Participatory budgeting is increasingly popular among local councils, and is now also adopted by regional and even national governments across the globe. The influential American non-profit Participatory Budgeting Project defines participatory budgeting as such:
Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives people real power over real money.
PB started in Porto Allegre, Brazil, in 1989, as an anti-poverty measure that helped reduce child mortality by nearly 20%. Since then PB has spread to over 3,000 cities around the world, and has been used to decide budgets from states, counties, cities, housing authorities, schools, and other institutions.
The New York Times calls PB “revolutionary civics in action”— it deepens democracy, builds stronger communities, and creates a more equitable distribution of public resources.
In France, participatory budgeting has taken off over the last five years as an emblematic renewal of local democracy, and was kickstarted by diverse local political alliances across the country. An increasing number of council staff from different cities have been attending the recent national professional meetings on the topic. The third such “National Meeting on Participatory Budgeting” was held on 8-9 November 2018 in the city of Montreuil, located on the eastern edge of city of Paris. Montreuil was a particularly interesting location for hosting the conference, as it has been nicknamed the “21st Paris arrondissement” due to its hip creative scene, latent gentrification, industrial and communist local political legacy, as well as its rich social, cultural, ethnic and economic diversity.
The conference was largely attended by hundreds of participants: community engagement officers and elected officials from 40+ French cities, sales reps from software companies, researchers as well as active if not outspoken residents from the three co-sponsoring cities (Rennes, Grenoble and Montreuil). Coryn Barclay, a research consultant at Fife Council in Scotland, provides an excellent summary of the event. The conference was hosted by the three French cities who have championed participatory budgeting in France: Grenoble, Rennes and Montreui. To provide a bit of international food for thought, the conference was blessed with highly engaging presentations from three foreign speakers: Coryn Barclay from Fife council, located just north of Edinburgh; Carlos Menchaca from District 38 in New York City; and Marta Osòrio from the city of Cascais, located west of Lisbon. They shared their respective successful experiences of engaging diverse publics through participatory budgeting. Their presentations was followed by a panel discusssion moderated by Gilles Pradeau, a PhD researcher and experienced participatory budgeting practitioner at Westminster University. Do read Coryn Barclay’s summary for more details about these presentations.
The participatory budgeting scholar Yves Syntomer also gave a historical and contemporary overview of best practices and challenges of participatory budgeting, from its early days of social justice and social transformation in Porto Allegre in the late 1980s, to the current political situation in Brazil, as well as the more consultative and less participatory budget consultations initiated in France several decades ago. Then as now, Yves Syntomer highlighted the need for strong political backing as the cornerstone of effective engagement : participatory budgeting typically takes places as the direct result of political will. He also noted that while the current national political climate in several countries across the world is leading to increasing citizen distrust of party politics, participatory budgeting is both a cause and a sign of renewal in civic engagement at the local municipal level. As a result, the current wave of participatory budgeting in so-called developed countries creates new expectations in terms institutional innovation and related service provision among local councils, as part of slowly shifting local governance regimes.
Mayor of Montreuil Patrice Bessac expressed in his welcoming address that local democratic methods such as participatory budgeting are a powerful way of reviving the now almost-clichéd Local Agenda 21 motto « Think Global, Act Local ». With due consideration to rising populist and nationalistic politics in Europe and beyond, the mayor also expressed that strategies such as participatory budgeting bear promise for restoring dialogue, learning and civic engagement in local place-making as a potential counter-reaction to the twin trends of populist entranchement and post-truth, notably by providing a physical-tangible evidence base through the built environment itself. Furthermore, participatory budgeting can also help improve both the lives and living environment of urban citizens, through projects iniated by rather than on behalf of people. He thereby stressed the importance of « walking the talk » of local democratic policy, and congratulated participants for beginning to do just that in their respective local councils.
The different participatory budgeting programmes in France have varied widely in terms of: the participatory budget allocated per inhabitant, voting procedures (with or without formal identification); ways of submitting and voting for project proposals (online or by physical/paper-based means); number of project proposals submitted by citizens, number of projects making it to the voting line; and overall budget allocated in each city to participatory budgeting in terms of absolute budget in euros and percentage of total municipal budget expenditure. The polling procedure also varies between cities, whereby some councils favouring an open voting strategy based on simple email registration and virtually no age barrier, while other councils such as Grenoble or Bastia require voters to provide formal ID. Several conference participants that an over-securisation of the voting procedure can deter citizen engagement and potentially reduce voting numbers.
In terms of community engagement technology, some local councils went mostly digital in their deployment of the participatory budegting, particularly in the project submission and polling phases. Other councils, such as Paris, began with a 100% digital strategy but soon switched to more extensive offline participation opportunities, particularly for the polling phase which featured a dense network of physical polling stations across the city of Paris, so much so that paper votes now outnumber digital votes. Several cities also recruited student and civic engagement interns to go out and meet a wide range of resident groups in public space and various other locations such as schools.
In terms of digital technology specifically, the majority of local councils seem to procure digital platforms from Civic Tech providers, which usually provide a back-end interface for content management. However, noteworthy councils such as the city of Paris and the city of Grenoble have chosen instead to further develop their own council website to include an add-on or link to a bespoke, in-house platform for the participatory budgeting process, which seems to have been more easily afforded by their sizeable ICT department and related annual budgetary expenditure than woud have been the case with a procured consultancy service (i.e. Software as a Service – SaaS).
The overall experience shows that it is important to reach out to people through all possible means, and safeguard inclusion and accessiblity by deploying both offline and online modes of engagement. On the basis of experimentation and successful first rounds, multiple councils are now considering expanding the amount of municipal budget allocated to participatory budgeting. In contrast to participatory budgeting in other countries and cities which may focus more on consultation, French participatory budgets typically involve co-construction with residents from the very beginning of the process (i.e. project design and ideation) to project polling and actual project implementation and evaluation, alongside management and oversight by the various relevant local council departments. Project holders may sometimes even inaugurate their project in the company of the city mayor, as was the case in Rennes last September for the inauguration of the much-discussed floating greenification project, which was a national if not European first of its kind in terms of urban greening initiative.
Stay put for the next National Meeting on Participatory Budgeting which will be hosted in November 2019 by the city of Paris and will be spearheaded by the Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo herself. The international momentum of the event will likely be even stronger than in previous years; even greater attendance is to be expected from French and foreign local councils alike, due to the growing popularity and effectiveness of participatory budgeting as a way of engaging the public in local urban affairs. Never mind big politics, participatory budgeting seems set to become an increasingly engaging, attractive, and potentially empowering mode of participation and civic engagement, not least for people who would not participate on any other civic matter. Participatory budgeting appears as a means of not only having a greater say in local public expenditure, but also of directly impacting local place-making in very tangible projects. Beyond the positive experiences shared at such national conferences, more empirical evidence and systematic comparative analysis is required to assess the real impact of participatory budgeting on local democratic practices, alongside other emerging modes of engaging the public. Such is also the objective of a new French participatory budgeting network that will help to benchmark experiences and share best practice both nationally and internationally. As participatory budgeting is the product of significant political backing, time will also tell whether it is wholly politically dependent, or whether it can develop a civic life and momentum of its own.
Post-scriptum: This post was written bona fide; should there be any errors in the views represented and discussed here, these will be a reflection of my own personal interpretations and experience of the conference keynotes and discussions, rather than an accurate summary of the content of the conference itself.