Asked once at a political job interview what I understood by the term “big society”, I had to admit to only a vague idea of something to do with David Cameron spouting on about local government. And it is not just me. When it comes to anything involving terms such as ‘devolution’, ‘separatism’, ‘localism’ as well as the dreaded ‘Big Society’ - no-one else seems to have much of a clue either.
Thousands of political anoraks out there are happily satisfied by daily helpings of scandal, rumour and intrigue emanating from the Westminster bubble. Westminster news, however, is little concerned with how the UK is run, or how it should be run. Turn the conversation towards local government policies, and knowledge and interest of what it does and how it works is scant.
Participatory budgeting is one example of a local government policy that few have heard of and fewer understand. A straw poll of politically-switched on people draws blank stares on this subject, despite it being so important to their local councils. The same such people will vociferously debate every inch of the national government’s budget.
So what exactly is participatory budgeting (PB)? The Labour government in 2008 published a pamphlet with an explanation that was long, wordy and used the word “engage” about 37 times too often, while the Conservatives have so far produced nothing at all by way of explanation. PB is where local ‘normal’ people decide how to allocate part of a public budget. It is not a consultation where decisions have already been made, but a proper investment of power in those that are directly affected by said budget, with the power invested right at the beginning of the decision-making process.
This all sounds great, and presumably exactly what we should be striving towards in a free and democratic society. So why aren’t we all at it? The independent and volunteer-led PB Network, PB Partners and Action for Poverty run clear websites which detail case studies that have had success in implementing PB. These range from local environmental issues to local policing budgets and community facilities. But it doesn’t matter how slick their message is if no one sees it.
One of the most successful initiatives is run by Newcastle City Council, who have rebranded PB with the catchy title ‘Udecide’, designed perhaps to target the younger generation less inclined to get involved in local government. They’ve run 24 projects where locals have bidded, commissioned and decided budgets in relation to children’s services, public open spaces and neighbourhood alcohol initiatives. But even with awards coming thick and fast for this initiative, the council still concedes that Udecide remains ‘in development’, eight years on from its inception.
In the 2008 consultation, Labour stated that by 2012 PB should be used in all local authorities. A change of government in 2010 should not have prevented this as PB slots neatly into the Conservatives’ localism agenda and their attempts to create a ‘big society’. Despite Eric Pickles’ championing of communities deciding how to spend their own money, many of those authorities that originally implemented PB, apparently successfully, are now increasingly left to fend for themselves as it becomes just another discretionary council project.
The reasons for the difficulties seem straightforward. PB, as with many long-term local government projects, is not a headline grabber. Despite their importance, such policies are electorally expedient and get lost, moved on, or swallowed up by short-term developments. In an electoral democracy, politicians on either side of the divide will have their eye on the next election. The deluge of management jargon does not help; phrases such as “help facilitate empowerment” and “spread of best practice” send people running for the hills. Then there is the cynicism that purports to see PB as an attempt to mask wider public sector cuts.
PB only works through its reliance on volunteers - not only those in the community who will make the decisions needed, but also volunteers to spread the message - the PB Network is guided by a completely voluntary advisory group. Such volunteering is a problem when people are busier than ever but equally the fact that this scheme does cost next to nothing is a huge advantage in today’s cash-strapped world.
PB is a policy with huge potential, but it needs a proper nudge to transform it from a great idea to a mainstream policy. Showing that they can stick to budgets is a constant thorn in Labour’s side - pushing through an inexpensive but worthwhile measure like this should be a natural priority. PB can flourish. If it does, it will be an example of local democracy at its best.