For municipal decision-makers: 10 reasons to practice participatory budgeting

For municipal decision-makers: 10 reasons to practice participatory budgeting

Guest article |  The debate on PB |  Ulrich Nitschke |  30.04.2013
For municipal decision-makers: 10 reasons to practice participatory budgeting

 

► 1. Greater acceptance of priorities that are better harmonised

Involving citizens enables them to influence decision-making, which not only promotes their understanding of the financial constraints. When budgets are tight, public debate on both the budget policy frameworks and the use of existing scope for action can also foster consensus. If broad agreement can be reached on needs and the key areas where investment can still be made, this creates an outstanding opportunity to gradually work toward a comprehensive consolidation plan.

► 2. Making administration more efficient by integrating citizens’ knowledge

The expertise and detailed knowledge that citizens possess can be utilised more effectively. During a phase of dialogue on the draft budget, the everyday knowledge and experiences of citizens can be harnessed at public events, online forums, and especially at themed events, in order to improve the quality of municipal services. Such improvements might for instance concern the opening hours of public facilities, or optimising bus routes. Citizens’ knowledge can also be made available through the organised integration of the specialised knowledge of associations and initiatives.

► 3. Increasing problem-solving capabilities

PB can reduce conflicts that elsewhere would lead to delays of years, as are often seen with large-scale projects and with cost-saving measures. Addressing such conflicts in good time, and perhaps achieving consensus, will reduce occasional flare-ups at a later point in time once the budget has been adopted, when the practical impacts of measures make themselves felt. PB also facilitates consensus-building between different interest groups. The budget as a holistic foundation for local policy-making becomes more transparent. A clear overview emerges of the different interests and how they compare. People are able to see their own group-specific or particular interests in the wider context. It becomes more likely that some actors may bear in mind the interests of others. It may be possible to reduce conflicts of interest.

► 4. Greater cost awareness

It is possible to create greater cost awareness among citizens by discussing expenditure on municipal services and products, and their actual costs. The administrative reforms currently under way in many local authorities that involve introducing the ‘new management model’, which includes cost-performance analysis and product budgets, were introduced as an ‘internal’ measure. This can be systematically transported ‘outside’ of the administration. As taxpayers, citizens wish to know – and should know – what ‘their’ administration and the services it provides cost them. By creating greater cost awareness, this next step also creates the possibility of building a keener sense of responsibility.

► 5. Mobilising citizen engagement

The policy of promoting the citizens’ municipality and civic engagement means abandoning the idea of the all-encompassing responsibility of the state in favour of proactive citizen ownership. PB leads to citizens identifying more strongly with their local authority. As they gain opportunities to shape decision-making, citizens also become more willing to contribute their labour. When this leads e.g. to voluntary engagement (e.g. care of the elderly) or civic engagement (e.g. sponsorship of public green spaces or the performance of hands-on refurbishment work on municipal premises used by associations), material and in some cases human resources can be saved.

► 6. Reducing political disenchantment and disillusionment with political parties

When all sides get together to discuss the budget, citizens’ preconceptions about policymakers can be broken down. PB also gives policymakers an opportunity to become even more familiar with citizens’ interests, and develop personal contacts. Political disenchantment can be reduced. It may be possible to increase recognition for political work. Potential conflict situations that have existed hitherto can be tackled in the spirit of ‘from confrontation to cooperation’. Since PB events should wherever possible be organised on a cross-party basis, this may offer an opportunity for the various political groupings to find more common ground. In PB, all the groups affected by a budget can potentially be brought together to develop proposals, so that political satisfaction can be increased once a consensus is reached.

► 7. Fostering democracy

To be able to contribute their interests, citizens must enter into mutual dialogue – as well as dialogue with policymakers and administrators. PB entails a learning process on how democratic institutions work and on democracy itself: anyone wishing to achieve something must persuade others, and seek working majorities. At the same time, the transparency of municipal budgets is something that society expects of local government. Anyone wishing to strengthen local self-government must organise opportunities for participation that strengthen democracy at this level, where the population feel the impacts of policy most directly. Citizen participation, and especially PB, can in the long-term generate interest in political activism, and in getting involved in political parties or a council mandate.

► 8. Supporting modernisation processes within the administration

The requirements imposed by PB support, and may expedite, the greater customer- and citizen-orientation that is one aim of the ‘new management model’. Importantly, managers and staff members must adapt to these requirements. This can be supported through targeted human resource development measures, and especially training. Practical steps of this kind toward the citizens’ municipality can be further developed through the efficient use of e-government/e-democracy. Moreover, this creates a more conducive environment for introducing idea and complaint management mechanisms.

► 9. Improved image for the local authority

PB creates improved opportunities for more intensive press and public relations work. Media interest is greater when a broader public is involved. A municipality can also improve its image when creative forms of participation attract regional or country-wide attention. The link to town or city marketing is strengthened, and advantages of particular locations compared to neighbouring municipalities may be emphasised. Increased opportunities to shape local affairs make the local authority more attractive for certain groups of citizens, such as new families willing to relocate there. The gender-specific analysis of budgets involving a greater proportion of stakeholders may facilitate solutions that meet needs more effectively (the gender budgeting approach). In an ageing society, it is also possible to make greater use of the potential and experience of older citizens by offering them opportunities to get involved.

► 10. Risks do exist, but they can be successfully managed

Risks may include: costs are too high in relation to the actual improvement in quality; expectations are created among citizens that cannot be met; council members feel constrained in their role as decision-makers. However, experiences to date show that there must be a reasonable balance between costs and benefits. Here it is also necessary to take into account the indirect benefits that have a positive effect on the municipality. Even though the process is more costly in the short term, it pays off in the medium term as a result of the greater effectiveness and the harnessing of cost-cutting potential. Introducing PB entails a learning process of several years. As this process unfolds, it is possible to begin by taking small steps in order to gain experience. The steps will then gradually become larger and larger.

Also available as a pdf document (German only): Reasons for participatory budgeting