evidence to either support or challenge this contention with regard to PB in the UK, as the sums of money so far disbursed have been relatively small. The ‘hype’, however, is not to be dismissed merely as hype. PB has already been shown to have demonstrable benefits in terms of community cohesion, networking between organisations and greater understanding of public finances, to name just three.
How do you get elected members to be passionate about PB?
Elected members are constantly responding to competing pressures and agendas. They will be balancing party allegiances, electoral opinion and a wide range of statutory regulation and monitoring. It is not surprising they may feel that participatory budgeting might only complicate their work and reduce their role as elected representatives. Showing videos of actual experiences can be helpful, particularly where they show councillors actively supporting a programme. Encourage councillors to accompany you on a study visit. Consider holding special briefings for councillors before your pilot begins. Give them evidence of the possible impact and benefit of the work. Keep them informed and involved throughout the pilot. It is an important principle within PB that elected councillors or statutory accountable bodies retain their democratic powers and you need to factor in an opportunity for them to formally approve decisions taken by community participants to fully legitimise the process.
What's different about PB (compared to other engagement)?
PB gives a direct role to citizens in decisions about the spending of a public budget. It requires the budget holder to devolve the power to make, or share in decisions, to the people they serve. In this, it differs from consultation or including community representation on a decision making panel. As a consequence, its impact is significantly greater. Whilst it is a flexible process, it is distinguished by a set of values and principles which serve to define it as PB
How important is deliberation?
Very; one of the characteristic strengths of PB is that it enables local people from a range of backgrounds to come together to hear each other’s experiences and priorities articulated, often for the first time. The opportunity to discuss what they have heard and perhaps think about what will benefit the whole community, rather than just their own interests, is likely to result in more considered decisions and reinforce community cohesion. It can be difficult to incorporate space for deliberation in a voting event, but there are ways in which this can be done without taking up too much time.
Is there a chance that one community/voluntary group will hijack the outcome?
There is always a possibility that the result of a democratic process can be manipulated by a self-interest group. However, it happens extremely rarely and there are ways of mitigating even that small risk. The chosen voting system, the degree of engagement with every section of the community, ensuring an opportunity for deliberation, the level of participation can all help. Exceptionally, a restriction on the number of “supporters” any one bidder can bring along to an event might be imposed. But, bear in mind the best way of obviating the risk is to trust the intelligence and common sense of the community as a whole.
How many people tend to participate in PB?
There is no answer to that question! In the UK alone, there is a huge variation in the numbers and, clearly, the size of the geographical area or target group makes a significant difference. In some recent cases, many hundreds (or more) of residents have been involved but it is often significantly lower than that, especially in the first year of PB activity. It is important to judge the level of participation against any previous engagement initiative in the same area. Even a small number of participants can be regarded as a success in a neighbourhood where there is no history of community activity.
Where does the money come from?
The budget for PB projects can be derived from a wide range of sources. It might be a % of a council’s main revenue budget, set aside for investment prioritisation; all or part of a delegated ward councillor’s budget; funding provided by other public service organisations, such as the Police or Fire and Rescue Service; a parish or town council’s precept; specific pots of central government money intended for investment in communities (such as the Community Infrastructure Levy); even the private sector. In short, anywhere and remember that the willingness of one budget holder can often be used to leverage match funding from others. There is much more about this in the “resources” section of this website.
Can PB be implemented once, or does it need to be repeated?
Most initiatives in the UK that have tried PB have seen real added value from using this process . The challenge, however, is to sustain a PB programme, particularly where there is pressure on public resources. International experience has shown that participatory budgeting needs to evolve over a number of years to achieve its full potential for community empowerment, service reform and democratic development. The most successful PB programmes begin by involving a wide body of stakeholders in planning how to continue the initiative beyond its initial piloting. Over a number of budget cycles community capacity improves, service patterns become better aligned to community need, and democratic structures improve. Meaningful change will always take time and commitment.
Who needs to be involved when planning a PB programme?
Most participatory budgeting programmes begin within a public organisation or partnership, and are led by a small team of paid officers. Their job is to facilitate the PB process. Experience ain the UK and worldwide has shown that careful planning and wide stakeholder involvement at the outset can really improve outcomes. Community representation is essential, as is the involvement of elected councillors and key budget holders from within public bodies. It is therefore normal to set up a steering or reference group that can help guide officers in project implementation, set out funding criteria, improve evaluation and strengthen local accountability. The PB Unit has produced detailed guidance that can help to identify, engage with and support this steering group.
How can PB improve the commissioning of public services?
Each year a public sector organisations have to decide what services to purchase from the public funds they manage. The process of making these decisions is generally known as commissioning. This follows a well structured process that involves: Understanding local needs and planning how to address them, identifying the right people to meet those needs, evaluating on quality and outcomes, and benchmarking your activity against similar bodies. Involving residents and service users is critical to high quality commissioning. Participatory budgeting is a way for involving local people and service recipients at each step of the commissioning processes, through an annual budget engagement cycle.
Can PB be used to decide which services to cut?
Public money is always limited, and hard choices must always have to be made about what services can and can’t be funded. Participatory budgeting improves the exchange of information and dialogue between different viewpoints and when well implemented can help whenever there is particular budgetary pressures. However most public expenditure, once committed, cannot be easily cut due to contractual, social equality or political reasons. International experience has shown that PB is most successful and sustainable when it focuses on investment budgets. It is during commissioning and public investment that new ideas can get picked up. If they are going to continue to participate it is also important that local people see a positive outcome from their engagement. Moving too quickly can also create resistance from service managers or politicians, who have traditionally taken these decisions. That is why the PB Unit is promoting the concept of the 1% budget - a commitment by local authorities to use PB to allow residents to directly decide on just 1% of their annual budget. The PB Unit believes this would be a considerable improvement of the current situation in the UK, where local people have little direct influence over core expenditure.
Does PB disempower elected members?
No, in fact many Councillors involved in PB find exactly the opposite. Any PB process is formally ‘mandated’ and signed off by the relevant elected body. Also, only a small percentage of any budget will ever be allocated through PB. A PB process can provide members with more relevant information about the community they represent, provide them with access to constituents they wouldn't otherwise meet, and therefore give them more relevant influence over decisions affecting their community and better relationships with their constituents, which increases trust.
Is PB merely a ‘token gesture’, giving the illusion of influence over tiny sums of money?
Whilst the sums of money directly allocated by residents are a small percentage of any given budget, the empowerment is genuine, in terms of residents owning decisions and seeing the results of their decisions appear in their local neighbourhood. Direct control over a percentage of a budget encourages greater ‘budget literacy’ generally, creating over time a much more informed community. Furthermore, by meeting people from their community and seeing what community groups are doing in the area, develops a greater sense of community, fosters volunteering and improves people's wellbeing.
Do residents have the skills and knowledge to make informed spending decisions?
Residents are experts in their own community and can bring this knowledge to the table, to complement more strategic understanding of budgets. Over time, (see the ‘token gesture’ question ) residents’ levels of knowledge will increase. This process represents genuine empowerment, and can work successfully with appropriate good will and technical support where necessary from elected members and officers.
Will PB only attract ‘the usual suspects’
The experience of PB projects so far has indicated the exact opposite. Whereas under more traditional funding methods, eg community chests/panels etc, there is sometimes a ‘cosy’ relationship between the funding body and well -established community groups (often including self-styled ‘community champions’), under a PB process, which operates on a one person-one vote basis, all the community’s voices are equal. The tangibility of PB - direct vote on a pot of money which sees direct results in a neighbourhood - often draws more people into the process. Coupled with good community engagement targeted at the more marginalised groups and those less likely to enage, PB is often more balanced and involves more of the community than other community enagagement methods.
Are PB events merely a ‘beauty contest’, where the cutest bids win through, irrespective of quality?
In community grants/small grant pot style events, community group bidders are usually asked to present their ideas to an audience of residents.
This can risk the ‘Awww’ factor, where eg cute children win out over equally, or more worthwhile projects, presented by less immediately appealing bidders. This effect can be minimised by effective audience briefing beforehand. Also, over time, residents become ‘wiser’ in terms of their voting choices, and in any case well understand the actual needs of their own communities. The genuine sense of community and empowerment experienced at these events is an important consideration to set against issues of ‘presenter bias’.