Participatory Budgeting: It's not what you do - it's how you do it - RSA

Participatory budgeting - it's not what you do, it's how you do it


  • Picture of Reema Patel
    Research Director and Head of Deliberative Engagement, Ipsos
  • Economic democracy
  • Economics and Finance

The RSA's Citizens' Economic Council recently attended the Scottish government's international conference on participatory budgeting - sharing and exploring best practice in democratic innovations from across the world. In some reflections Reema Patel argues that delivering a high quality, effective and meaningful participatory budgeting process is of the utmost importance - it's not just what you do but also how you do it.

 The RSA Citizens’ Economic Council recently attended an international conference, convened by the Scottish Government, of practitioners, policymakers and academics to explore the future potential for participatory budgeting.

What is it and why now? 

Participatory budgeting itself is defined as,

a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, and a type of participatory democracy, in which ordinary people decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget.

The conversation comes at a timely moment nationally. With the Scottish National Party (SNP) in Scotland indicating interest in democratic innovations, local councils such as Edinburgh City Council experimenting with participatory budgeting; and with new Mayors due to take the helm across a number of combined authority regions in England, we are increasingly beginning to see appetite in engaging citizens in dialogue and deliberation about local economic priorities - as well as making decisions about funding priorities with a budget.

Participatory budgeting presents the opportunity for elected representatives to work more closely and collaboratively with citizens to develop new and innovative solutions to economic policy, and in handing over money as well as responsibility to citizens to vote on such models.

It is gaining ground and popularity as a way to reconnect citizens with democracy, particularly local democracy. In a recent Guardian article, political commentator Paul Mason called for Andy Burnham MP, Labour’s candidate to be metro mayor of Greater Manchester, to adopt participatory democracy.

The conversation about participatory budgeting also comes at a timely moment internationally – just two weeks ago Portugal announced the world’s first participatory budget on a national scale. This is not surprising given that participatory budgeting has fast become a movement across the globe – having been adopted by cities such as New York, (championed by progressive mayor Bill de Blasio), Toronto, Paris and Seville.

Reconnecting citizens and rebuilding legitimacy

Core to its promise and offer is this - through creating opportunities for shared power and governance, it seeks to rebuild legitimacy and engagement in local democracy and representative politics. Participatory budgeting is now increasingly being seen by politicians as having the capacity to strengthen both engagement and political legitimacy.

Participatory budgeting is not a new phenomenon when viewed through an international lens. We have described the success of participatory budgeting in securing better social outcomes (from transport to waste management) in Porto Alegre, Brazil (in place since 1987) in our prospectus, ‘Economics for Everyone’ – there is substantial evidence gathered by the World Bank demonstrating the positive developmental outcomes that have followed.

There is also emerging evidence which also confirms this phenomenon in New York City, a different environment altogether. As a practice, participatory budgeting has also been nominated by both the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme as a ‘best practice’ for democratic innovation.

It’s in the way you do it – dialogue and deliberation

But, as Dr Oliver Escobar, Director of Scotland’s ‘What Works Centre’, illustrated at the Scottish government conference off the back of his recently published review of participatory budgeting in Scotland, we would make a mistake to conflate the method itself (participatory budgeting) with a high quality process.

For participatory budgeting to work as effectively as it can – it must have the principles of deliberation and dialogue at its core. 

The more widespread a practice participatory budgeting becomes, democracy practitioners must ensure that they are clear on what a good participatory budgeting process might look like, creating more space for dialogue and deliberation; and be upfront about failed ones too.

What matters most isn’t the ability of citizens to determine, shape and spend part of an area’s budget – but rather, the way they go about doing so. Effective deliberative participatory budgeting processes have allowed citizens to understand the needs of other areas and individuals as much as their own, and to think about how to create a better, more inclusive local economy, not just for themselves but for everyone.

Participatory budgeting has shown itself capable of having unintended, but positive, transformative effects on human relationships and flourishing. For example, at the conference we heard from Pauline Veron, Deputy Mayor of Paris, about their pilots of participatory budgeting – where 83% of schools in Paris were involved in the participatory budgeting process, and schoolchildren were able to have their say about the expenditure of 10 million euros.

We also heard from Oxford PhD researcher Diana Dajek about the way in which participatory budgeting processes have been at the core of conflict resolution negotiations and peacebuilding initiatives in Colombia.

And at our own session which the RSA Citizens’ Economic Council facilitated on international learning about democratic innovations on the following day with the UK Participatory Budgeting Network, we heard about the importance of giving participants time to come to conclusions, the importance of them being given information and knowledge to be genuinely creative about shaping new solutions to identified problems and the importance of engaging as broad a range of stakeholders in and through the process so that people were listened to and that the engagement was meaningful. We also heard about the crucial importance of creating safe spaces for participants, and about the value of the process itself, as well as the outcomes from the process.

A new deal for citizens

A properly deliberative process urges people to educate themselves, to build their ability to consider and make decisions, as well as to understand other values and perspectives. It enables people to understand and engage directly with trade-offs – and it teaches compromise.

These aren’t just transformative for citizens either – they are transformative for policymakers, who understand better how to make early, informed decisions in tune with citizen perspectives and who build their own capacity to negotiate diverse values and perspectives. They also build better and more trusted relationships with those they seek to represent.

In this respect, participatory budgeting with meaningful deliberation at its core could well be the next step for deepening citizen engagement at various levels in government policy, and for presenting a refreshing new deal for citizens in the post-Brexit environment.

Might it be time, quite literally, for UK politicians to put their money where their mouth is? We hope so - but, we urge some caution alongside the newfound optimism. After all, with participatory budgeting, it isn't just what you do, it's how you do it.

Find out more about the RSA Citizens' Economic Council

Reema Patel is Programme Manager for the RSA’s Citizens Economic Council, tasked with engaging members of the public in a deliberative and informed conversation about the future of an economy.


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  • Participatory Budgeting - It's Not What You Do, It's How You Do It

    Reema Patel

    The RSA's Citizens' Economic Council recently attended the Scottish government's international conference on participatory budgeting - sharing and exploring best practice in democratic innovations from across the world. The following week, Portugal announced the world's first ever national participatory budget and election candidates for combined authorities in the UK saw calls in the media to commit to participatory democracy. Reema Patel argues that delivering a high quality, effective and meaningful participatory budgeting process is of the utmost importance - it's not just what you do but also how you do it.