Turnout at the 2012 council elections was a paltry 32%, and in Wales almost 100 councillors were elected unopposed. During a time when the naked power of democracy to inspire people is being demonstrated on a profound scale in the Middle East, British leaders should be seeking to re-energise our representative institutions and engage people in the governance of their localities. Participatory Budgeting (PB) is an innovative tool with which to achieve this.
PB offers citizens the chance to get involved in allocating part of their council’s spending, allowing the people that consume public services and use public spaces to actively shape them.
In the UK, PB is only 10 years old, but the idea has an impressive international pedigree, stretching back to the early days of Brazilian democracy in the 1980s. The last Labour government recognised PB as a powerful tool to facilitate the new constitutional settlement it sought, following on from the success of devolution and the humbling of the House of Lords. Under Labour, over 150 communities experimented with PB, with great success.
Today, the Coalitions’ rhetoric on the ‘Big Society’ suggests that conditions are ripe for PB to become mainstream. The Open Public Budgets white paper and experiments with community and neighbourhood budgeting offers PB a real opportunity to become a stalwart feature of all local public sector budgeting cycles.
Why should progressives embrace Participatory Budgeting? First of all, it can be used to create the more open and dynamic society that allows progressive ideas to grow and flourish. Permitting residents a say in how their taxes are spent and what the priorities of their community should be helps dispel the illusion that government is an impregnable entity alien to the experiences of everyday life. By making government more porous, we make it more likely that citizens will take initiative to shape it from the inside.
Second of all, it can nurture a more inclusive form of local democracy that goes beyond the simple box-ticking of elections and referenda. PB has been trialled in Tower Hamlets, London, for two years now, and 62.2% of attendees felt that the process helped strengthen their level of influence over local services.
This sense of empowerment is the secret to a revitalised democracy. Marc Stears, in an essay for the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), claims that the success of a new kind of ‘Everyday Democracy’ rests on the extent to which decisions made by local groupings are properly enforced. Participatory Budgeting that is truly democratic, properly deliberated, and assessed by the maximum number of local people possible, has the effect of channelling significant power away from municipal offices and into the hands of the everyman and woman on the street. This in turn strengthens people’s faith in democracy- and local democracy in particular- to affect real change.
“For a relationship to count as truly democratic,” Stears explains, “people must come together in ways that enable some form of action that would not otherwise have occurred, in pursuit of common goals that otherwise could not have been achieved.”
Participatroy Budgeting has the ability to both enable these actions and clarify these goals for citizens and councillors alike.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog