Trial participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting is a major democratic innovation in which public bodies, generally local or city councils, put up a proportion of their new infrastructure budget to be directly decided by public vote after deep discussion amongst citizens. Such mechanisms have long been successfully used in countries such as Brazil, and more recently have been adopted by the City of Paris and through the Better Reykjavik initiative. Participatory budgeting can be immensely powerful, but it is also by its very nature more labour-intensive and more expensive to run than conventional planning processes with minimal public input. Significant inertia – in the form of local councils' unfamiliarity with such mechanisms – also needs to be overcome. Accordingly, the next action plan should include a commitment to establish a centralised fund to which local and regional councils can apply for assistance with piloting participatory budgeting; the long-term expectation would be that they ultimately fund such processes from their own budgets. In addition, central government should provide resources setting out how such processes work and how councils might implement them.

Why the contribution is important

One of the strongest arguments for greater citizen participation is that citizens are "experts in their own lives". That is, they possess knowledge about their needs that constitutes an important informational input into the democratic process and greatly improves the likelihood of its delivering good outcomes. This is particularly true at the local level, where needs can be more concrete and people's knowledge about what decisions should be made is likely to be better than it is on national policy issues. Involving citizens more deeply also strengthens democracy, connects citizens better to officials and elected representatives, increases efficiency (in the sense of making better decisions that do not have to be undone later on), and most fundamentally leads to the delivery of services that more genuinely reflect what people need.

Participatory budgeting works by putting up a proportion of a local body's budget for new infrastructure spending and then asking residents to make trade-offs as to how that fund should be spent: more money for a new park means less money to be spent on street lighting improvements, for instance. This directly activates local knowledge and understanding of local needs. Deep engagement of residents, often numbering in the tens of thousands in moderate-sized cities, ensures the decisions have widespread support and perceived legitimacy. The expertise of public officials can be brought to bear by creating steps in the process where they comment on the technical feasibility of suggested spending.

Although participatory budgeting has (to my knowledge) never been used in a significant way in New Zealand, it is increasingly common – and highly successful – overseas. A recent report prepared for the Department of Internal Affairs, on participatory practices in local government, noted the Better Reykjavik initiative as an especially well-resourced, modern and thorough example of this mechanism. At the very least, central government should be empowering local councils to pilot participatory budgeting. This would have echoes of the UK central government's recent creation of a fund for local authorities to spend on running citizens' assemblies.

by maxrash on March 09, 2021 at 04:35PM

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  • Posted by stowellj March 11, 2021 at 11:24

    All forms of deliberative and participatory democracy are more time-consuming and expensive than our "traditional" ways of allowing the public to "have their say". You get what you pay for. Given the proven improvements in public attitudes and engagement which arise from participatory budgeting, the expense would seem well worth while.
  • Posted by stowellj March 11, 2021 at 13:11

    As part of civics, also addressed elsewhere on this site, a school trial of participatory budgeting could be set up and if it was a school with a good media programme (Western Springs in Auckland?) the making of a documentary following the process could be included and would then be available to boost the publicly available information on this form of participatory democracy.
  • Posted by Derek March 21, 2021 at 21:13

    There are potential benefits from participatory budgeting both in improved quality of decision making and improved legitimacy for those decision. But as other comments note participatory budgeting is more expensive and investing in some decent systematic evaluation of a pilot will add even more cost. Sounds like a good case for central government to enable a "participatory sandbox " and support it wth funding to cover the increased costs and investing in a systematic evaluation of the impact.
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