Participatory Budgeting: tough questions and real answers

I recently attended a discussion hosted by Lambeth Council’s Leader, Cllr Lib Peck, when council officers and councillors met with Josh Lerner, Executive Director of the North American Participatory Budgeting Project, Alderman Joe Moore from Chicago and Jez Hall from the UK PB Network. During the discussion a number of important questions were asked that felt pretty important to address if we are to adopt PB in UK on a meaningful scale. I thought it would be useful to others who are interested in PB, to share the questions, and the answers that were offered in response. The answers are based primarily on Alderman Moore’s experience of using PB in his Chicago Ward over the past 4 years, the PB Project’s work in New York, Toronto and San Fransisco and other North American cities. However I have also drawn on Jez Hall’s experience of PB in the UK and my own experience of using and promoting PB here too.

How do you prevent the ‘usual suspects’ from hijacking the agenda?
One of the most common questions asked about PB Project is ‘won’t more affluent communities dominate the process?’  From the outset great effort was put in to reaching out to the whole community to involve them, both in the planning stage and in voting. This does require some resourcing (but is essential). We thought about how to ensure we were being inclusive – where meetings were held, who was invited and how we made the process appealing and relevant.

At the outset people were nervous about vested interest and marginalised voices being overlooked, but the experience was that people were very conscious of an inclusive approach and keen to support projects that they didn’t personally benefit from. So projects aimed at improving disabled access were supported, despite the fact that disabled people are a minority – non-disabled people saw the benefit and supported them.

It had originally been planned to elect community representatives, but Alderman Moore decided (on the fly) not to go down the route of a popularity contest, but rather to allow anyone who wanted to ‘step up’ and take on the role to be supported to do so. Interestingly, it was not ‘the usual suspects’ who came forward to take on the role and many of those who volunteered were people who’d not been involved before who were intrigued by the new approach. These were not perennial meeting-goers and Alderman Moore explained; ‘I’d never seen them before’.

Another strategy aimed at reducing the risk of the process being hijacked is to design in the process a degree of ‘refresh’ of the people involved. Citizens who take on the role of community representatives for one year, can graduate the following year to join the steering committee. This builds renewal into the process ensuring new people are brought on as well as making use of the experience gained from being individuals acting as community reps.

How do you overcome cynicism and get people engaged with the process?
PB is fundamentally different to traditional consultation or asking citizens to advise elected members. Within PB control is handed over to citizens, but done so in a structured way. The boundaries around participation are clearly defined and people are asked to participate within them. It is a calculated risk but one that has worked well in Joe’s experience.

The process built on the area’s strong tradition of civic and civil participation and brought these community leaders and activists into the process. No one expected to be paid for getting involved – they just got on with it.

People step up when they are offered real power – not just tokenistic consultation. Involving people from the outset and throughout the process – from designing how the PB process would work, suggesting ideas for projects, through to developing proposals and voting on them gave them a real ownership in and engagement with the process. Given the opportunity to have real influence over what happens citizens are highly motivated and willing to participate. Apathy tends to occur when people feel decisions have already been taken, that their views won’t be acted on, or when what they are being asked to engage with is someone else’s agenda. As Jez Hall from the PB Network said: “One thing that PB does well is meeting people where they’re at. It works at a very concrete level – people can understand and relate to it easily. Once people start talking about their areas and thinking about how things could be improved in the future, questions, issues and potential solutions emerge.

How does PB affect broader civic participation and voter turnout?
Alderman Moore described PB as “the single most popular thing I have done in 22 years as an elected representative”.

In the previous election Alderman Moore did not receive a majority of the votes (resulting in a run off with his closest rival), eventually winning with 51%. Following the introduction of PB, he secured 72% of the vote. Whilst this increase cannot be exclusively attributed to introducing PB, Alderman Moore was clear that PB had positively engaged his constituents.

Over 1,000 people have voted in the PB ballot each year (within a ward population of 57,000 and 22,000 registered voters), though not all those voting were on the electoral roll. In the first year there was increased interest which resulted in over 1,500 people voting. There were lots of ideas for projects looking for funding, which were supported through the PB process. Making minor changes to the PB process helps keep things fresh and maintain interest, as does encouraging new people get involved each year (and offering those who’ve taken leading roles one year the chance to ‘progress’ to the organising committee in the following year).

It is very important that voters reflected the whole population and the use of pop-up voting stations in strategically placed community venues makes it easier for people to vote within their daily lives. Voter registration forms were taken to PB ballot stations to encourage citizens voting in the PB process to register to vote for District elections. Whilst it is hard to prove a correlation, the voter turnout in the ward has increased, from being in line with the City average to 3-5% above average since PB was introduced.

How do you make the voting process accessible?
Although the ballot paper used in Alderman Moore’s Chicago constituency is quite complex and text heavy, the process encourages people to help others to complete the ballot, which helps strengthen social capital and reciprocity.

In addition to area-based committees covering the whole ward, we also have a Spanish committee – reflecting the large Hispanic population in the area. The ballot paper is produced in Spanish too. The process is not just about voting, but also incorporates discussion and deliberation – talking about ideas and community needs and aspirations.

Has the use of PB led to other areas adopting it?
PB has now been established in 4 other wards in Chicago as well as other districts in New York, San Francisco and Toronto. The positive experience has helped generate interest in other wards – both among politicians and communities – that is gaining momentum.

The experience of using PB also helped to strengthen connections between the District and other public agencies in a common process that starts with citizens.

PB in the UK has been sporadic, ebbing and flowing with political support. When Hazel Blears was Communities and Local Government Secretary she gave strong support to PB and oversaw the development of a national PB strategy. This governmental support undoubtedly generated significant interest within local government and a number of local PB experiments ensued. These tended to be small discrete pots of money used to support local initiatives. As Coalition came to power and public spending cuts began to hit this discretionary funding began to dry up and we began to see a shift in how PB was regarded within local government. Whilst there were fewer small scale neighbourhood PB exercises, interest in how PB could support citizen involvement in ‘taking tough decisions’ about allocating reduced resources began to grow. This shift closely mirrors Lambeth’s own PB experience and thinking.

What is the role of officers in the process?
Officers are involved in supporting community reps to develop ideas and advising on feasibility/technical issues and processes. Strong political leadership and direction to ‘make it happen’ helped minimise obstacles and the role of officers became that of ‘enablers of community action’. Alderman Moore spoke of a shift in expectations that officers should “not saying no, but finding ways to help people say yes”.

How were costs for project proposals calculated?
The calculation of costs are done through discussions between officers – who act as technical advisors – and community reps working on developing ideas. The process has highlighted the great variation in costs across different projects and public agencies. This has been useful in demonstrating where efficiencies can be made and helped to address some of these inconsistencies.

Using PB has generated a number of new projects that have never been done before, so officers have had to develop processes and ways to deliver them. This takes time, but it also encourages innovation and collaboration.

What about the risks of deciding to hand control over to citizens?
“I decided to take a leap of faith” – Alderman Joe Moore.

The process has delivered strong social capital outcomes which straddle political, cultural and ethnic differences. PB is a good thing to do in times of austerity as it starts a conversation about trade-offs and tensions and increases people’s understanding of the realities of resource allocation taking place.

But of course, things can go wrong and the process is not without some risk, as Adrian Short highlighted, writing about the recent PB experience in Sutton. It is my belief that sufficient rigour can be designed in to the process to reduce these sorts of risks…but only if we understand what they are and how to mitigate against them happening. I’ll leave the last word to Alderman Joe Moore, of Chicago’s 49th District:

Of course there is a degree of uncertainty but the process has delivered real benefits in my community.”

A much more comprehensive set of questions and answers has been produced by the United Nations Habitat Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), which can be found here:


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