By Carlos Mendez and Katarzyna Piskorek
Participatory Budgeting (PB) has emerged as a promising approach to enhance citizen engagement in local governance and decision-making processes. Through PB, citizens have the opportunity to directly influence how public funds are allocated and prioritize projects that address their community’s needs. However, as with any novel initiative, there are challenges to be addressed and lessons to be learned. In this blog post, we will explore some of the main lessons identified for improving Participatory Budgeting from a needs assessment of seven case studies under the DEMOTEC project.
Better Communication for Inclusive Engagement
A common challenge faced by PB initiatives is the low level of citizen engagement. To address this, it is crucial to improve communication and publicity efforts by local authorities. For example, cities like Cluj-Napoca (Romania) have invested in communication strategies to engage citizens more effectively. Additionally, special attention must be given to reaching out to socially excluded groups, as demonstrated by Neapoli-Sykies (Greece), which allocated resources to engage marginalized communities.
Public debates about civic initiatives are another important aspect of fostering engagement. Encouraging open discussions can bring new insights and perspectives that may not have been fully appreciated by public authorities. Rotterdam (Netherlands) and Fife (Scotland-UK) have demonstrated the value of such debates in enhancing citizen participation. Furthermore, forging connections with existing local groups can amplify engagement efforts, as seen in Rotterdam and Ireland.
Digital Engagement to Maximize Reach
In today’s digital age, online tools offer a powerful means to reach and engage a broader audience. By complementing traditional engagement methods, digital platforms can help extend participation to a wider demographic. Fife has shown that a careful balance must be struck to address data security concerns while maximizing the benefits of digital engagement.
Transparent Decision-Making to Foster Understanding and Trust
Transparency is vital in fostering trust and understanding among citizens. Local people must comprehend the complexity and constraints of decision-making processes, including PB engagement requirements, to ensure they perceive PB as a trustworthy and sound mechanism. Fife and Rotterdam have emphasized the importance of clear expectations, outlining what citizens can expect from the PB process and how budgets are allocated.
In addition to this, there is a need for better transparency in the evaluation of submitted projects by public authorities, as highlighted in Cluj-Napoca’s case. Transparent evaluation processes instill confidence in citizens, assuring them that their inputs are genuinely considered.
Leverage EU Funding to Promote Participatory Budgeting
Despite some cases having relatively high levels of EU funding, there are currently no direct links between PB initiatives and EU funding mechanisms. However, Rotterdam’s plan to use EU-funded initiatives for community-led local development highlights the potential for leveraging EU funds to support PB in the future.
Advocates argue that EU funding should promote PB, especially in small, under-resourced localities like Cluj-Napoca. By aligning EU funding with participatory culture, PB implementation can benefit from the framework of resources, expertise, and credibility that EU funding mechanisms offer.
Develop a Learning and Evaluation Culture
PB implementation comes with its share of challenges, such as low project submissions, delivery difficulties, underestimated costs, delayed timelines, and complex legal requirements. To overcome these obstacles, a learning and evaluation culture should be cultivated.
Lessons learned from previous rounds of PB can be used to address challenges in future iterations. By regularly reviewing project eligibility conditions and communicating them effectively, Neapoli-Sykies and Ireland exemplify the importance of learning from experiences. Furthermore, evaluating PB initiatives allows for a better understanding of their socio-economic and political impacts, as exemplified by Wałbrzych (Poland).
Build Institutional Capacity
Effective PB implementation requires increased capacity among local authority staff, including resources, skills, systems, and tools to better engage with citizens and projects. Information sharing is essential to this capacity-building process. For instance, in Fife, mainstreaming participatory methods has highlighted the importance of debriefs, space for discussion among practitioners, and sharing reports and information to support practitioner capacity and resources within local authorities.
Seek Political Support
Perhaps one of the most critical factors for successful PB implementation is garnering high levels of political support within local authorities. In Fife and Neapoli-Sykies, elected councillors have played instrumental roles in championing PB initiatives through leadership groups working with senior officers.
For PB to flourish, it must be recognized as a valuable mechanism to augment and inform representative democracy rather than replace it. Direct involvement of elected representatives ensures accountability in resource allocation and responsiveness to citizens’ needs.
Participatory Budgeting holds immense potential to empower citizens and create more inclusive and responsive governance. By incorporating the key lessons identified from successful PB cases, local authorities can overcome challenges and foster a culture of transparency, trust, and active citizen participation. Embracing digital tools, leveraging EU funding, and building institutional capacity are integral steps towards creating a more participatory and democratic society. With sustained political support and a commitment to learning from experiences, PB can pave the way for more effective and citizen-centered governance.
Carlos Mendez and Katarzyna Piskorek, August 2023
This blog draws on a report by Dr Carlos Mendez and Dr. Katarzyna Piskorek under the EU project DEMOTEC – Democratising Territorial Cohesion: Experimenting with deliberative citizen engagement and participatory budgeting in European regional and urban policies.