Lambeth recently hosted the visit of two Participatory Budgeting experts from the US, as part of a study tour organised by Church Action on Poverty, as the culmination of their People’s Budget campaign. Josh Lerner, from the North American PB Project and Alderman Joe Moore, from Chicago met with elected members and senior officers at a roundtable event hosted by Leader Cllr. Lib Peck.
The event provided an opportunity to hear first hand how PB is developing in the US and Canada and how it related to Lambeth’s ambitions to become a cooperative council. What I found particularly fascinating was to hear from an elected representative about their experience of ‘handing over power’ to citizens to determine how funding should be allocated to support local activity. The concept of citizens having far greater power in decision making is central to the vision of Coop Council and, like PB, is based on the underlying belief that the more people are involved in decision making the better the outcomes will be.
Alderman Moore described how after many years of determining how the discretionary capital improvement fund allocated to his Ward should be spent, 4 years ago he decided to adopt a PB approach and hand back $1m to local people to decide how to spend it. It was, in his own words ‘a leap of faith’. The first step was to introduce the idea of PB and also to tell people that there was this discretionary budget available (which many people were unaware of). An initial event, attended by around 70 people, brought together community leaders from the Ward – residents groups, school governors, faith leaders, ethnic community leaders and community groups.
From this initial meeting around 40 people expressed interest in getting involved in helping to shape the process for allocating the money through PB. Over the next 7 months this group, working with Josh (and drawing on learning from PB in other areas) began to develop their approach.
Meetings were held throughout the Ward where the idea for PB was set out and the parameters explained – the budget is specifically for capital improvement: no to more police officers (however good an idea that was) and yes to street improvement.
Towards the end of these meetings small groups began to brainstorm ideas that they would like to see happening and these were fed back to the rest of the group. Participants were asked if they were interested in becoming volunteers for the project – acting as community reps to further develop ideas – exploring costings, feasibility, scope etc. The ideas were then placed on a ballot paper and people voted for them.
Two key modifications were made to the usual rules for voting in local elections; firstly the voting age was reduced from 18 to 16 to allow young people to participate. Secondly, there was no requirement to be registered to vote, people were simply required to prove that they lived in the area.
Over 1,500 people voted in the inaugural voting assembly. The results were markedly different from how the budget had been allocated the previous year, as the chart below illustrate. The significant difference between how Alderman Moore had perceived community needs and aspirations and what the community actually wanted was immediately obvious.
Whilst street resurfacing had received 61% of the budget prior to the introduction of PB, when it was introduced, the community voted to allocate just 7% of the budget. The street resurfacing figure did increase in subsequent years to near pre-PB levels, as ideas for community projects started to receive funding; Alderman Moore has never looked back. It was also clear that the PB process generated ideas for projects that had never been done (or thought of) before.
Handing over decision making power over discretionary funding to citizens may feel quite different to giving citizens greater control over every aspect of the council’s activity. However it is important to recognise the journey that we are on in realising the Coop Council ambition. Lambeth’s residents and the council both need to gain confidence in a new way of working that establishes a more equal approach to coproducing improved outcomes for the whole community. PB may not be a panacea and it cannot be the total of our ambition, but it does offer a way of engaging residents in a more honest, transparent and knowledgeable debate about the difficult challenges faced. It offers a tangible step towards coop and one that will demonstrate our intention in a very practical way.