Why the UK can learn from the US approach to participatory budgeting

Participatory Budgeting tourIt is still not common knowledge that spreading around the world is a community engagement method that allows citizens to propose, develop and then vote collectively on projects financed out of public budgets. That technique is called Participatory Budgeting (PB), and it is winning lots of praise internationally.

Supported by Church Action on Poverty’s Participatory Budgeting Unit,  more than 150 PB one-off events have happened around the UK in the last few years. But on the whole, they have not yet evolved into the kind of deep deliberative processes through which citizens can decide on the spending of mainstream budgets. That’s why it was the right time for energising and inspiring the key people that can make a difference – by giving them the opportunity to meet the people behind the exciting and successful PB experiences now being built in the USA.

At the centre of the US movement are the PhD activist Josh Lerner (New York) and the experienced politician Joe Moore (Chicago). Through his not-for-profit organisation the PB Project, Josh inspired authorities and communities and then assisted in setting up PB in several cities around Canada and USA. The second visitor, Alderman Joe Moore, has for the last four years successfully and efficiently run a PB process in Chicago. As the elected alderman of the 49th ward, he gave a million dollars from his own budget over to residents.

We took them on a whistle-stop tour of some key UK decision-makers and budget-holders who have the power and potential to open up mainstream budgets to PB: eight meetings, seven locations, five cities, three days and more than 130 participants.

Between 22 and 24 April, we travelled up and down the length of the UK, meeting police officers and community activists in Manchester, the County Council in Durham, the Minister of Local Government and Planning in Edinburgh, the City Council in Glasgow, and then Lambeth Council, the Young Foundation and finally the Department for Communities and Local Government in London.

This tour was the culmination of our People’s Budget campaign, and we coordinated and facilitated it in collaboration with PB Partners and PB Network, two British organisations really committed to share the most of their practical experience.

We went on the road to inspire and “teach”, and in the spirit of an international learning exchange, we came back having learned a lot ourselves!

  • First of all, we confirmed that the visit was timely and that Participatory Budgeting has lots of potential. We found a deep will to adopt a more participatory way of thinking in the public, voluntary and community sectors, and the people and tools are already in place – there are existing engagement policies and practice on which PB can be built. The main concerns were not over whether to do it, but over technical issues and practicalities. Lots of people, in fact everyone we met, was ready to work on it!
  • Further, we discovered that PB can be implemented at any geographical scale and at any administrative level, with any kind of public budget over which there is a sufficient discretion and freedom to act. Where a council is prepared to adopt change, much can be achieved – even in struggling financial times!
  • Why should politicians and officers be interested in the US experience of PB? Simply put, as the case of Chicago’s 49th Ward showed us, PB appears to be a very powerful tool for improving the election results of local politicians, or at least to improve the relationship between authorities and citizens.
  • And that’s not all! The public budget spending decisions made through PB lead to a much more articulated and imaginative allocation of resources than a simple ‘chairman’s decision’ – even if that decision came from a committed and smart politician like Joe Moore.

However, communities should realise that it is not only a question of ‘powerful people’ inviting the community to participate, but equally a matter for communities themselves to take on the participatory agenda. They must be confident they have the ability to think about new ideas and new projects, and then go out to either persuade or, if necessary, force local authorities to act on the real meaning of community engagement and empowerment. To trust local people, because it is their community, their taxes, and their futures that are at stake.

There’s still a lot of work to do, but the ground is fertile! Let’s move on!

This post was written by Marco Spano, a volunteer who has been working for Church Action on Poverty to coordinate the PB tour.

2 thoughts on “Why the UK can learn from the US approach to participatory budgeting

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve seen PB work brilliantly on relatively small scale, discretionary budgets. I’d welcome examples/links to cases where it’s worked on larger “whole council” type budgets where it just feels way too complicated for people to get a real handle on in a few hours???

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