Participatory budgeting provides an opportunity for citizens to engage in processes of deliberation upon the allocation of public funds. But does it work? Catherine Wilkinson, Emma Flynn, John Vines, Jo Briggs, Karen Salt argue that increasing the perceived accessibility, and reconsidering the inclusion of mass membership groups in the process, might help to create more effective and trustful participation.
Participatory Budgeting (PB) has become a popular approach for supporting local democracy through promoting the involvement of citizens in determining the allocation of public budgets. First developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil during the 1980s as a mechanism to redistribute power within underprivileged communities, PB has been adapted in many other nations. In the United Kingdom, PB was introduced by the Labour government in the early 2000s and has since become an important tool of successive governments.
Trust and participation in political processes are intimately entwined. A lack of trust between citizenry and public officials might lead to ambivalence towards participating in democratic processes. Yet mistrust might also promote healthy skepticism and stimulate political involvement. In the specific instance of PB, its origins in Porto Alegre were a response to deep mistrust from citizens towards local and national government. However, there remains a limited understanding of the role trust plays in PB processes, the impact that PB might have on trust between citizens, public officials, governmental institutions, and between groups of community members.
We examined these issues through participant observation at three participatory budgeting events and an analysis of 27 interviews conducted with citizens and staff of a local government authority in County Durham, UK, where PB has been used extensively since 2009. Our findings highlight that trust in local government, like national government, is multifaceted and complex. None of our participants stated a wholehearted trust or mistrust of the PB activities; and indeed, mistrust can be productive in promoting engagement in political and civic activity.
However, in our data, for many participants, a lack of trust in the process and by association the groups and citizens involved in it, fueled negative sentiments around the value of PB. Notably, in some cases mistrust was founded in rumor and misinformation; however, these would be backed up by experiences certain participants had around being excluded or poorly served by PB processes, with evident processes affirming pre-existing misgivings. Moreover, the perceived and actual ambiguities in the process – such as how bidding parties were checked, or how eligibility to vote is determined – fueled concerns further. Greater clarity and consistency around these procedures might go some way to instilling greater trust in the process, or at least ensuring ‘healthy skepticism’ does not lead to complete disengagement from PB.
While ambiguities in the process might be considered issues pertaining to institutional trust, there was also significant mistrust from institutions towards citizenry. Adaptations to the PB voting process – such as incorporating a three-vote rule (to deter voters from solely voting for a project they are affiliated with) – highlighted a lack of trust in citizens making judgements around voting that go beyond a preference for causes they are personally or organizationally aligned with. While this might at some level be seen as an example of governing institutions having a lack of trust in those that are governed in making informed decisions, it was clear from our research that these practices did occur. Furthermore, where groups had their members, relatives, and close social relations vote for them, the result was inter-group and interpersonal mistrust among citizens.
Our findings highlighted how participant self-interest can lead to a strong sense of injustice by smaller groups bidding for limited PB funds. Establishing more elaborate voting protocols could go some way towards remedying these issues; but as our findings noted do not resolve them completely. Furthermore, the indication from some participants is that, no matter what rules are established for voting, there will always be mistrust around the local people putting aside their biases to vote for the “worthiest” cause. Fundamentally, there is a lack of public and meaningful deliberation over the causes being voted on.
The issues of mistrust in the process were, in part, a result of the competitive aspects of PB. The origins of PB in Porto Alegre placed emphasis on public assemblies where priorities around the allocation of significant amounts of public funds were debated, discussed and decided on. The PB process observed here was rather different, inasmuch as it focused not just on the devolving of decision-making around public fund allocation to local citizens, but the proposers of how to spend those funds were also members of that community. The process itself unavoidably leads members of a local community working against one-another in order to successfully win a vote. Moreover, their competitiveness was over increasingly scarce resources and relatively small amount of money which, during a period of ‘austerity politics’ , could be seen as a way of scaffolding the community and voluntary sector to fulfill roles that were previously funded by the state or the public sector. In many respects, our findings highlighted that mistrust in PB came from mistrust of the tactics and strategies other groups used, and from pluralistic notions of a “good cause” and what it means to do “social good”.
Finally, ideas around what was seen to be a worthy cause were tied to issues of diversity and inclusivity. Our findings highlighted the ways in which organisers of PB activities attempted to make them accessible to diverse members of the public. There was pride from council staff around how they had ensured venues were physically accessible, had provided transport for rural or isolated citizens, and had seen more than the ‘usual suspects’ participate in bidding, and voting, for PB projects. Yet there were clear tensions around these conceptualisations of access and the perception of PB being an accessible process. People may feel excluded by PB due to historical conflicts and disagreements with public institutions or other community members, or if there is a perceived lack of support for people with certain communication abilities or cognitive impairments, or if the times for marketplace events and voting make it impossible to attend. Furthermore, some people clearly still see PB, and the types of projects that are funded, as ‘not for them’; perceptions that are reinforced when they see groups associated with well-resourced institutions or national charities succeed to the detriment of smaller or more marginalized groups.
It appears that addressing the question of who benefits from PB, why they should benefit, and how, is critical for citizens to ensuring the process is fair, just and worthy of giving their time to and granting their trust in.
Note: the above draws on the authors’ published work in Local Government Studies.
Catherine Wilkinson Senior Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University.
Emma Flynn is Professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise at Queen’s University Belfast.
John Vines is Professor at Northumbria University.
Jo Briggs is Associate Professor at Northumbria University.
Karen Salt is Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham.
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