The rise of participatory budgets and why we will all be talking about them in 2017

In recent months I have been reading a lot about participatory budgets or PB for those who struggle with the jargonistic muthful. (I have read so much that I have may written things here that I have read and not referenced, sorry). There have been case studies from America, reports on toe testing community funds in Australia and demos of online tools that seem very much in abundance. I was also lucky enough to listen to Shari Davis (Shari works at The Participatory Budget Project) twice during Open State in Adelaide talk about her involvement in PB for various projects around the US, where she makes the process sound so appealing and fun, ultimately with great outcomes for both the budgeter and budgetee. With this steady rise in chatter on the topic of PB and ongoing global issues around economy I reckon that during 2017 PB will become the community engagement tool of choice and buzzphrase de rigueur.

Ok ok PB has actually been around, in its current form, for approximately 30 years. Traditionally and historically participatory budgets are accredited to have started in the late 1980’s in South America. But I think now the time is right for this tool to be utilised on a much bigger scale. Countries around the world, rocked by the global financial crash (GFC) in the mid to late 2000’s are still paddling in murky water when it comes to budgets. The word ‘austerity’ is banded around a lot to the disappointment of the tax payer and so governments are looking for a way to transparently ensure that the way they spend the tax payers money is acceptable to those that contribute. Even Australia, a country which seemingly rode the storm of the financial crash, I believe is now starting to feel the after effects of a world in financial peril. Tell tail signs such as an increasing number of empty shops in high streets, well-known household names disappearing, the increase in ‘$’ style cheap shops selling items only fit for one use and a seemingly monthly if not weekly increasing of prices for everyday essentials such as fuel/petrol, electricity and basic consumables like milk and bread. Cuts at all levels of government are happening and the ongoing stories about interest rates and a will it, won’t it housing market crash are constant reminders that the world is still economically unstable. So I think the time is right for PB to really get a foot hold in the Community Engagement toolbox of councils across Australia.

Also, not only are we still feeling the after effects of the GFC globally but 2016 hasn’t really been the best year for promoting the benefits of a democratic system. The general public have been center stage in showing government what they can do when unsatisfied at the time of election. The energy behind all sides in Brexit, the US election and changes in elected leaders from countries across Africa to Europe should be harnessed positively to provide stability in a world where the democratic system is being questioned and changed.

Background to PB and why now in Australia

The first recorded PB process was developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Set up to overcome severe inequality in living standards amongst residents the basic idea was to involve non-elected citizens (1/3 of the city’s residents living in slums) in the allocation of public money and led to a change in public investments with it going towards the most disadvantaged districts, primary health care and new water and sanitation systems being built. With the closure of major industries in Australia in recent years, most notably the car manufacturing industry (Holden, Toyota and Ford), the knock on effect in community I believe is still yet to be felt as factories finally lock up shop with no takeovers in sight. Higher unemployment in areas where factories once were, companies that used to service these factories lacking work and the inevitable less $ in the local economy when orders are finally completed are all likely knock on effects. Examples from America show where whole cities, like Detroit, have been drained after an industry crashes and poverty inevitably has increased. With the closure of the car manufacturing industry in Australia financial crisis will most certainly come downunder unless that industry is replaced by something that can utilise the same space and workforce’s skills or communities are given more options to up-skill? If not councils will see an increase in reliance for their services with a likely decrease in rate income, cuts will follow and the electorate will become unhappy. In cases like this if a council was to give the community an opportunity to help manage the places they live, for example by showing where budget would be best utilised then maybe the people will remain socially content and civic pride would remain stable during the harder times. Enter PB.

Why place PB in your community engagement toolbox for local government?

Across the world the examples show that every kind of participatory budget that is used has different kinds of objectives however they are not mutually exclusive. From my reading (sorry I can’t remember where) the apparent objectives are:

1, Administrative: The participatory budget is developed and used as a tool in improving the efficiency of public administration.

2, Social: The participatory budget has a social outcome for example helping to re-order priorities in community as seen in Brazil; or generate greater social ties.

3, Political: The idea of democratising the democracy. Giving people more of a say.

For local government their main role in the process of participatory budgets is mainly as facilitator (as well as purse holder). Being the entity holding the money means they need to be in control or be able to direct a process that ultimately will help them with many benefits (see below). The elected members in local government also have an important part to play in the process in that they need to be open to adopt the decisions made through the participatory process being used, as with any community engagement carried out, they need to be able to say yes we will listen/except what the community wants. This can come about through informing and in some cases educating those in the control of public budgets so they can be fully engaged and informed of the process at hand. Finally local government should also act as the lead actor in developing the tools which ensure a holistic vision of the problems and needs of the community. To do this at the top almost empowering end of a PB process, ultimately, local government would need to be pitting its projects/services against community ideas for the same funding, much like we have seen with personal budgets for adult care services in the UK.

Where the process sits within a council will very much depend on the reason for carrying it out. For example it could fall to the finance team if it’s the increased efficiency of the council’s budget that is a desired outcome or with the governance team if the council is looking to develop an outcome that is purely political.

Benefits of PB

The real benefits of participatory budgets are different depending on where the process is being held and the priorities you are collectively working towards. However a list of general benefits that can be seen across the all the different examples I have read include:

1. Deeper and richer relationships between the community and the public sector are developed leading to more effective local decisions.

2. The positive impact on those involved includes increased connectedness and understanding of public services.

3. Public involvement and engagement increases significantly as people become more educated and aware of processes. People also become more confident in their public sector providers as trust increases.

4. People feel more ‘listened’ too which leads again to greater co-operation and more importantly shared ownership of the outcomes.

5. Increased community cohesion in which a democratic culture is created strengthening the social fabric. Very much needed after 2016.

6. For staff and decision makers there is an empowering sense that responsibilities are shared over tough choices and a stronger mandate is built for those difficult decisions.

7. Transparency of the public administration improves.

8. Efficiency of public expenditure increases.

9. Collective prioritisation and management of resources. Sometimes gaps are discovered and filled freeing up resources elsewhere.

10. Every citizen can have an equal say. Traditionally underrepresented groups tend to participate more than usual in participatory budgets helping resources to be directed to the communities with the greatest needs.

Overall the areas of benefits can be broken down into 6 thematic areas democratic, transparency, education, efficiency, social justice and community.

I believe the PB process helps identify, create and realise the sort of community in which the citizens wish to live and therefore its important they are supported to participate in that process. Remember they are experts by experience. They live in this space and see it breathe unlike some local government staff who may only be there, paid, 9–5.

Why 2017?

The budget is one of the most important economic and political tools for any level of government. It reflects local and national priorities and a commitment to change (cough). Participatory budgets allow the public to be involved in this process, helping make hard choices and decisions and prioritising scarce resources as well as give tax payers a choice on where their hard earned money is spent, after all it is their tax. Participatory budgets help give citizens more control of the quality and number of services that are delivered in their communities and in reality they do understand that there are just some things a council can’t just stop doing so need to be always funded. In 2017 I think as we see the threat of more cuts especially at a local level, more unemployment in city suburbs, PB will have a crucial part to play in steadying the good ship democracy.

Ideally what you are looking for as a government is the community’s support and expertise which will have been formed on the basis that they live here and use the councils facilities and services day to day. Experts by experience.

It’s also important to recognise that the key players in the process, the council and the public, have to have shown an interest in introducing PB to initiate discussions around using the process in the first place. You have to question how it would be accepted and what kind of participation it would get in your community, it shouldn’t just be another tick box exercise to get people on the side of decisions already made. In 2017 after the upsets in a number of democratic elections and referendums around the world in 2016, PB can offer the public an opportunity to be fully engaged in a process from start to finish and see outcomes directly in their own community. Being able to attach themselves to outcomes, see things happening, builds their faith in the process and is likely to also restore faith in government listening to them and hopefully the democratic process.

One thing I have picked up in my reading is that the larger the budget available for discussion the better for the citizens. Many of the case studies that have popped up in Australia to date, apart from in Melbourne, have been on the small scale and more like a fancy grant giving process. But I believe that in 2017 we will see councils really pushing the boundaries on budget amounts and the areas/services they cover. However there is no evidence of a direct link between the level of resources available and the level of participation so maybe this is something that should be measured as the process continues to develop over the next year.

To start, if local government are to go down this road in 2017 my recommendations are to start with building up transparency around how the council spends and manages its budgets now (during the next budget cycle) coupled with low level education for those wanting to participate more in the council so they know exactly what services they get for their money. Councils should also not forget the minority groups within the council’s geographic area (PB is a great tool for engaging all as whilst language changes numbers don’t). There are many online tools now that have made the process much easier to access and fun to carry out which will help engaging people whose first language isn’t English but you shouldn’t forget that through face to face opportunities like creative workshops, ideas can be created and developed in all and every community collaboratively. Finally, to ensure that when an opportunity arises to implement a PB process everything goes well, all staff and the elected members of council need to be prepared for and have acknowledged the difficulties and benefits the process can bring and then work with community to accept the decisions once they have been made.

So what do you think? Will PB rise and rise in 2017? Does your council/government have any plans to implement PB, especially in Australia? Let me know in the comments?



Community Engagement, Civic Tech & Public Consultation Thought Leader. #gatehashing & #globalcommunityengagementday instigator.

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Andrew Coulson

Andrew Coulson


Community Engagement, Civic Tech & Public Consultation Thought Leader. #gatehashing & #globalcommunityengagementday instigator.