The government has just launched a consultation on a strategy to roll out participatory budgeting across England by 2012, as part of the empowering agenda for communities. This is both interesting and welcome. For those that haven’t come across it, the model of participatory budgeting was first developed in Brazil – city of Porto Alegre to be precise – as a mechanism through which communities can engage directly with the local authority budgeting process. This original experiment was partly about a desire to deepen democracy, and partly about the need to open up the budget process to combat corruption and patronage.
Whatever the original rationales, in Porto Alegre increased public participation in decision-making was certainly an outcome – it is estimated that 18% of the population took part in budget setting meetings over a five year period in the 1990s. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider the turnout for local elections in England is often only around 30%.
In England a number of participatory budgeting pilots have been underway over the last few years – one in Hazel Blears’ home town of Salford, but also in Bradford, Newcastle and Sunderland to name some others. An evaluation of these pilots suggests that many experiences have been very positive, but doing participatory budgeting well is resource intensive – in terms of money, council officers’ time and community development work. This is not an argument against doing it - in fact it is right that we should invest in our democracy, and many techniques to increase participation are costly, especially if you’re targeting the most excluded individuals or the groups which traditionally have low interest in community engagement (e.g. youth). I raise this issue merely to make the point that participatory budgeting is not some sort of easy option or silver bullet and will add value in a combination with other mechanisms aimed at enhancing participation.
In fact, doing participatory budgeting badly could be worse than not doing it at all. If it’s not well planned and resourced it may be hijacked by small but vocal groups to further the interests of the few. If it’s not seen to be a fair process it could serve to increase community tension, whereas there is some evidence to suggest that when done well participatory budgeting can have a positive impact on community cohesion.
Another big question about participatory budgeting is how central it is to council activity. On launching the consultation Hazel Blears referred to participatory budgeting as providing ‘community kitties’ to areas. This may simply be because the phrase ‘participatory budgeting’ is not the most accessible. But a ‘community kitty’ to me suggests a small pot of additional money. While divvying this up may offer some benefits, participatory budgeting is meant to be more ambitious than this, dealing with mainstream budgets in education, social care, and so forth, and involving communities in the hard decisions that have to be made between competing priorities. It is participatory budgeting of this scale that would be truly ambitious and empowering.