News and Comment

Participatory budgeting and the Big Society

Friday 1 April 2011

I attended the first learning network event for the Your Local Budget initiative last month. The event brought together 45 people to discuss participatory budgeting (PB).

What struck me is that there is now an opportunity for PB to expand from where it has been for the last 10 years. Since PB was imported from Porto Alegre, Brazil it has largely resided in areas of discretionary spending focusing on quite small budgets. There is now a chance for PB to become more ambitious. The Big Society agenda and tighter public finances mean that PB can and should become a centre piece of the new government – citizen relationship rather than an occasional side show.

I felt the learning network event helpfully identified areas which need thinking through if PB is to achieve its full potential:

  • Local authorities need to discuss how PB can be a basis for having difficult conversations with local communities about spending decisions. A good PB process should help local authorities and local people agree a way forward
  • Elected members need to act as community leaders to ensure that PB is inclusive and fair to all sections of the community and does not become a crude majoritarian democracy
  • If PB is to become a vehicle for empowering the public on spending priorities, it needs to synchronise with other corporate decision-making processes, for example, annual budget setting

To my mind, if PB is to really achieve this it also needs to become a more sophisticated tool. Many current approaches to PB do not lend themselves to discussions about mainstream budgets. These will be difficult conversations about large pots of money. Participants in PB processes will need to have a good understanding of the pros and cons of the choices they are being asked to make. I feel they will need to become an expert-public, much as the NHS has been developing the concept of expert-patients over the past few years. People will need to be in a position where their decisions are driven by hard headed reason rather than just emotion. They will need to bring their local expertise to bear on what is the best way to meet local needs from a shrunken pot of money.

A natural marriage – deliberation and PB

There is a ready-made solution to this challenge. Over the past 12 years many practitioners like myself have been experimenting with and fine tuning so called deliberative approaches to public engagement. Deliberation and PB is a natural marriage waiting to happen.

As well as renewing the PB process I think local authorities and their partners will also need to think more about where PB sits in terms of a policy or commissioning cycle. At present it seems to only inhabit the prioritisation and decision-making stages, and is mainly absent from the delivery, monitoring and evaluation parts.

I was heartened to hear that Stockport Metropolitan Council is thinking about how PB could be used for community-led commissioning. This could be a basis for thinking about how the monitoring and evaluation stages could have a more powerful public voice.

PB directly links opinions to spending decisions

Also, we should not forget that the powerful hook that PB has is that it directly links people’s opinions to spending decisions. For this reason it tends to attract public participation where many other approaches fail. We have found that once people are hooked into one area of civic activity it is easier to engage them in other areas. In this sense PB could be the link to the wider Big Society agenda, for example, opening up the opportunities of community-led service delivery. If local authorities are worried that stepping back from service delivery will mean that the space will be filled by profit maximising private sector organisations and/or large well established parts of the voluntary and community sector, I believe that PB could be an incubator for a creating a new breed of service provider that is truly new and local.