25 October 2022

Painting Participatory Budgeting as the one default option for cities just starting out with public participation is a mistake. PB is only one of many possible processes that allow citizens to be involved in decisions about the development of their community and public officials should ask themselves a few questions before deciding whether it’s right for their city.

If it is, they should also consider how their PB should be designed.

Do you have the resources for PB? 

Participatory Budgeting may not always be an appropriate solution. However, due to its popularity, there is a rapid growth of PB in contexts that make it ineffective.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Sometimes, authorities may not have sufficient skills and capacity to deliver a project that requires a full time project manager, a communication specialist, a team of skilled facilitators and the engagement of various departments in a thorough evaluation process.

In other cases, it is local communities that might not be ready, as they have never been involved in a participatory process before – especially one that requires engagement and focused attention for a few months and a set of project design and deliberation skills.

It therefore may be better to pursue other solutions more suitable to a given situation – the available time and capacity, organisational structure, and a community’s habit of participation. 

Does Participatory Budgeting fit your local challenges?

Think of PB as just one of many possible processes. Don’t commit to running it simply because it is so widely-used and popular. Choose it when it serves your goals.

If you have priority projects that are generating a lot of discussion in your city or are set to have a significant impact on the development of your community, you may want to consider involving the public in those. Such projects include anything from developing a strategic plan for the next 10 years to regenerating public spaces and creating structures to address refugees’ needs.

In case you want to address an abstract or complex issue, such as climate change, you can and should look for means of engagement that would include deliberation between citizens and other stakeholders. 

Should you consider a school based PB?

When deciding whether to go ahead with PB, remember that it is better fit for a local context, because people are happy to engage in processes that affect their immediate environment.

In any case, you cannot expect to attract the majority of residents. Most PBs primarily reach already active citizens – which is a small number. Engagement of around 3% of residents is considered a success.

One exception to this is a school-based PB – an interesting type of participatory budgeting, where children learn active citizenship skills, gain positive experiences with democracy and build participatory habits that they can pass on to their parents.

The engagement rate of School PBs is always high – surpassing 50% in Czech and Slovak cases.

Read how Kutna Hora combines a school based PB with a city wide PB.

What audiences do you want to reach?

PB is designed to involve citizens and make them feel like a part of their community and its city planning process. Yet Participatory Budgeting never gives you fully representative data on what the needs and preferences of all the citizens are. So, there is always some group of people who are dissatisfied, not represented, or not even reached.

That is why it is important to think about possible adjustments to a general PB process to suit your specific needs. You can work on involving a specific traditionally excluded community (e.g. people with disabilities, mothers with children, immigrant communities etc.) Alternatively, you can choose a specific agenda that is important to your community or a specific group and make it a theme for your PB (e.g. access to education or improvement of healthcare services etc.)

Of course, there is not one fixed process that every Participatory Budgeting project has to follow. It is possible to adapt it from one case to another. But you always need to clearly define your needs and assess you and your community’s capacities before settling on a specific process.

And even when you do choose to run a PB process, do not be afraid to rework the process from year to year or even completely discard the process if it has exhausted itself.

In the end, it’s important to choose wisely based on your context rather than the trendy projects that are popular around the world.

This article was produced in cooperation with Participation Factory. Participation Factory is a social enterprise that mainstreams participation and data-driven approaches into governance and process design. Our experts support local governments in designing participation driven processes and systems, building capacities of their team, and implementing digital participation tools and Civic Tech. To learn more, refer to our website or contact us at info@participationfactory.com.

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