Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Generating expectations – A preview of Participatory Budgeting

Laura Sillanpää blogs about the Institute’s participatory budgeting research in the making.

The Finnish Institute commenced a research on participatory budgeting earlier this year. The purpose of the research is to examine the experiences of participatory budgeting in the United Kingdom and to contribute to the timely discussion on local democracy, public participation and service delivery in the context of Finnish society in particular. The purpose of this blog entry is to briefly explain readers what has been done until now and give a small peek on what interviewees of selected projects have revealed about participatory budgeting in the UK.

The ways in which participatory budgeting is implemented vary depending on the local context. Therefore the projects studied for this research easily fall into more than just one type of participatory budgeting.

Our initial objective was to find different implementations of participatory budgeting in as geographically representative a manner as possible. Tight schedules and changes to local government personnel, however, caused some difficulties with reaching representatives of projects. It also became evident that most of the participatory budgeting processes carried out in the UK with enough easily accessible information belonged to the community grants type. This led for the focus of the research to be on projects that are about allocating funds to local organisations and community groups.

Ultimately there were six projects under scrutiny. Three of the projects took place in the north of England, one in the Midlands and two in the south of England. As mentioned, most of the projects were community grants type processes but there were also a few that could be said to belong to the pooled budgets group. One project began as a top slicing project but was soon transformed into a community grants process. Three projects addressed a certain area of service, these being children and young people, health and community safety.

Seven representatives of the above-mentioned projects were interviewed: one from each with the exception of one project in the case of which two people were interviewed. Three interviews took place face-to-face, two over the phone and two via email. This all happened in the course of March–April.

Expectations of Participatory Budgeting


Participatory budgeting is commonly seen to generate many positive outcomes for communities, which also give rise to specific expectations.  The most often stated objectives according to literature are as follows:
  1. enhanced democracy and participation at the local level by engaging residents and enabling them to have a say
  2. reduced neighbourhood deprivation and enhanced social cohesion
  3. better, more transparent governance
  4. improved service delivery and enhanced quality of life in the communities especially during times of public budget cuts.

The reasons behind implementing participatory budgeting given by the interviewees reflect quite well the general, above-mentioned objectives. Involving and empowering local residents and communities and enhancing local democracy were clearly the most often mentioned. Other objectives were familiarising people with authorities and their work – especially with the difficulties of decision-making – and encouraging further engagement of local residents in other areas as well.

With time, as participatory budgeting processes become well established, the objectives seem to become more refined, as authorities already know what to expect. Therefore, as one interviewee put it, participatory budgeting for them has more of a signalling function and is less about pure service delivery – it gives the authorities an idea on what issues local residents consider important and what they’re interested in doing. And, according to preliminary analysis of the interviews, this seems to be one of the most valuable outcomes of participatory budgeting in general.

The final report of our research will be published later in June/July.

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