Putting our money where our mouth is...

21 Feb 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 21 Feb 2022

Pic: Unsplash

 Jennifer Wallace, Director, Carnegie UK argues that we all need to be involved in how and why we spend money in Northern Ireland.

For Carnegie UK, democratic wellbeing is everyone having a voice in decisions that affect them. It is a means as well as an end: it is a means to better wellbeing for communities and it is an end because we know that choice and voice really matter for people’s personal and collective wellbeing.

And nowhere is this more evident than in the budgetary process. People are distant from decisions about public spending, decisions that have such an important profound impact on their lives. Where our taxes go can often seem like an esoteric concept; money pours into the unknown of government coffers and we have very little real say in how it is spent.

What we do know is that there is never enough of it. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a spending spree in support of our health service and our economy. And while some of the spending was seriously questionable, a significant amount of it supported people when they needed it most – from the £20 universal credit uplift to furlough. But with the pandemic waning, and the rebuilding beginning, it is more important than ever to think about how we spend public money.

The budget process got off to a difficult start, with Finance Minister Conor Murphy unable to get the support of his Executive colleagues in December to sign off on his proposals. This was further scuppered by legal advice confirming that, following the resignation of the First Minister, the process cannot progress in the absence of a fully functioning Executive. A casualty of this is the much-welcomed proposal to introduce a more strategic, multi-annual budget to replace the current year by year model that doesn’t give the required certainty to enable long term planning.

In the midst of uncertainty however, there are reasons to be optimistic. Emerging from New Decade, New Approach was the recommendation that a Fiscal Council be established to bring greater transparency and independent scrutiny to our public finances. The Council has been up and running since last year, delivering important assessments of the most recent draft budget which it said, “balances but lacks strategy.” It also pointed out the absence of a link between the budget and the Programme for Government, and the lack of explanation at choices made in the distribution of funds.

Therefore it is clear that there still exists a gulf between the how and the why when it comes to how we spend money in Northern Ireland. However, local government is demonstrating there is a small but significant move towards looking at ways that we can reduce this gap.

In Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council however, the TAK£500 – your community your voice your choice! scheme has offered a new way of bringing citizens closer to decisions that affect them.

Using the Participatory Budgeting model, and running from December 2019 to June 2021, residents got involved in coming up with ideas and projects to improve wellbeing – to the value of £500. Sixty-six projects successfully secured funding ranging from walking programmes, creating sensory spaces, play equipment, kindness projects, mentoring programmes, outdoor, gardening and nature programmes. And whilst the projects themselves were extremely valuable and fulfilled the aims of TAK£500 the very act of engagement is a good in its own right - a move towards improving democratic wellbeing.

The experience of ABC Borough Council, and others using this model, clearly demonstrate how we can better engage citizens in the democratic process, cooperate across delivery agencies on budget pooling, and in doing so improve outcomes for our communities.

The biggest challenge to delivery is getting political support and buy in. Public representatives need to be comfortable that these processes help them deliver better outcomes, rather than threatening to them.

Power is not always a zero-sum game, and politicians have the opportunity to combine their representative role with a new role as enablers of participatory democracy. A move from the status quo but one that is perfectly doable, in fact one that furthers value for money and the careful management of public funds.

What Northern Ireland needs now is more action – to let a thousand flowers bloom – but to harness these to a common goal. The concept of radical incrementalism is helpful here – matching small incremental steps with a vision of a new participatory approach to all decision making in public life

Radical outcomes can only be delivered if we understand the journey we need to take to get there. Moving towards a model that engages citizens in things like participatory budgeting is an exciting proposition and one that we hope will galvanise public servants across NI.

So what are the next steps we can take to build on the success of schemes like TAK£500? Structural barriers persist, however the incorporation of wellbeing within Community Planning legislation, as well as a commitment to this approach in the draft Programme for Government offer starting points on which we can build. By getting the frameworks right, we can then empower communities, Community Planning Partnerships and political actors to unlock the potential of these exciting new ways of working and spending for the public interest.

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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