News and Comment

Participatory budgeting 10 years on

Thursday 18 November 2010

A few days ago I attended a Participatory Budgeting and the Big Society event in London.  Apparently it has been 10 years since the participatory budgeting (PB) idea was borrowed from Porto Alegre in Brazil and introduced to the UK. Several years ago I chaired an IPPR seminar to explore whether PB was something which would work in a UK context, and have more recently delivered many budget consultation events for OPM. So I was interested to hear what everyone else’s experience of the past 10 years had been and where people felt PB should head next.

Undoubtedly some of the PB projects from the last 10 years have been inspiring. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that PB is still a marginal activity for many of the local authorities who are doing it. The issues that the public were asked to vote on involved areas of discretionary spend and for small pots of money. The numbers involved also seemed fairly small, particularly if your reference point is Porto Alegre!

PB and Big Society

But, it now seems that finally PB might be about to hit the big time. The Big Society Network in partnership with NESTA, CLG and the Participatory Budgeting Unit has announced a Your Local Budget project which will look to support 8 to 10 local authorities. The aim is to give individuals a meaningful say in local spending decisions. As part of this it is clear that PB must move into areas of mainstream spending.

This mainstream focus should certainly help PB to become more visible.  A recent NESTA report also makes a welcome point about it being important as to who actually sets the PB agenda in each locality. In a Big Society context local people should have a strong voice in deciding what they will vote on further down the line. Rather than been constrained by narrow service-related options they should be able to go off-list and identify the types of outcomes they would like to see achieved.

Importance of deliberation

But, we also need to recognise the process by which people discuss the options before reaching the point of voting. We mustn’t let PB become an X Factor-style voting process. As dry as it sounds, deliberation is central to successful PB. People need to understand the issues they are putting forward and then the options and their implications before they vote on them further down the line.

The recent move towards local authority’s presenting information in a more transparent and accessible way should help improve understanding, but space will also need to be built for good deliberative discussions. At a time when difficult budget decisions need to be made, people need to have the chance to understand the full range of views locally as well as the implications that some choices might have on different groups.

Role of elected members?

There has also been a concern that extending PB into discussions about mainstream budgets could leave elected members desperately searching for a new role. The suggestion is that some of their traditional functions are moved from the sphere of representative democracy to something more akin to direct democracy.

At the moment it feels like this issue is being skirted around rather than tackled head-on. There will be a central role for members but the detail beyond them being community champions will need to be more thought through.  The changing role of members is an area we are currently working on at OPM so watch this space.