The first ‚new wave’ of participatory budgeting in Germany is slowly but surely fading out. A considerable number of municipalities has been continuing its participatory budgeting process for several years and is now facing numerous unsolved questions. One of these is seeking an answer to the question of how more citizens can be motivated to participate. Municipalities are also asking how the budgeting process can become a citizens’ project with a more prominent role for civil actors.
Some municipalities have found the answer to their questions in the introduction of neighborhood funds as a complement to the traditional citywide participatory budget. They are hoping for a more motivated and engaged citizenry who is getting the chance to administer its own projects over which it holds the financial and administrative authority. The experiences gained in the direct neighborhood are supposed to motivate the citizens to become more active on the next level, and shape and co-develop the citywide participatory budgeting process. The idea behind this strategy is to make participatory budgeting a bottom-up process, which picks up as many citizens as possible along the way making it their own project.
A look towards Brazil: which role do neighborhood funds play across the Atlantic?
Brazil is the living example for effective and efficient neighborhood funds. In Recife, the birthplace of participatory budgeting, participation is organized as multi-step procedure starting in the direct surroundings of the neighborhood up until the citywide level. In the words of Alexander Koop (Bertelsmann Stiftung), an expert for participatory budgeting in Brazil: “Recife acts as role model for successful participation, citizens are included in the process right from the start while results are made visible for all those involved. As a result more individuals feel affected by what´s happening even if it doesn´t take place in their immediate surroundings.” The German municipalities Senftenberg and Eberswalde look back at similarly positive experiences with neighborhood funds.
Discussions on the introduction of neighborhood funds in Darmstadt
The implementation of neighborhood funds in Germany can best be observed in Darmstadt. During the third workshop on the participatory budget of Darmstadt in October, the ombudswoman Imke Jung-Krohn presented her version of a neighborhood fund. It is meant as additional offer for citizens in order to anticipate a decline in the number of participants. According to the German online magazine Echo, Jung-Krohn is suggesting to place a certain budget at the disposal of each neighborhood with which it shall implement projects oriented towards the common good. The size of the budget shall depend on the number of residents in the respective district, which could range around 50 cents per resident, according to the views of the ombudswoman. Nevertheless, as depicted by Jung-Krohn, funds may also be allocated independently of a particular project given that certain conditions are fulfilled. Provided that the project is publicly accessible, oriented towards the common good, fostering local cohabitation and supported by a minimum of 20 people, the proposal for financial support may be brought forward. Once the administration has verified the costs and has considered the feasibility of the proposal, a citizens’ jury shall decide on the implementation of the project. The jury shall be composed of randomly selected citizens determined by representative criteria and a quota.
Citizens’ reactions to the concept of neighborhood funds in Darmstadt were mixed. The strong focus on the neighborhood received positive feedback as the funds were assumed to strengthen the citizens’ identification and feeling of responsibility for their own neighborhood. The low bureaucratic effort for making the funds available was considered another positive aspect.
Negative feedback was voiced with regard to the decision-making process. Participants of the workshops questioned the decision-making competences and legitimacy of the citizens’ jury. Another point of critique was mentioned with regard to the structural conditions in Darmstadt. As reported by the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau on its website, some districts do not even have the necessary meeting points to realize the envisioned participation. Echo-Online demanded to put priority on the regular participatory budgeting by improving the existing processes. The news portal criticized the lack of transparency over the status of the accepted proposals of participatory budgeting.
Nevertheless, despite the diverse opinions about the introduction of neighborhood funds, city treasurer André Schellenberg is arguing in favor of a pilot project in a selected district: “I feel positive about the whole idea. Once citizens start to realize the useful aspects, they will soon accept the concept itself.”
Neighborhood funds and participatory budgeting: complimentary or contrary?
Does the strategy of Darmstadt play out? Experts on participatory budgeting both support and reject the city´s approach. Interviewed by the Stiftung Mitarbeit, Prof. Dr. Roth speaks in favor of local budgets which in his eyes are an effective way to establish participatory budgeting in a community. Dr. Märker on the other hand points out that neighborhood funds must not serve as an attempt to overcome the challenges encountered by citywide participatory budgeting processes. In the eyes of Dr. Märker, neighborhood funds downgrade the relevance of citywide budgeting procedures and function decoupled of the entire procedure. In a commentary on buergerhaushalt.org he criticizes the lack of transparency and legitimacy of allocating the funds. He sticks the finger at the question of who is made responsible for the decisions of the citizens’ jury. He suggests fewer district-specific budgets in favor of an improvement of the existing budgeting processes by connecting them to the political-administrative structures.
The discussion comes down to two options: more decision-making power for the neighborhood or greater efficiency for the existing participatory budgeting processes.
The future will show which way yields the desired result of bringing participatory budgeting closer to the citizens. Once again, results in Brazil hint at how the future may look like.
A closer look at numerous examples across the Atlantic shows: the introduction of neighborhood funds often results in the establishment of a representative structure where elected delegates from the citizenry coordinate and implement the proposals by the citizens first on the level of the neighborhood, then the district and lastly the entire city. This structure resembles the thoroughly institutionalized linkages between the very local and the citywide level that closely collaborates with the political-administrative authorities. The institutionalization may be the reason for the overwhelming success of the entire procedure: the cooperation between the civil and political representatives anticipates the risk of decoupling of neighborhood funds and citywide participatory budgets. At the same time, the fair and equal collaboration between citizens and politicians ensures an efficient tie to the administration of he city. As another positive effect it closes the previously criticized legitimacy gap on neighborhood level.
The transfer of the Brazilian example to the German case practically results in the election of civil representatives from the neighborhood. These representatives function as permanent intermediaries between the neighborhood and citywide politicians. At the same time the participatory budgeting processes enable citizens to stay in touch with their city´s administrative and political procedures opening up the opportunity for neighborhood funds to result in an overall improvement of participatory budgeting.