What benefits does participatory budgeting deliver?

What benefits does participatory budgeting deliver?

Guest article |  The debate on PB |  Anke Knopp |  30.04.2013
What benefits does participatory budgeting deliver?


Basically, ‘PB’ is a further tool for citizen participation. Here, citizens influence municipal financial planning through an online procedure. What sounds rather brittle in theory, turns out in practice to deliver a new dynamism and quality.

From the printed copy for a few....

Any municipality hinges on the budget plan. In recent decades, though, the key figures contained in this work tended to be the reserve of the ‘experts’, even though the budget has to be publicly displayed and citizens have a fundamental right to examine it. In practice, once a year administrators and policymakers would hold a printed and bound version of a budget plan in their hands, and consult on it within the relevant official bodies – more or less by themselves. Moreover, the budget was written by experts for experts. Any citizen who was unfamiliar with budget law and the key figures would quickly put this work aside, because he or she would normally be unfamiliar with the rules on how to read and interpret it. Online-based PB introduces a new dynamism into this tradition of a small number of insiders, and allows a new quality of participation to emerge: by publicly and actively inviting the ‘third party’ – i.e. the citizen – to take his or her place at the table. Transparent dialogue between citizens, policymakers and administrators is the cornerstone of PB. The PB process thus operationalises the constitutive components of democracy: it rests on the three pillars of information, consultation and accountability. Although the elected members of the local council still have the final decision, they are obliged to examine the recommendations made by citizens. They must explain the reasons why they have rejected any proposals, and why they took the decisions they did.

...to the modern online procedure for many

The secrets to the success of PB are to be found in the modern online-based three-phase process of information, consultation and accountability. Through the Internet, budgeting procedures are used that compile information and make it transparent in a new form. The information can be accessed by anyone at any time; it can be linked, and it works like an archive. Any user can use this archive selectively for his or her own political priorities, evaluate the information it contains, and submit the result in the form of a proposal in the corresponding phase. These need not necessarily be purely quantifiable proposals for cost-cutting or expenditure. Many proposals may also at the same time be of a political nature, and should be seen as sending a message to policymakers. Citizens become experts within their own municipality, and are able to contribute their knowledge. This need not exclusively be from an oppositional standpoint – something that is readily ascribed to citizens when they do make contributions. Such contributions can, on the contrary, be made in an open, creative way.

The consultation phase builds on the transparency of the information. The proposals are discussed in an online dialogue between citizens, policymakers and administrators, in such a way that all citizens are in principle able to follow this process of exchange among the many. An important component of this is the possibility for citizens to interact and comment on each others’ proposals, which enables citizens to engage in mutual dialogue. In local politics there are barely any other forums where this broad discussion would otherwise be possible, particularly involving so many participants at the same time in such a transparent way, and with round-the-clock access. A PB platform thus adds vitality to the political discourse. This is usually then carried over into the traditional media such as newspapers, local radio and local magazines, thus impacting more widely and reaching the heart of society. The sustainability of proposals from PB processes is considerable, because in the ongoing political discourse these proposals always tend to be labelled ‘originates from the participatory budget’. As a result, the public are left with a lasting impression of the meaningfulness of PB.

The broad-based impact of participatory budgeting

PB also increases understanding of the budget formulation process, and the need to finance both legally prescribed and voluntary services within a local authority, and strike a balance between them. Citizens thus gain a deeper insight into the background and the fundamentals of local policymaking, and discover for themselves how difficult it is to set budgeting priorities when the focus has to be on the common good. 

Participatory budgets thus act like seismographs: the proposals and comments submitted by citizens can provide policymakers and administrators with important pointers as to whether funds are being spent as citizens would like, or where new areas of activity are opening up or a redirection of funds is desired. Local people know their municipality and possess a keen awareness of where savings need to be made, and where meaningful investments should be made in the future. Inter-generational justice is a not insignificant aspect in this context, because youth can also contribute their ideas, and enjoy the same status as adults when they do. The same principle also applies to people with a migrant background, who can take part in the PB process even if they do not possess German nationality. At the same time this opens up the possibility of involving and motivating target groups to participate that are often not reached through conventional channels. Some are keen to prohibit the submission of contributions by ‘external users’, declaring this to be disadvantageous. The question is, whether it is in any way harmful when people put forward ideas for a municipality in which they do not themselves live.

The power of attraction and the pleasure of participation

At this point, the argument that the focus on the Internet prevents citizens who have a weaker affinity for it from participating in the budget also becomes strained. The digital divide is invoked. This is true only at first glance: not all citizens have an online connection and not all are active on the Internet. To an increasing extent, though, society is being reflected in online activity in a way that is representative and commensurate. At the same time, online participation is liberated from the constraints of time. Citizens can make their contributions when they see fit, and need not stick to deadlines that would have been an obstacle to old-fashioned types of participation. The ubiquity of the Internet, which enables anyone and everyone to get involved in things quickly and unbureaucratically, is increasingly generating a power of attraction and a broad felt need to participate actively in societal processes.

Intergenerational issues also play a role here. On the one hand, some accept only traditional representative democracy as the sole legitimate form of democracy. On the other hand, younger citizens are much more willing to accept open, Internet-based participation. They tend to favour it as an effective instrument against disenchantment with politics.

At the same time, the stimulus generated through the Internet has long since found its way into the old media channels of reporting and appraisal by institutional actors such as policymakers and administrators, and public opinion formers. It is thus also flourishing beyond and outside the Internet, before being fed back into it. We should now consider Internet activity, including such activity in PB, as a kind of cycle.

The argument against compartmentalisation is visibly losing force, because PB usually does not remain confined to web pages. There always remains the option of participating in PB processes in conventional ways. Proposals can be submitted at any time in writing, and when they are they are fed into the process by the moderators or administrators. Furthermore, all online procedures for PB are also embedded in face-to-face public meetings. That said, experience shows that these are often not well frequented.

There’s one thing it can’t do....

There is one thing that PB cannot do, however: get a structurally indebted municipality out of the red. The federal and state levels of government delegate numerous tasks in the form of legally prescribed services to municipalities, whose core mandate is to deliver services of general interest. The public delivery of these services guarantees equal access to public goods for all citizens. To discharge this mandate, municipalities require a solid financial base. This is where (cost-saving) proposals made by citizens cannot be the foundation for action, because it is only the voluntary services provided by a local authority that allow scope for PB. Consequently, PB cannot solve a general structural problem of municipal finances.

The starting signal for participatory budgeting

Whether or not to introduce PB is a decision with far-reaching consequences for a local authority. It begins with the political will. It should enjoy the broadest possible support – the administration also has to pull in the same direction. It is also helpful to have broad support within civil society. As soon as the process is launched, a public discourse should take place on multiple levels that makes clear the frameworks and the expectations of stakeholders, and above all communicates the objectives in a way that is transparent to all stakeholders. To achieve this it is helpful to agree on a list of criteria that define clearly and in detail from the outset the three steps of information, consultation and accountability. It is not sufficient to adopt a resolution to the effect that ‘we will conduct participatory budgeting’: the pitfalls will only come into focus as the process unfolds. Not defining the rules until the active phase begins is normally harmful to the open process, because it then becomes very difficult to communicate modifications or decisions credibly.

Criteria for success

PB is not an instrument of direct democracy, but it does extend opportunities for citizen participation and rights. To avoid misunderstandings and feelings of frustration among citizens, it is fundamentally important to communicate the fact that the final decision rests with the elected representatives of the local authority. PB is not there to replace representative democracy with direct referendums – it is rather there to form a bridge between the stakeholders concerned, and inject vitality into the process. This means accommodating the desire for greater participation by citizens, while maintaining political responsibility within a framework of transparent and efficient consultation and accountability.

When conducting PB for the first time, it is a good idea to define clear and consistent objectives, and criteria for success, so that these can replace existing and tacit expectations. Even before the PB process is launched, there must be clear rules for subsequent appraisal by all stakeholders, in order to make success or change more measurable.

Experience has shown that the participation rates alone provide only a first impression as to the success or benefits delivered by PB. However, applying a single criterion for the success or failure of PB narrows the scope for appraisal considerably. Many aspects of a participatory process are then lost from view. Yet these additional aspects are necessary in order to shed light on and appraise a process of this kind:

  • Resources/costs
    The question of how much democracy and participation may cost should be answered early on. The PB process generates costs for municipal human resources, and is an interdisciplinary task that requires administrators from different departments. Costs are also incurred for the Internet platform, and publicity for the process.
  • Innovation/professionalisation
    PB is an innovative tool for citizen participation. It needs to be incorporated into a local authority’s canon of instruments for democratic management. It is also necessary to determine whether only proposals for cutting costs are required, or whether other proposals might be included such as the prioritisation of specific projects. Professional support at the outset saves beginners’ mistakes.
  • Mobilising citizens
    Anyone wishing to reach citizens must know how to go about it: it is helpful to have an information and media strategy to define in advance what forms the publicity for the process will take. This includes not only PR work, but also publicity work conducted by the political parties, and possibly public meetings to support the process. Ultimately, the success of the process will be crucially dependent on this issue.
  • Transparency
    During the phase of online submission of proposals and voting, the Internet platform makes the PB process almost entirely transparent. Here, everybody sees everything. Special efforts to achieve transparency are required when the process switches to the traditional (offline) committee-based work of political debate, and when it advances to the accountability phase. Unfortunately, this is where the doors often close again. This transition marks the precise sticking point at which citizens’ frustrations may come to a head.
  • The binding nature of the proposals
    It is a good idea to announce early on how the proposals submitted will be dealt with – whether policymakers will be compelled to engage with them, whether they are even designed to replace decision-making by policymakers, or whether they are intended only to provide guidance. Local authorities that go down this path will avoid reaping disappointed faces among citizens when they get to the end.
  • Representativeness
    Local authorities can save themselves trouble by making clear that the results of PB cannot be representative. Since online-based participation has so far not been designed to lead to any formally finalised decision-making, this limitation is also not relevant. Nonetheless, all stakeholders do need to be aware of the fact. One option would be to set up an advisory group that could be constituted on a representative basis, comprised for instance of citizens selected using a random procedure.
  • User-friendliness
    User-friendliness is key: how ‘easy’ is it to register, submit proposals, and comment and vote on proposals? Cutting costs in this area will deter users. The issue of moderation and the opportunity to read comments should also be explained at an early stage. Nothing deters citizens who are willing to participate more than regulatory obstacles and complex applications. Another aspect that must be borne in mind here is the anonymity of registration, which must be ensured pursuant to the German Telemedia Act.
  • The quality of inputs
    The quality to be required of inputs must be discussed at the political level. In practice, views on this vary widely. Local authorities that wish to create opportunities for anything other than cost-saving proposals will have to live with divergent views, and should see inputs as a creative contribution to the vitality of democracy in the best sense.
  • Stakeholder satisfaction
    All three sets of stakeholders should be satisfied. When the process has come to an end, if it is reviewed by policymakers and administrators only this will create an imbalance. This is especially true when it comes to the issue of whether to continue or discontinue the process.
  • Acceptance
    The question of acceptance arises from three perspectives: citizens, the municipal administration and local policymakers. A possible advisory body for the PB process should have a say.
  • Compatibility
    It is advisable to determine at an early stage and in a general way how participatory budgeting is to be integrated into the context of participatory procedures in a municipality, and in what form a process of this kind should be further developed.
  • Sustainability
    What are the criteria for implementation of the proposals: should preference be given to quick solutions, or should long-term approaches be applied? It is necessary to measure the effects of changes.
  • Efficiency
    At least two parameters are available: the possible sum of money saved, and the quantity of viable proposals. These parameters can be used in conjunction with the participation rate, which they complement in a helpful way.

Participatory budgeting 2025

A modern municipality of the future will no longer be able to manage without making citizen dialogue permanent, and without using the Internet as a means of mass communication. The central topic of finances is no exception to this. The developments within civil society in recent years demonstrate the demand for information, participation and control. Policymakers in particular must engage with this basic dynamic of society, a society that has already come to see the Internet as a key source of information and participation, and uses it accordingly. Using PB as an online tool of this kind therefore presents an opportunity to be close to this new societal dynamic, and guarantee that a bridge is built between articulation and discussion in an online forum, and appraisal by representative democracy.

PB is a tool that lives on being further developed. It might for instance become a component in schools, and enable school students to take part in municipal PB from an early age. At the same time, once the budget is approved a hard copy of the annual accountability report should be sent to every household. To enable all citizens to remain continuously linked to PB, the most interesting proposals and their impacts could be documented in the form of films, which could then be made available on the relevant municipal websites. By 2025 people in municipalities will be doing politics online only, and there will be no more paper.

PB will remain a topical issue, because the finances of a municipality will remain key.



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