News and Comment

‘Doing’ deliberation online: Participatory budgeting and multi-media approaches

Friday 5 November 2010

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Richard Wilson is right to claim that participatory budgeting (PB) offers a chance for local people to have a genuine say into funding decisions in their local area. But, in the age of Big Society there needs to be a readiness to test and refine online approaches as part of a multi-method approach to engagement and participation.

Recent examples of PB in the UK have demonstrated that the process is able to work people other than the ‘usual suspects.’ PB activities have involved diverse audiences in rigorous decision-making processes and ensured that their views lead to direct and tangible impacts. When it is done well, PB sits near the top of the familiar ‘engagement ladder,’ offering the kind of deliberative experience that has the potential to empower individuals and communities and strengthen civil society. It is therefore heartening that the Government is supporting a programme of PB pilots.

Online engagement with PB

A recent CLG review  of local decision-making methods endorses PB – with a note of caution. It argues that for the full empowerment benefits to be realised it must be ‘…open to all, focused on a meaningful and important issue and be part of a wider dynamic of change that enjoys support both locally and within a national framework.’ For many, the Big Society agenda represents this wider dynamic of change, based on the ethos that engagement and civic participation should be open to all rather than targeted and representative.

Yet this sort of wider involvement will only be achieved, to quote Matthew Taylor, by ‘making it easier, more enjoyable and more powerful for people to engage’, and for some people an intensive deliberative approach might not be preferable or even possible. Furthermore, the scale and depth of the changes envisioned by the Big Society coupled with the current financial constraints in local government demand that we adopt a multi-methods approach which includes an online component.

Refining online methodologies

But it is one thing to have an online component – and quite another for it to be effective. We’ll need to get better at ‘doing’ deliberation online: At the moment too many online approaches are crude tick box style tools which give respondents little opportunity to engage in a meaningful way with the big decisions on which they are being consulted. Recent criticism of the use of budget simulators points to the need to test, evaluate and refine online tools and approaches – just as we would with any other method.

Furthermore as web access and literacy increases, and we make more use of smart phones and micro-blogging platforms, there will be value in exploring how we can get better at integrating online and offline approaches more seamlessly – something we’ve become adept at in our private lives. Engagement will become increasingly multi-faceted in the future. We should embrace this complexity and see it as an opportunity to engage many more parts of society. But we need to keep an eye on the quality of the tools that we are offering people as a means to engage.

By Tim Vanson, OPM senior researcher and Robin Clarke, OPM fellow