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Participatory budgeting – what does it involve?

02/10/2017

Fina Vieta Piferrer. Citizen Involvement Department. Lloret de Mar City Council.

The need to constantly improve the capacity and efficiency of decision-making in policy-making has led to the incorporation of new mechanisms and methodologies that encourage citizen involvement. Citizen involvement seen as deliberation, proposals and a very specific expression of direct democracy, thanks to which councils have been more open to listening to citizens’ demands.

Participatory budgeting is in turn a specific part of citizen involvement which, based on a certain methodology and design, aims to influence local public policy and the work of the municipal government. It influences a specific item of the council’s budget and a group of specific actions.

Participatory budgeting has great potential if we bear in mind that the budget is an extremely strategic tool for the council. It has the potential to facilitate not only citizen involvement but also other aspects relating to public affairs, to issues that concern residents of a certain area or neighbourhood, and therefore to encourage social and relational transformation across the municipality. This goal can be achieved by means of a set of proposals put forward by citizens after reflecting, deliberating and agreeing on them according to the main local needs.

The main feature, therefore, of involvement and participatory budgeting lies in the fact that it aims to create a sense of community, of social and territorial cohesion, a sense of belonging to an area or neighbourhood; to create spaces where people feel close, more empowered and more civic-minded. So now it’s not only about demanding what the council can do for citizens, but also about seeing what citizens can do for their own municipality or for their own neighbourhood.

Technology helps us to achieve these goals – there are platforms that encourage more qualitative and deliberative ways of working and give citizens the chance to empower a community of residents so they can be informed, debate, propose and make decisions regarding everything that concerns them.

Regarding quality, we should not measure the success of a process like participatory budgeting based on the number of people who take part or who turn up to vote. This is a very reductionist point of view and has nothing to do with processes like these or with what the results are going to be, or even with the idea of deliberative democracy. In this case we should not mistake a completely quantitative electoral turnout with involvement that is measured by quality, where citizens collectively reflect beforehand and this enriches the decision-making process.

Naturally, it is obvious that the number of participants (in assemblies, elections, etc.), of proposals made, etc. is important when evaluating the process, but this should not be the only indicator or the most important one. The evaluation of a process in terms of numbers undoubtedly risks leaving aside the quality of the way it functions and its results.

And also it is not about turning a project like participatory budgeting into something spectacular or an isolated novelty in the political life of a town and therefore lacking continuity. Rather, it should be an ongoing task that is planned and that works constantly to generate synergies in the community and social transformation as a catalyst of processes of social inclusion and collective and territorial policy, always believing that through deliberation and involvement we will achieve this way of understanding public administration.

 

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