The Funding Revolution that gives power to the people

6 Oct 2017 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 6 Oct 2017

Participatory Budgeting gives communities more power over spending.
Participatory Budgeting gives communities more power over spending. Pic: Edwin Andrade

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is an idea whose time has come. Scope examines the model giving communities more power over spending.

Why can’t local people get to decide how money invested in their communities is spent?

Like all powerful ideas it is simple, obvious and hard to contest. After all residents know what the needs of a community are because they live there. They are therefore just as much experts as policy-makers and planners and philanthropists and voluntary sector organisations, politicians, government departments and planners.

Yet in Northern Ireland not only is participatory budgeting rarely discussed, most people have never even heard of it.

An initiative led by CommunityPlaces NI and funded by the Building Change Trust has just been launched to set that right. It will promote the idea of local people deciding how to allocate part of a public budget and provide all the training and facilitation required to make that a reality.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is an idea whose time has come. It is gaining traction all over the globe. It is improving communities, deepening engagement between citizens, governments and local authorities and helping to reshape our ideas of how democracy and philanthropy should work.

It does not represent a threat to politicians, public servants and experts. Instead it is slowly reviving representative democracy, making it more suited to the present era.

The movement started in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has spread rapidly, first within that country, and then across the world. The Porto Alegre scheme has been examined by the World Bank which noted dramatic improvements in the education system, sanitation and public health as a direct result.

New York has the biggest PB scheme in the USA. Last year 31 of the city’s 51 districts permitted community members to decide how at least $1 million of their funds should be spent.

The world’s biggest PB project is in Paris. Between 2014 and 2020, the city has committed to reserving €500 million (about 5% of the city’s capital fund) to be spent through participatory budgeting. In 2016, 158,964 people voted on how to spend nearly €100 million, including €10 million set aside for schools.

In each cycle, there is a PB for each of the 20 Districts to decide on local projects, and 1 city-wide PB for Paris-wide projects. They also specified that €30 million would be specified for working-class neighbourhoods in the city. They had 37 city-wide projects, 587 district projects, and 20 school projects submitted for the ballots. 219 projects won. Each project is labelled “fait avec les Parisiens” – Made by Parisians.

In 2015 the Scottish Parliament enacted the Community Empowerment Act.  It places a duty on public bodies in Scotland to involve communities much more closely than before in decision-making in order to strengthen democracy. 

One of its key themes is promoting participatory budgeting. Already 20 local authorities are taking part in a consultation designed to involve local communities in deciding how their budgets should be spent. 

In Scotland the lowest tier of statutory representation are community councils which sit below local authorities. The community council for Leith, which is part of Edinburgh has been running a participatory budgeting programme for the past seven years, called £eith Decides

Last year it distributed just under £45,000 to community projects. Groups were invited to put forward submissions for support and then everyone in the area from the age of eight (sic) was invited to vote. Funds were distributed accordingly. Last year it was decided that the entire community budget would be allocated that way

Most recently South Dublin County Council has run a PB scheme, the first in Ireland called: “€300k – Have Your Say”. It has just been evaluated by the Institute of Public Administration.

It selected one of the six local electoral areas by lot to pilot the project. The Lucan area won.  Local people submitted 160 ideas which were eventually whittled down to 17 projects which went out to ballot.  Eight were ultimately accepted. These included a new playground, an apple orchard and free library book banks.

The Institute of Public Administration stated that the project was both successful and popular. It had cross party support and there was praise for politicians of all parties for supporting the exercise and refraining from pushing pet schemes. It is expected that the scheme will be extended to all South Dublin County Council areas and trialled across the country.

The idea has yet to gather momentum in Northern Ireland although Causeway Coast and Glens Council is leading the way with a small scale pilot.

The Building Change Trust project sees huge potential for PB in Northern Ireland: “Participatory Budgeting can be used to allocate spending from a range of sources including local authorities; housing associations; schools, public health trusts, police and community safety partnerships, trusts, charities and social enterprises. “

There is also potential for the private sector to be involved by using PB approaches to distribute community funds.

 It will train around 20 people from a range of sectors (statutory, community, voluntary, local authority). To qualify for this their organisations will have to have committed to undertake a PB pilot.

Participatory Budgeting is already gaining traction amongst major funders. Big Lottery has provided funds for schemes in Scotland and has taken part in a pilot in England. There is a compelling logic to its adoption by the Third Sector. All it really takes is the acknowledgement that communities themselves are every bit as qualified to define their needs as outside experts.

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