The track record
Participatory Budgeting originated in Brazil 25 years ago and has gone on to spread throughout the world including over a 150 relatively small scale uses Britain over the last decade.
In the late 1980’s Brazil was emerging from a long period of military dictatorship. Trust in politicians was very low and whenever public money was being spent there was lots of waste and corruption. In cities across Brazil many feel Participatory Budgeting was a big part of turning that situation around. Brazil now has a much more open and dynamic society. Though many social and environmental problems still remain, today Brazil is one of the world’s new super powers. Part of that success is because of its tradition of participatory democracy.
The city of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil is most commonly mentioned as the birth place of PB, and what happened there during the 1990’s inspired people across the world. Thousands of people living in Porto Alegre who had never previously got involved became active through the PB process. Millions of pounds was spent through their PB process. Public money directly influenced by local people, leading to a real improvements in their lives. Porto Alegre has won accolades for the way PB empowered its citizens and spawned new examples of PB across the world.
Another Brazilian city that has used Participatory Budgeting has been called “The city that ended hunger”. Belo Horizonte is Brazil’s fourth largest city. It’s own Participatory Budgeting process saw local people devise new ways to improve the supply of health food to the poor, such as farmers markets selling fresh healthy food, better school meals and more support for local producers. Before 1993 over 20% of children were malnourished. By following proposals emerging from local communities a new food distribution network was established, and the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables increased, against the trend in other comparable cities. Child mortality fell considerably and over 30,000 get involved in PB meetings every year.
Participatory Budgeting in Europe
Internationally Participatory Budgeting has been growing and growing and seems to span all political persuasions. In the last 10 years reports of Participatory Budgeting have been emerging from China to the USA and from Sweden to Fiji. Many cities in Europe have been trying their own form of Participatory Budgeting.
Seville in Spain, for example, promoted direct citizen’s direct participation in the design of the city’s budget. It started in 2004. In each neighbourhood community organisers responsible for promoting Participatory Budgeting in their area collect proposals from individual residents and community organisations. Seville’s community organisers are volunteers and may focus on a specific theme such as children’s rights or migrants. Local people can also submit their proposals directly to their local town hall or civic centre. After the proposals are collated citizens are invited to take part in open public assemblies. Each district has 3 assemblies per year.
The first assembly provides information about the Participatory Budgeting process being used and there is a chance to vote on the rules that control the process. The previous budget is also discussed so participants can become better informed about issues they will be deciding. A second assembly votes between the chosen local proposals and elects delegates who will go on to participate in larger district councils. Each community can select 5 proposals they consider most important to send to those district wide councils.
During the third local assembly after being improved the final proposals are presented back to the community for approval. Then, the next year a new round begins, with new rules agreed by the community participants.
Each year the council decides the amount of public budgets that will be allocated by the assemblies. Currently, the city council’s departments of public works, sport, youth, education, culture, environment, health and gender have opted to join. In 2006 over 9,000 citizens took part.
Seville is just one example from Europe, but shows some of the classic features of Participatory Budgeting, such as a repeating annual process, rules set in communities about how the Participatory Budgeting process will run, proposals coming directly out of local communities, and volunteer organisers that debate and improve on those proposals so local people can make an informed decision.
Participatory Budgeting in Britain
Whilst Participatory Budgeting has been running for over 30 years in some places overseas, in England PB is only about 5 years old. In 2006 the then Labour Government launched a national Participatory Budgeting strategy, that encouraged local authorities to try it here. Since then over 100 communities have experienced PB. But often it has only happened once and with very limited funding.
Notable examples include the Newcastle UDecide process, that has been running in many different communities for many years and won widespread praise. Carers have been given control over budgets to support their invaluable work and youing people empowered to have their say in over £2.25m of expenditure.
In Tower Hamlets in London in 2009 and 2010 over £2.4million pounds a year were spent on essential public services, including £150,000 decided by young people through their school councils.
In Southampton the ‘Your Community, Your Health, Your Voice’ programme began with only £10,000 but its success has meant increasingly large amounts in the pot.
In ‘Voice Your Choice in Eastfield, Scarborough residents voted on how £32,000 should be spent on projects addressing crime and community safety issues. As well as local people voting for projects at the ‘Decision Day’ in June 2009, residents played a key role in the design and delivery of the process.
These are only a sample of the huge range of experiences of Participatory Budgeting that have happened across the UK, from Cornwall to the Shetland Isles. However we believe too many are very small scale. Now is a good time to build on these, and that is why the People’s Budget has been launched.