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Welcome to our new blog! We wanted some space to pose thoughts and ideas that hadn't necessarily formed into concrete plans or concepts - to have some more flexible space and for you to get more involved. So we hope you like it - please do get involved - let us know what you think.

Aug 26, 2010

Reinventing local councils - facilitating a bigger society....by Jez Hall

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Aug 26, 2010 03:50 PM

Its going to take money to build a big society, right? But there isn’t any, ok? So lets just go home instead, its hopeless.

A despondent view (not just my own) that for all the rhetoric about the army of volunteers that can plug the gaps resulting from spending reductions, unless the right structure and the means to make it happen are in place, where will these volunteers go? What will they do? Many smaller charities are rightly in despair they are about to lose the local authority funding that underpins their work and so supports volunteering.

Without that money they can’t operate, and running volunteers isn’t about exploiting cheap labour. To be effective volunteers need support, maybe training and expenses, and need to feel they are getting something out of the experience. Volunteers are picky about what they do, and by definition can just leave if they don’t like it. More importantly the first steps into volunteering can be the hardest. Without encouragement people can find it a challenging step to take on the role of volunteer.

It’s ironic just when we need a strong civil society infrastructure the funding tap is being turned off for the very organisations that make it possible. Potentially leaving people on one hand desperately needing support, and others unsure how to join in with the big society. What we seem to need is some form of clearing house, a mechanism to coordinate the different resources, both financial and non financial, that exist within a locality of community. What we’ve seen at the PB Unit from our small grant events is that Participatory budgeting (PB) can contribute to a bigger society. 

Firstly PB can simply be used to decide more fairly who gets a share of the limited resources on offer. Even if the available money is going to be less than before there is lots of scope for changing the way the decision is taken on the remainder. Lots of scope to open up more commissioning decisions for example. And there is a certain lack of logic in saying local government needs to shrink and then saying the same body has to decide itself where to cut. No surprise if outside agencies, charities and non statutory services suffer first. Its only natural for service managers, if left to decide without scrutiny, to favour their employees over those in outside bodies, however charitable or worthy those bodies may be.

Secondly, what we have seen from following different PB experiences is that when lots of people contribute to a decision you get money driven right down to where its most needed and most effective.  PB small grants events can therefore be more accessible than old style ‘committee led’ grants particularly to very local groups.

Thirdly we often see that through meeting people at PB decision days that community partnerships form and people make new friends reducing a sense of isolation. Decision days also create new ideas and renewed energy for local groups and participants. Existing but untapped civil action can often be released through a well structured PB event.

I think it could do even more. It could become an innovative mechanism to unite individualised or personalised budgets. It would be really interesting if all those requiring care or local services could combine their resources to group purchase services. Whether it is cooking healthy food or mobility exercise classes, arts events or learning opportunities, specialised home care services. They could all come to pitch their services and pick up new clients at a local PB decision day event.

There is a role for local councils here in continuing to provide support for local development in a new, more social age. They need to be the facilitators of the big society.  PB is not just about local council funding. All sorts of decisions about limited resources could be decided in a more participatory way.  My view is the local council structure is essential to regulate the ‘social’ or big society’.

Citizens can and must do more than vote once every few years.  Its not enough to pay your taxes and then leave the state to provide for us.  All of us can and should participate more in our local community, and taking part in PB events can be a good way to do it. So some more PB please, not less, the decision should be ours, now more than ever.

Aug 17, 2010

My trip to the Shetlands...by Andrea Jones

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Aug 17, 2010 10:34 AM

The Shetland Islands are a surprising long way! The TV weather map gives the impression that they are just off the coast of Scotland but they are as near to the Faroe Islands and Norway as they are to Aberdeen.

The Shetlands are in a unique position. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom the Council is not as yet facing the sharp cuts that the rest of the country is struggling with because they have revenue from oil.   Nevertheless engaging with residents, identifying priorities and enabling local people to participate in decision making are just as important in Shetland as anywhere and because of this the Council applied to be one of the Scottish PB pilots.

The pilot is taking place on an estate called North Staney Hill which is made up of 1960s public housing and the adjoining area of Hoofields which is a small group of prefab type housing soon to be demolished and rebuilt.  This is a close knit community with well kept gardens and a recently refurbished community centre but there are issues with some of the housing being used for temporary lets which has led to some tensions with a view that some who live in the short term accommodation bring the area down.  It is quite apparent that many people love living in North Staney Hill perched as it is on the edge of Lerwick. As one resident put it “it’s got the benefits of living in the town and the country”.  But residents expressed concern that an address, particularly in Hoofields, was associated with anti social behaviour.

The PB initiative is aimed at bringing the community together. The Council have added some money to the pot and there is now £40,000.   Over recent months a questionnaire has gone to all residents asking about their priorities for improving the area.  Bids are now being sought from both community and non-profit making organisations based on the priorities identified in the survey – improving the environment, activities for young people and support for the elderly. The decision day is 25th September.

Apart from helping the Shetlands team to design the decision day I also talked to officers about how PB might be used in more mainstream budgets. 

The Shetlands are an amazingly beautiful place and the people are extremely welcoming and friendly. Whilst at present not suffering quite the cuts that we are doing “down south” priorities will need to be rethought and reshaped.   I think there could be huge potential for developing PB in Shetland .  The islands are by their very nature a  well defined geographical area, there is good local media.   People expect good services but the  fact they have had the “oil money” means that mostly people haven’t thought about priority setting and what services the Council should or should not provide directly.  If the pilot is a success PB in Shetland could go from strength to strength.


Aug 12, 2010

The Big Society and “Easy” Engagement...by Phil Teece

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Aug 12, 2010 01:37 PM

I have many concerns about the current policy agenda, but one of my principle fears is the temptation councils, partnerships and others might feel to sacrifice meaningful engagement with their communities for something quick and easy; specifically online budget consultation.

I can understand the attraction of engaging with potentially large numbers of residents, without the cost of officer time and of promoting and supporting face-to-face events. I am even prepared to accept that the majority of councils planning to go down this road will sincerely factor the views expressed into the decisions they make. But in doing so, no-one should kid themselves that this will empower communities or result in greater transparency and accountability. Nor will it promote cohesion or build citizen capacity or do anything to build trust between statutory bodies and local people. Those outcomes are only achievable through proper deliberation, bringing different sections of a community together, listening to the perspectives of others, a genuine dialogue about which services are most important to people and how they can best be delivered and, ultimately, collective decision making.  All this might be harder and takes a bit more time and effort, but anything else is tokenism and will do nothing to contribute to the “Big Society”.   

Mar 26, 2010

Total place and the budget report - by Ruth Jackson

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Mar 26, 2010 03:52 PM

I spent a very boring yesterday afternoon reading the budget report. I’m sure that accountants and economists find such things stimulating; however, being neither, I do not.

I have to say, having read it, the top headline is it’s a painful time for pretty much everyone.  And there seems to be a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul (or the other way around).   These come in the guise of efficiency and value for money.  I’m sure there probably are some genuine efficiency and value for money savings out there (such as reducing spending on consultants by central government), but some of them are definitely phoney (such as the shared central government back office contact centre thingy – or whatever it’s called – presumably so designed just to drive anyone wanting to phone the civil service completely mad).  Apparently it’s all called ‘Smarter Government’.  Seems a bit like an oxymoron.   

And at a time when everyone is feeling miserable – they go and increase duty on alcohol – so we can’t even drown our sorrows in a glass of wine (or two).  I know, I know, the health benefits blah, blah, blah.  But what the government has failed to realise is that people are drinking to try and be happier.  If they did other things that made us happier, we’d drink less.  Such as enabling people to have more say and ownership over their lives and their neighbourhoods.  I think just about everyone is fed up of nanny state-ism.  And yes, I’m well aware that drink doesn’t make you happier – but it does for a little while anyway.  And what you know and what you feel can be two entirely different things. 

But I stray from the point.  I think possibly the only good news is for first time buyers – if there are any. 

 But squirreled away on page 98 (of several hundred pages) is a box about Total Place.  We’ve all been hearing about Total Place for a while now, but to be honest, I’m not really sure how many people have actually got their heads around it.  In a bid to try and help my poor head, I went to an IDeA conference on Total Place for the third sector on Tuesday.  To be honest, most of what was said didn’t directly relate to anything we were doing, but I did come away feeling like I understood it better and where possibly PB might fit in. 

All the speakers there were anxious that we know that Total Place isn’t just about efficiency savings.  In fact, it’s supposedly primarily about giving people a say over their local areas and tailoring services to local needs.  Which is funny, as that’s exactly what we’ve been saying for years.  But at least we’re all on the same page.  Key to that is involving people.  And this is where I think PB comes in.  It’s a very good tool for involving people and giving them a direct say over what happens in their local area and enables services to be targeted more effectively.  PB can help facilitate the main aim of Total Place. 

If we go back to that box on page 98, then we’ll also see that although Total Place is about identifying duplication and being more efficient (and hence saving money) – central government doesn’t intend to take all the money that’s saved through Total Place back.  Which is a good thing – if they do what they say.  And some of that money that’s not clawed back can be reallocated locally as determined by citizen priorities through PB!  Plus with all that information about budgets and what’s being spent in the area flying around, we can throw in some citizen budget literacy at the same time.

See, a nice neat circle, where PB ties Total Place up with a bow.  Of course, in reality, it’s unlikely to work quite like that.  But, we can promote the idea and encourage areas to give it a go. 

So yes, it’s a difficult time.  We all knew that it would be.  It will be painful.  There might even be more drinking, despite the extra duty (except for the poor Cornish farmers who now can’t afford their own cider).  But, the best way to get through it is to involve everyone, share responsibility and ownership, build trust and accountability – all of which is what PB does very well.  We might even have some empirical evidence to start proving it soon! 

Mar 18, 2010

Can PB close the commissioning gap and support community and social enterprise? - by Jez Hall

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Mar 18, 2010 03:00 PM

A recent report about community organisations becoming involved in commissioning raises a tantalising possibility.

Could we see a way to clearly link participation by residents and a vibrant third sector? The report, Commissioning and the Community Sector by The Kindle Partnership — which incorporates Action with Communities in Rural England, BASSAC, Children England, Community Matters, National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, and the National Council for Voluntary Youth Services — has been published because it says community groups are often reluctant to get involved in commissioning because they lack information about the process and the risks involved. (see more at http://www.cypnow.co.uk/bulletins/Daily-Bulletin/news/990696 )

Their guide offers much useful advice and guidance to enable public money to be accessed by community level organisations. And this made me think- this is what PB does as well. Through the many community grants processes we have seen small local organisations pick up funding that would otherwise be unavailable to them. When a community comes together to decide funding almost invariably they know who can deliver locally, and they want to back local solutions.

This relates (in my view) to a much older paper by the New Economics Foundation called “Plugging the leaks”, which identified how public spending can leak out of an area through consultancies, by purchasing outside the district, or employing the wrong delivery model. It persuasively argues that if money can be made to circulate within the local economy, rather than leak out of it, you can generate a useful multiplier effect. Every pound of public money can generate extra resources again and again and again, creating jobs and stimulating the local economy. Bottom up regeneration of this kind is much more sustainable and leaves a local legacy. (See http://www.pluggingtheleaks.org/)

Yet public sector commissioning is structured in a way that makes it unobtainable where its most needed. The Social Enterprise Coalition has been especially exercised about commissioning and it’s answer is more collaboration. Its encouraging smaller organisations to build partnerships to access these big contracts. The problem is the sector is ill prepared for the sort of hurdles put in place by our public procurement rules which seem designed to favour the private sector on price over better public or social economy outcomes. Also partnership can lead to mission creep and inefficiency as new ways of working must be re-created. Charity trustees are rightly worried they are being transformed by external forces to do government’s work and losing money and autonomy in the process.

NCVO, BASSAC, the Development Trusts Association and others in the social economy will also recognise this issue. The shrinking of core grants for the community and voluntary sector has caused huge damage, with extra burdens on charities and the smaller local community enterprises. There is a well recognised funding gap opening up, with the voluntary sector effectively subsidising the public sector rather than the other way round.    Carers for example are filling a gap in local health and wellbeing funding, and by doing so save the NHS and therefore all taxpayers millions. Yet individual carers remain in extreme need.    This sort of injustice will only get worse in the coming tight fiscal years.

So how does PB connect to this gloomy picture. Well, in numerous PB events the community now targets thousands of pounds locally into filling just this gap. Community nurseries, personal support services, youth clubs, exercise groups, environmental improvement schemes all do well when the community decides.
As PB has spread the opportunity grows and grows for spending money in communities through some kind of a local decision day. For example there is Newcastle’s Carers UDecide process. Where carers are being put in charge of a significant budget to create the services they need to do their work.    And in Tower Hamlets their PB process this year included new information, bringing a new option to buy top up service investments from the third sector or from the council.

Of course if money available to community enterprises is to grow, so must the robustness behind any decision making process. But part of the answer is already out there, through a new phase of PB using commissioning tables and community contracts. Well known overseas, a budget matrix can begin to provide the rigor that commissioners need to invest in local enterprise.

And that will be good for all. Good commissioning is about connecting local knowledge with technical expertise in new forms of co-production. Procuring the right services at a small scale by tapping into resources already within the community is a sensible strategy. PB does this very well. I think it would end up saving money by more efficient and innovative local delivery. Bringing transparency over how commissioning works, and strengthening local accountability over precious taxpayers money. PB could yet again be a “win, win, win” scenario.

  http://www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/uploadedFiles/NCVO/What_we_do/Research/Almanac/NCVO_2009_The_State_and_the_Voluntary_Sector.pdf) 

http://www.carersuk.org/Newsandcampaigns/News/1244212361
http://community.newcastle.gov.uk/udecide/?p=27

Mar 10, 2010

….and I’ll PB in Scotland afore ye !! by Vince Howe

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Mar 10, 2010 03:09 PM

Last Thursday I was one of a small team from the PB Unit who travelled to Edinburgh to meet colleagues to develop the first PB work in Scotland.

We had been invited by COSLA (The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) who are coordinating the programme and working with Scottish Local Authorities and Community Safety Partnerships to deliver PB work on the theme of Anti Social Behaviour. Our role is to work with COSLA to provide support and guidance to the pilots.

The pilots are part of a series of proposals in the Scottish Governments Community Empowerment Action Plan which was approved in 2009.

Five LA’s have been chosen for the work following an initial submission;

  • North Lanarkshire (Forgewood)
  • Fife (Glenrothes)
  • Stirling (Dunblane)
  • Shetland Islands
  • South Lanarkshire (Overton)

Four representatives from each of the areas was present and included officers, elected members, and residents . Following introductions and some initial presentations from the PBU the rest of the day saw lively discussions taking place about how best to take the work forward. By the end I feel sure that our Scottish colleagues had found out more about PB and how it might be applied to their situations and we found out more about how things work north of the border. Of particular interest to us was the Scottish Performance Measurements and the National Standards for Community Development that will help shape the work.

Whilst some of the pilots plan to deliver small grants based events others are looking already at connecting PB directly to their mainstream work which was most encouraging .

With Edinburgh and Glasgow looking to develop their own PB work it looks like Scotland will have considerable practice to look at by the end of 2010.

Best of luck to everyone involved.

Feb 25, 2010

Evaluating PB - by Ruth Jackson

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Feb 25, 2010 04:48 PM

It seems that the issue of evaluation is something that has always been there but seems to have risen up the agenda in recent months.

This is partly to do with initiatives feeling they need to demonstrate the value of PB to sceptics (especially in uncertain financial and political times) in order to be more sustainable and partly because of the national evaluation being done by SQW.

Most PB initiatives now produce some kind of evaluation, although the focus, quality and type vary significantly.  However, initial outcomes are emerging, providing some interesting data. 

Evaluation is certainly something that we, at the PB Unit, have been thinking about and working on for a while now too.  Local evaluations seemed to be so different from each other that it was impossible to develop any kind of comparison for a national picture.  We also knew that because there’s no requirement on initiatives to do any kind of evaluation that anything we produced for people to complete and return to us had to be something that was also useful and helpful for them.

So over quite a long period of time, and after asking a number of different stakeholders, we, with Heather Blakey at ICPS, started to develop an approach to developing meaningful evaluation locally, with the resources available.  We’re currently testing this and the tools we developed with initiatives, to see if it works.  The purpose of the approach is to enable initiatives to develop their own evaluation framework that’s relevant to their local context, whilst still providing a level of information to the PB Unit that could be comparable across areas.  But its primary focus is developing a local evaluation. 

Entirely separate to this, CLG decided to do a national evaluation and commissioned SQW to do it.  SQW are now about to publish their interim report which provides the baseline, which they’ll build upon and look at changes over time in the next phase.  SQW developed a logic framework for the evaluation, and the primary focus of their tools is comparison data, which is what’s needed for a national evaluation, however, it makes the tools less useful in isolation, locally.  The evaluation, will, hopefully, provide a national snapshot of PB and identify some of the emerging outcomes and areas for improvement. 

In yet another project, Involve are looking at the business case for different participation activities.  They are researching costs and benefits in a fairly broad approach to demonstrate the value of participation.  This research is just starting but has the potential to be quite useful both locally and nationally to make the case for PB.  Similarly Community Development Foundation are putting together research on the value of empowerment and making the case for empowerment. 

We definitely welcome the evaluation activities that are going on and hope that our own contribution is helpful and welcome locally as well as nationally.  Robust and meaningful evaluation that demonstrates the value of PB is something that is most definitely needed, especially in the current economic climate. 

Feb 19, 2010

Different types of PB…what is PB really? - By Ruth Jackson

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Feb 19, 2010 12:25 PM

At the end of January, I went to speak at an international conference on PB in Berlin. Overall, the conference was very interesting and I met a number of people in the international PB world that I’d previously only emailed or heard about. What really struck me, however, was how different PB is in different places around the world.

It’s not that I thought that PB was the same around the world – in fact, we often talk about PB being different in the UK from the rest of Europe.  This is largely to do with the reasons why PB was brought to the UK, and who was involved.  And of course, our highly centralised state which limits the amount of say that people can have over budgets locally. 

I don’t know whether it was the language barrier (I don’t speak any German at all, and most of the German speakers there seemed to know limited English) or things lost in translation; but it seemed at times that we were talking about completely different PB.  And then I realised, that PB in Germany is very different from PB in the UK.  We both thought we were talking about the same thing – PB – but it turns out we were talking about different processes entirely which are implemented for entirely different reasons.  This then became a theme, for me, for the conference.

German PB, seems to me to be a more elaborate form of budget consultation.  And it’s done for the purpose of service modernisation.  So because empowerment is not a key objective, who participates and how is less of an issue.  But using the internet for PB is key, because it’s about modernisation and engaging with people in setting budget priorities is a way of modernising services.   If you engage people online, they can engage in a way and a time that suits them – is their rationale.  When I talked about engaging with different ‘hard to reach’ groups by utilising community leaders and existing local networks (for example asking mosque leaders to promote PB to their followers, and using Muslim women’s groups to target women), there was an obvious gasp around the room.  It seems like common sense to us, but to them, it was a completely new idea because it is not their raison d’etre for PB. 

German PB does not involve any decision making on the part of residents.  All views are taken to the local councillors and they make the decision, taking the results of the consultation exercise into consideration.  Which is why I think it’s what we’d call budget consultation.

There was Ernesto Ganuza from Spain talking about PB in Seville too.  The focus of their PB is on poverty alleviation by the redistribution of wealth to poorer people and neighbourhoods.  They use social justice criteria to frame their deliberations about priorities and projects.  The process they follow, however, is very similar to the Porto Alegre model.  This kind of model is something that we can more readily understand in the UK as poverty alleviation – or reducing deprivation – is something that is important to us too, and models that look at allocating mainstream funding for mainstream services is the direction PB seems to be heading here. 

The conference also heard from George Matovu from Uganda, although he was representing PB across Africa.  In Africa (it seems wrong to talk about an entire continent in this way, but this is how he put it) their focus is much more on government transparency, fighting corruption within government and creating greater equality through gender budgeting.  Their processes are designed to address these issues rather than empowerment per se.  Whilst we would agree with these sentiments the issues of corruption and gender inequality are not the same in the UK as they are in Africa. 

All of this left me thinking – if PB is so different in different countries – there are different processes implemented for entirely different (although not always uncomplimentary) reasons – at what point does it stop being PB?  Or if it’s all PB how do you differentiate between the different approaches and purposes so that you’re not left feeling like it’s all lost in translation?

In the end I came full circle, and realised, that PB has to be adapted to local circumstance and local need.  Rather than wondering what is and isn’t PB, we should be looking at other PB processes and other purposes such as greater government transparency, or whether the funding allocated is fairly distributed either to those most in need or across the community as a whole?  Maybe PB has greater potential than is currently realised and perhaps we shouldn’t be so focussed on what we do now that we miss the opportunities to do more.   

Feb 11, 2010

The quiet before the storm? - By Jez Hall

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Feb 11, 2010 11:59 AM

Maybe it’s the time of year, or the fact I’ve been involved with thinking about PB for 10 years now, but I’ve been in reflective mood recently.

Probably it’s also sense that a phoney war is on, as we head towards a May election. This brings its challenges as so much seems to be in holding mode. New policies like the Sustainable Communities Act seem to be on hold or just out of reach, though it has some life as a private members bill. There is despondency around in a lot of organisations supporting community empowerment too, about possible public sector cuts. Might the future for PB be bleak, with little money for residents to be able to influence, and departments looking for cuts, not investments?

On the other hand quite senior figures from all political parties have expressed support for PB in some way. Only recently I was at a conference in London, and two opposition speakers (Tory and Lib-dem) with an interest in community engagement both mentioned PB in a positive light. We have counted as many PB pilots in Conservative councils as in Labour ones doing PB, with the Lib dems also getting the PB story. We still see a healthy number of new experiences coming on stream.

PB is certainly somewhere on political radar. Politicians are aware that public spending cuts ahead mean some unpopular decisions, so may hope PB will help take the nasty taste away. A more cynical view would be that they are wanting to pass responsibility on to electors for those tough decisions. Or as a way to flatter the population at a time when civil servants and politicians are particularly disrespected after lots of bad news stories, such as the MP’s expenses scandals, bankers’ bail-outs and bonuses, the farce of the Copenhagen summit, the housing market bumping along the bottom, and pensions shortfalls. All of this is against the background of a recession where the rich seem to have survived best of all.

On a more positive note the organisers of the conference mentioned above, report growing interest in PB and that it’s a frequently suggested topic for future conferences. We at the PB Unit have seen interest from departments other than Communities and Local Government, and from statutory or public bodies like health authorities, police forces and housing bodies. There are signs of it expanding outside the narrow confines of England too. The Welsh Assembly has recently decided on using PB in schools as part of their review of children’s rights, and have committed £240,000 to produce new resources to make that happen. The Unit is working in Scotland too now. I could go on.

The challenge for the PB Unit is to continue focussing on trying to deepen PB experiences, with added attention on service design, commissioning, and larger mainstream budgets that are open to influence. Nor to forget benefits from improving community understanding and better deliberation.

PB’s still pretty new in the UK and there are lots of ways it could go. Painting a clear vision of where we might be next year, let alone who will be in the parliament after the election is difficult, but I don’t yet perceive our work is done. There is no turning back now, as PB is here to stay.

Dec 08, 2009

Salford PB community workshop - by Andrea Jones

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Dec 08, 2009 01:40 PM
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Thirty five people came together at St George’s Community Centre, Salford on Friday 3 for an event entitled “Take Part in Participatory Budgeting- a community leadership master class”.

The master class was funded as part of the Take Part Pathfinder project.  The aim of the afternoon was to introduce PB to both residents and statutory stakeholders and the attendees were a good mix across these two constituencies and included representatives from a wide range of residents associations as well as officers from housing associations, Salford City Council, Greater Manchester Fire Service and Greater Manchester police.

Jez Hall and I gave an overview of PB and especially how it related to the health and police sectors.  Chris Dabbs, from the organisation Unlimited Potential, also spoke on how PB might help improve health outcomes in Salford.

The master class then broke up into three workshops to consider questions around health and wellbeing, crime and community safety and giving citizens a say.

Salford City Council has a history of using participatory budgeting around its highways budget and a local housing provider, Salix Homes, has also recently undertaken some PB  and therefore residents already had knowledge of some PB and had particular questions about how the process had worked in the past. However, the master class enabled people to think about the different ways that PB can be used particularly around tackling health inequalities and anti social behaviour and how the involvement of local communities in putting together PB initiatives can empower people to make changes in their lives and communities.  Feedback from the afternoon was very positive although there was a feeling that one afternoon was too short a time to fully explore the issues raised in the workshops.

I felt there was a great deal of benefit in residents and officers sitting down together to look at how PB might benefit Salford.  PB is often seen as a “top down” process and of course it does need buy in from those who currently hold the purse strings. But the process should as it develops become something the community owns and indeed demands as they become more involved in the process of budget setting.  Bringing residents and officers together to learn more about PB and to see each other’s perspective, concerns and what potential could be identified  is a good start in embedding PB in the community and the fact that the event was oversubscribed led me to believe this is a good way of people coming together to learn about PB.


Oct 29, 2009

Community cohesion, the BNP and PB - by Ruth Jackson

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Oct 29, 2009 03:43 PM

I went to a conference about Strengthening Community Cohesion last week. It was held the same day as the controversial Question Time that featured Nick Griffin from the BNP. Needless to say, the impending programme and the focus on community cohesion dominated many a discussion.

Some interesting points came out of those discussions.  The one the stuck most in my head was that when people have specific issues with people in other communities (whether they be geographic, cultural, religious, or anything else) you have to address those issues first before you can successfully bring them together.  Several practitioners cited times when they thought just bringing them together to talk about their problems would be sufficient, only to find that shouting matches ensued and community cohesion given a severe blow, rather than improve it.

At PB Unit we advocate the bringing of people together in one physical space (in the form of an event or meeting) so that they can listen to each other and discuss and deliberate the various merits of different projects asking for funding.  And most of the time this works well.  But when there are significant community cohesion issues arising from particular problems, maybe it wouldn’t work so well.  Whilst we’ve always advocated the need for community development and capacity building to run along side and prior to any PB process, perhaps we need to raise this particular point more. 

This led on to the discussion more specifically about the rise of the British National Party (although that’s up for debate) and other racist organisations such as the English Defence League.  As practitioners said, when the specific issues that people had with their neighbours or other community members were addressed, the issues of racism and prejudice went away.  They found that because an issue had developed which hadn’t been resolved, possibly because of cultural misunderstandings, it grew into an issue of race or religion or some other prejudice.  The issue might be noisy neighbours coming in at all hours of the day because they’re working shifts and living in cramped conditions, but it quickly becomes about ‘the polish people’ in general!  Or the issue might be that someone’s been made redundant and is having difficulty finding a job.  They see migrants getting low paid jobs and feel that they’re missing out because other people are getting the jobs.  And that quickly again becomes about ‘others’ getting jobs.  If social housing address the overcramped conditions and get onto the landlords to improve standards and jobwise or Citizens Advice can help with people getting skills and accessing jobs then the issues are resolved and the problem of racism goes away. 

However, where public sector is ill equipped, under resourced or under skilled to deal with the situation the problems escalate.  And this is where the BNP or other similar groups can come in and say things like ‘British jobs for British people’ that those people, feeling ignored and isolated can latch on to and draw hope from. 

Whilst I thought that Question Time last week was interesting in and of itself, I actually thought the reactions of people and the media afterwards were more revealing.  There were a lot of people saying the program showed Nick Griffin up to be the racist that he is and that he couldn’t hold his ground against more experienced politicians.  But a lot of people were also saying that he was bullied and attacked and they felt sorry for him.  The media seemed to dismiss these people as ‘idiots’ or worse, but I think that labelling and ignoring of people’s views is the issue.  They are the same people who feel ignored by their local public sector because issues they have aren’t being dealt with properly, they feel left behind and betrayed by mainstream political parties and they can relate to the underdog in Nick Griffin.  And Question Time only increased his underdog status. 

These people aren’t stupid or idiots.  They may be a minority, but they are a worrying minority.  Unless their issues are heard and dealt with, and unless the mainstream political parties can come up with clear messages that are different from each others, that make sense and are inclusive of the people who feel left behind; and unless they can find a way to rebuild the trust that was lost in the MPs expenses scandal, they will continue to lose votes to the BNP and other similar parties. 

Community cohesion isn’t a racism issue (sometimes it is, but it isn’t always), it’s a people not getting along well with their neighbours issue.  And that issue is exacerbated as resources become scarcer.  And it’s not just an issue for community development workers to address.  It’s an issue that needs to be addressed by all local public sector agencies, all political parties, and everyone in their communities.  Sending people ‘back to their country’ isn’t the answer – working out how you can live with them, be heard and understood – that is. 

And this is where PB comes in (you knew it had to come in somewhere!).  PB is a way of bringing people together (once you addressed the underlying issues) to build that community cohesion – for people to find out what they have in common, not just what’s different and to realise that they all can live together, get involved in their communities, have a say on how money is spent and share what resources are available. 

The only way to stop the rise of the BNP and other similar organisations is to stop labelling those people that vote for them as ‘other’ and ‘not like us’ and really listen to them and deal with their problems – and then bring them together to discuss issues of salience where they have real power to decide how money is spent (but not in a Barnet way – but that’s a whole other blog!).  There will always be a few hardcore racists that won’t change their mind, but the majority of people just want to get on with their lives in peace – and it’s that they feel is being jeopardised at the moment. 

Oct 21, 2009

Using PB to allocate the proceeds of crime - by Andrea Jones

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Oct 21, 2009 10:42 AM

One of the difficulties facing those working with those young people tempted to join the gun and gang culture that exists in some of our cities is to show that crime doesn’t pay.

A journalist friend of mine who group up in inner city Manchester describes waiting at a bus stop when he was in his late teens on a wet cold night.  A flash car drew up and when the window was wound down he saw the driver was someone who he used to go to school with. A conversation ensued the gist of which was “aren’t you a mug, carrying on with your studies? Where is it getting you?”.   Individuals and communities have to see that justice is done and that people do not benefit from ill gotten gains.

Legislation allows for the assets of crime to be seized.  Last year, in an effort to ensure that the public benefited from this money, members of the public were able to suggest suitable projects for funding  to their Local Criminal Justice Board.  These were sifted by the Board and the people could have a say on their preferred project via a website.  Then a panel approved funding of what it judged to be the best projects.

This is laudable but it could now be  taken a step further.  If the money was devolved to areas which people define as their communities, if individuals were able to vote themselves and if what they voted for was where the money went.  If people were able to get together, perhaps on line through a blog or even better had the opportunity to meet face to face to discuss projects and have time to deliberate.  An opportunity for old and young, and people from different backgrounds to come together.  Divided up this way the individual amounts of money might not be large but the benefits in terms of people understanding where the money had come from and seeing the results in their own community would be great. It might be that this money could be added to other pots of money – from the police, the fire service and the local council.  Small amounts added together which can make a real difference to people’s ownership of what is happening in their own community.



Oct 07, 2009

Thoughts from the party conference season - by Phil Teece

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Oct 07, 2009 10:26 AM

We have held fringe meetings at the three main party conferences this year - at no little cost in time, effort and money I might add!

But that (the cost) is for another blog, maybe. We decided to do so partly because of the impending general election and the distinct possibility of a change in the complexion of the government, but also because the current political and financial climate presents a real opportunity for the development of PB in the UK. At the meetings we have tried, with the help of guest speakers from various backgrounds, to put PB into the wider context of pressure on public spending and the need to restore confidence in democracy.

Attendances have been mixed, but the delegates have engaged enthusiastically and the mood has been positive. Notwithstanding the fact that all parties will be keeping their powder dry on the detail of their policies, there is now a clear consensus on the importance of involving local people in the decisions that affect them. Obviously the key issue for all the parties is the perceived need to cut public spending. There is a real danger that the election will become a “who is talking the toughest” competition and the real issues will be lost. It is imperative that do all we can to emphasise the potential impact of spending cuts on the most vulnerable communities and the need to involve local people in spending decisions. Scarcity of available resources can put pressure on community cohesion and, again, PB can serve as a tool to mitigate the risk of extremism.

The opportunities for PB to take its place in the mainstream political agenda are there, but we have to be careful that it is not hijacked to deliver outcomes that are not consistent with what we want to see.


Sep 28, 2009

Evaluating PB - By Ruth Jackson

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Sep 28, 2009 03:18 PM

Along with e-PB, evaluation seems to be the topic du jour of PB. And more importantly, unlike e-PB, evaluation is something that is discussed as much by practitioners as by ‘experts’. How do you go about evaluating PB meaningfully in a way that actually represents and analyses what is actually happening rather than whatever data is to hand or a handful of anecdotes after an event? With ever diminishing resources of all kinds.

I most definitely do not have the answers to that, but I am working on a project with the International Centre for Participation Studies and CFE to try and find some answers.  I must just point out – we’re not doing evaluation ourselves, we’re researching it to find out the most useful ways for projects to evaluate themselves.  We’re not involved (except on the margins) with the SQW/CLG evaluation and this project is different from that. 

We interviewed a number of stakeholders at four different projects over the summer and sent out a questionnaire version of the interview questions to the other projects that we could find contact details for.  We got quite a good response rate to that – 20 out of about 60, which is about a 33% response rate, during the summer when everyone is away.  Which just goes to show the relevance of the subject.  Then we took the information we’d gathered from the interviews and questionnaires to a workshop with some other non-practitioner (with the exception of Bill) interested PB stakeholders.  These included consultants involved in evaluating regeneration activities, academics, third sector people involved in participatory evaluation and think tank people. 

We had a very lively and engaged debate with them around five key questions we had coming out of the interviews and questionnaires. 

From all of that we plan to develop some tools but we realise that one set of tools probably won’t fit all, especially given the level of innovation and diversity currently happening in the UK PB projects.  So we may develop a number of ‘pathways’ to help projects think about their project and what evaluation they want or need and then provide a number of tools to fit different scenarios. 

But this isn’t all altruistic behaviour, at least not on the part of the PB Unit.  We recognise that for our own ongoing reputation and work we need to start to provide a more comprehensive national picture of PB, both in terms of the similarities and differences in PB projects around the three countries that PB is currently happening.  So we need the tools in order that projects can provide us with relatively consistent information that we can compare across projects. 

We’re just at the beginning of this project – having gathered information and views from different stakeholders we’re embarking on a long and interesting journey.  So if you’d like to be involved or be kept informed of our project, please do let us know and we’ll do our best. 

Sep 09, 2009

Small Grants versus Mainstream by Alan Budge

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Sep 09, 2009 11:02 AM

There is an ongoing debate within PB circles about small grants ‘participatory budgeting’ versus the development of mainstream resource allocation using PB.

This is a complex issue, and beyond the scope of this particular blog!  There is though an absolute requirement to work through the practicalities of how small grants PB programmes (if maintained over the long term) would function alongside sustainable mainstream initiatives, and what their function might be, above and beyond creating initial interest in PB.

I used to work for Bradford’s Local Strategic Partnership.  We did a lot of useful work but one of the key frustrations many of us shared was the ‘natural wastage’ syndrome, whereby a lot of interest was initially created in a ‘new neighbourhood structure’ resulting in well attended meetings and genuine action, but once the novelty had worn off, and initial pressing issues discussed and addressed (or otherwise, depending on their complexity, available funding etc!) the attendance at meetings inevitably dwindled. It then became increasingly difficult to maintain momentum, without the ‘assistance’ of a major local issue blowing up (proposed school closures, traffic incidents etc). People would complain of the meetings turning into ‘talking shops’, which  also became increasingly dominated by ‘gatekeepers’, community activists who would  provide  lot of energy and input into their neighbourhoods,  but whose own agendas  were not always those of the community as a whole.

Bradford Vision also developed a pilot programme of PB initiatives, and I was able to take the learning from this into my work with the PB Unit.  I’ve since worked closely with several steering groups delivering PB in other areas of the country, and have been struck time and again by how effective this process is in terms of securing and maintaining involvement from  residents, as well as that of elected members and officers

When people grasp the underlying idea behind PB, they tend to understand the point of the process, and therefore have trust in it.  Just as importantly, within a ‘small grants’ programme, where an event is planned, publicised, delivered, and the resulting projects monitored for effectiveness of delivery, there is an extensive range of tasks for people to become involved in.  This cuts through the ‘talking shop’ syndrome at a stroke. There are examples of residents having done everything from catering support to door to door surveys, designing publicity and managing computerised scoring systems.
All this community capacity building can be provided for a relatively small outlay, most of which is in any case returned to the community through projects receiving funding.   When ‘small grants’ programmes become established, the ‘community knowledge’ developed could be made  available to service providers, whilst local people engaged in small scale PB would be very well placed to contribute to mainstream PB processes.

If parallel small grants and mainstream PB processes were developed within given areas, residents would have the opportunity for ongoing engagement at whatever level they felt appropriate, right through from helping make tea to decision making  regarding strategic resource allocation.  And wouldn’t that be interesting?

Sep 02, 2009

My thoughts from a conference in China - Part 2 by Jez Hall

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Sep 02, 2009 09:25 AM

Community empowerment in China remains secondary to the need to find more checks and balances within a murky political process.

Chinese PB is often about empowering members of the people’s congresses that are supposed to be a counterbalance to public officials. For many years the various congresses at city, state and national level have simply 'rubber stamped' the party line. Increasingly the congresses are being seen as essential counterbalances to unaccountable local administrative power. So, as the conference explored, another quite universal reason for adopting PB is to try and ensure that local corruption doesn't get out of control and public resources aren't just squandered.

PB might be seen as a sign of a reformist government in China, indicating a willingness to embrace more open politics – a way of demonstrating that the local administration is really willing and able to listen. Of course, just like in our own country, unless backed by real political will to empower citizens, PB can remain tokenistic. Becoming, in the worst cases, an empty brand used to mask poor governance. PB can be done badly, and will likely be done badly if it’s seen just as a 'safer' way of practising democracy. PB should never be a means for bypassing meaningful electoral representation, nor just remain a top down tool of public administration.

Without also having strong underpinning values around equality and empowerment, PB risks being rather a sterile top down initiative. A process for public appeasement that doesn’t lead to meaningful change. But PB can also become the trigger for a wider renewal of democracy. In the impassioned words of a senior delegate to the people’s congress in Shanghai, without real and meaningful information on what the community wanted and about what the administration was doing, and without the budget transparency that went hand in hand with PB, how could congress members effectively represent the people’s interest or protect the rights of the ordinary citizen. When delegates to the people’s congress are calling for PB then maybe some hope remains.

So we see another theme that emerged from the conference. That good governance requires the interaction of three pillars of democracy. These are open and accountable public officials, well informed elected representatives and empowered and active citizens. PB offers something to all these ‘stakeholders’ in local democracy. That’s maybe why PB is so ubiquitous. PB promotes the interests of active citizens, facilitates the work of effective and accountable public officials and strengthens and legitimises representative democracy.

So could it be that PB is a Trojan horse inside the Chinese political process, and perhaps a harbinger of some profound change within our own country too? Hopefully a taste of participatory democracy will lead to calls for further openness and maybe bring real democratic reform to the People’s Republic. With low voter turnouts, growing inequality in society and high levels of cynicism about professional politicians milking the system, the UK could do with some democratic renewal of its own. I believe PB will become an essential ingredient of rejuvenated local democracy inside the UK. The old style party leaders and bureaucrats that still dominate China and the UK probably hope it doesn’t. They (the ubiquitous men in grey) might like PB to just operate as a safety valve, putting off rather than speeding up calls for real political reform. Whether they are correct, and whether once tasted, you can hold back an appetite for democracy, remains to be seen.

Aug 26, 2009

My thoughts from a conference in China - Part 1 by Jez Hall

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Aug 26, 2009 10:17 AM

It seems counter to all our expectations that China would be interested in participatory budgeting. After all we think of China as a highly centralised, administratively secretive and repressive state. Yet Chinese mega-cities are continuing to explode in size and the pace of development is unremitting. Bringing ever increasing environmental damage, inadequate public infrastructure, unequal economic development, evictions and faceless bureaucracy. Local issues are becoming the cause of civil protest and unrest across China. Is PB one way of defusing growing tensions within Chinese society?

In China countless decisions emanate from inside a closed, insensitive and unaccountable political class, with a limited popular mandate dominated by outdated ideology. Yet I learnt from recent involvement in an academic conference in China, PB is very much a topic of interest within the People’s Republic. PB is used in a surprisingly wide range of Chinese cities and many Asian countries. We heard how some Japanese authorities are using PB to build new non-profit organisations that deliver the frontline services that people need and the state can’t provide. Funded by a guaranteed 1% of the local authority budget, with decisions about who gets the money taken by ordinary non elected city taxpayers. Korea is using PB to both bring local economic development to poorer areas, and also address controversial urban planning issues in more affluent cities. Thailand practices a form of rural neighbourhood management. Indonesia is using PB to help recover from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. India has been experiencing PB in some places for years.

So PB is now embedded in Western Europe, is already quite widespread in Africa, beginning to be considered seriously in North America, and remains common across Latin America. Cities like Christchurch in New Zealand have been recognised as early adopters of PB and even Fiji has used PB as a mechanism for village level community empowerment. PB is most definitely a growing global phenomena.

What the conference that took place in the city of Hangzhou showed is that PB can continually surprise us by it’s adaptability and its universal appeal. Even where an autonomous civil society and the independent third sector remain weak, and even where representative democracy is largely absent, academics, active citizens and more enlightened local administrators agree that PB can be a useful governance tool. The way it is being used maybe be different in China, but the motivations behind adopting PB is often very similar to our own. Some surprising realisations arose from comparing experiences of PB.

The Chinese are first and foremost seeking to modernise the effectiveness their local public administrations, without changing the fundamental political system. PB is offering public sector professionals new insights from accessing local knowledge, helped design specific services like new bus routes, while at the same time improved the accountability of unelected officials by increased budget transparency.

It is increasingly apparent that PB is not only the prerogative of socialist politicians. Left and right wings alike see benefits from supporting PB. As demonstrated by the state of Kerala in India, which for many years has been using a very sophisticated form of PB under alternating communist and right of centre parties. Both sides have continued with a well embedded state-wide process that enjoys lots of popular support. This is a bit like the situation in Porto Alegre, which has seen PB survive the surprise ousting of the left wing Workers Party a few years ago. PB in Porto Alegre is carrying on, with some modifications of course, and not without some complaints -- but the basic process remains.

Once citizens get the PB bug, no politicians can ignore the desire of ordinary people to play their part in decisions that affect their lives.

Aug 18, 2009

Voting, voters and democracy by Andrea Jones

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Aug 18, 2009 03:01 PM

All three major political parties are talking the same language about devolving power from Whitehall.

The Conservatives, who are now the largest party in local government, say they believe strongly in local democracy.  They promise, if elected, to free up local councils and to give them greater control over the monies they receive from Whitehall.

The Liberal Democrats say they will stop central government interfering in local government. They want to scrap council tax.

Labour claim that the best way deliver excellent services is in most cases through decentralisation and devolution.

Behind all these policies, aimed at freeing up local government, is the assumption that local people making choices about how money is spent and which services they want to see delivered in their communities is  a good thing.  The Conservatives say “Our aim is to empower and embolden people to take action themselves”  Labour says “We do this because we trust the people to be the best authors of their destinies, and want to see power spread through our society”. The Liberal Democrats say “It’s time to put communities back together”.

The Liberal Democrats go on to say that the British system of government means that a political party can win an election even if only a quarter of the people vote for them.  And herein lies the problem.  Because if turn out in general elections has gone down, the number of people turning out at local elections is even lower.  Only about a third of voters bother to turn out at local elections unless they happen to fall on the same day as a general election. Some inner city wards have turns outs as low as 19%.  The reasons for low turn outs are varied and complex but there is undeniably a lack of trust in those elected to make decisions on our behalf and a general disinterest about politics in Britain today.

The three major parties seem to agree that more people would vote in local elections if councils had more power and could retain more money locally enabling them to make important local decisions for the communities which they represent.  But to really combat apathy we need to do more than this.   Local councillors rightly complain when they see that over the last 20 years power has been taken away from them. They want to see this restored and this does makes sense.

But why stop there – councils need to roll out decision making to local communities and let local people decide what services they want to receive. Difficult choices sometimes have to be made about public services – that’s going to be true more than ever in the next few years. Give people the facts, the space and the opportunity to decide for themselves.  This is what is so empowering about participatory budgeting.  Through PB, people can see the relevance to their lives of getting involved, of voting, not just for how public money should be spent and what services they want in their areas, but also who should represent them – both locally and nationally. 

Those councillors and MPs actively involved in PB are much more likely to be trusted because people see them, get to know them, and can actively see that politicians trust them to make sensible decisions about budgets.  It makes sense that people would vote for candidates they know and trust over ones they don’t.  The old adage is true – to gain power you must first give it away. 

This is renewing democracy in its truest sense. 

Jul 31, 2009

Total Place and PB by Davy Jones

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Jul 31, 2009 01:57 PM

Just in case you missed it, THE big new idea in local government is Total Place. What’s it about? The idea is to track all the public money going into a specific local area and then how that money is spent across all the local services.

Where has it come from? Government is supporting 13 local pilot areas following a fascinating local attempt to do this in Cumbria, called Counting Cumbria. In particular, in a report accompanying the Budget in April, Sir Michael Bichard sang the praises of such an approach saying it held the key to making the level of service/budget cuts/transformations needed in the recession.

Actually it is not a new idea at all. There have been many previous attempts to do similar projects. Five years go, Blackburn with Darwen council brought in consultants to demonstrate where money was spent locally after false BNP claims of “all the cash going to immigrants”. When I was leading the Area Profiles project at the Audit Commission, we tried a similar financial mapping exercise but retreated in the face of Government/official apathy.

But the Total Place idea remains sound. And it is potentially extremely relevant to PB.

The more that PB heads towards mainstream funding and Local Area Agreements, the more issues will get raised about tracking public money locally across the myriad of local agencies and services. For local people, especially when PB or other budget issues come up, it is quite reasonable to ask how much money local services get from Government and how it is spent on things like community safety or public health. The problem is that up to now local councils and other services working together in LSPs have not been able to give an answer – simply because it is so damn complicated!

The Total Place pilots, and the swathe of other areas now jumping on the bandwagon, may change all this. There seems to be a momentum behind this idea that may prove irresistible.

What should we do? Two obvious things: 

  1. try to get the notion of the information being unravelled by the Total Place piloting being packaged in a way to stimulate citizen interest in local services/budgets;
  2. attempt to get some of the PB pilots to do Total Place and vice versa. If we could link budget mapping to allowing citizens to make difficult choices over priorities, we would really help to embed PB into the mainstream over the coming years.

 

Jul 22, 2009

Can PB create community cohesion? - By Andrea Jones

by Ruth Jackson — last modified Jul 22, 2009 11:00 AM

Whilst many people in Europe would look to the United Kingdom as an good example of tolerance; May’s euro elections where two BNP candidates were elected to the European parliament has brought the whole way we deal with living together in a multi cultural, multi racial country into sharp focus and community cohesion is at the top of the agenda.

When we talk about community cohesion the emphasis has often been about challenging stereotypes, helping newer communities be heard and breaking down barriers between people from different backgrounds. Whilst people are wary of people who look different or wear different clothes, the argument goes, people tend not to distrust the person who lives next door to them, who feeds their cat when they are away, whose children go to the same school.  If we all get to know each other better then better community relations will follow.  This is undoubtedly true.  Initiatives like the Big Lunch where people come together in the street where they live to share food and company are a good thing.

But it does only go so far.  We do have members of our community who traditionally might have been called the white working class – although some members of this community have found themselves workless since manufacturing collapsed in the 1980s – who just don’t feel listened to.  However much they learn about other people they feel neglected. They cite as examples of this concerns that their children are not being able to get public housing near to their parents, the perception that some minority groups get more than their fair share of funding and the fact that if they voice their dissatisfactions they are labelled racist.

So enabling people to understand each other, know each other and share each other’s cultures is one side of the community cohesion coin. The other is to stop people feeling that life is something that happens to them over which they have no control.  People need to be empowered.

Participatory budgeting can be an important tool.  In Porto Alegre, where PB began, the Mayor opened up the city’s books so anyone who wanted could see what money was being spent where and how much there was. That would be a good first step in letting people see where the money really goes.   Letting people decide what they want to spend a certain amount of money on, encouraging them to be prioritise what they want to see, and for whole communities to have the opportunity to vote on which project or service they want for their area can counter the charge that minority groups get “all the money”. 

‘Wouldn’t this be dangerous?’ Some people ask.  Would the money not be spent on pet projects rather than where it is needed?  Well be reassured – PB is only ever about a small percentage of the public budget (although that small amount of money can make a huge difference).  In the UK it has often been very small amounts of grant money.  Local people should be involved from the start but there will be criteria set down as to what projects can be voted on.  But it’s also important to question our own motives.  Do we, as elected members, council officers, and chairs of residents groups, think we know best?  Are we afraid of giving up some of our power?

The BNP gained seats because of apathy. Their vote this year actually went down from the last Euro elections but in the middle of the MPs’ expenses row there were plenty of people who opted out of voting all together. This combined with the party list system of voting was all that was necessary to let the far right in.  We have to reinvigorate local democracy. We neglect this at our peril and PB, which helps develop budget literacy, to deliberate, discern and weigh up arguments, can really help.  There are also reports that when people are able to make decisions themselves they do not simply vote for their own narrow self interest but as they listen to presentations, weigh up the options available and deliberate; they support projects which benefit the community as a whole. That’s community cohesion.

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