Today, about 11,000 cities around the world regularly conduct participatory budgeting – a special form of budget planning where citizens decide how to spend municipal money. This type of budgeting is relatively new – the first session took place in 1989 in Brazil.
The reason why this initiative has spread so widely is rather simple. It gives people an opportunity to directly affect the matters that worry them most – for example, they can choose to build a road to a hard-to-reach district, or set up a park to make a ‘concrete jungle’ a more pleasant place.
The main benefit of this approach is that it allows citizens to direct attention to the pain points that most affect their lives. So, it is no surprise that participatory budgeting can drive meaningful change. For example, analysis has revealed that there is a 20% decline in infant mortality within Brazilian regions that have used participatory budgeting for more than eight years.
Typically, participatory budgeting consists of three main steps: planning the initiatives, voting and, finally, implementing developments that were chosen by the majority of citizens. The first two steps need thorough organisation so that any new projects will change people's lives for the better.
Before voting happens, it is necessary to develop a list of citizen and regional needs - for example, a new park or a traffic light on a busy road. Sometimes, local authorities think that they can brainstorm a number of initiatives and then present them to the public. However, this approach discredits the concept of participatory budgeting, which is intended to find out what citizens need by asking them directly.
So it is essential that the community is engaged at the preparation stage. To enable this, local authorities need to decide on the best way for citizens to submit their ideas. In our experience, the optimal choice here is to launch a web portal where everyone can share what improvements they would like to see. The additional benefit of such an approach is transparency, as it ensures that peoples demands and priorities are reviewed, which increases trust in the whole participatory budgeting process.
However, simply having an online portal is not enough. After local authorities rework the suggestions into relevant proposals, we recommend to schedule a meeting, where citizens can discuss, comment and add any details that were missed. This guarantees that the final proposals will reflect community expectations.
Who can vote
To determine the voting process, officials need to develop associated procedures and rules. This includes defining how many projects will come to life, how to divide money between them, where and when people can vote, and also to decide who can vote - which is not an easy question to answer in all cases.
In elections, it is strictly regulated who can take part. From our experience, many local authorities would like to apply these same formal rules to participatory budgeting, but best practice suggests not to limit the scope of people who choose how to spend public money. For example, people who are younger than a certain age usually don’t have a right to vote. Some educational institutions may introduce their own participatory budgeting process though, giving pupils the opportunity to spend money on what they like. It’s a great option, but the chosen improvements can only be made inside a school perimeter. Nonetheless, children and teenagers don’t only study, they also need facilities where they can spend their spare time, and participatory budgeting allows them to express their needs by voting for new infrastructure, like a playground or skate park.
Also, for city- or region-wide projects, authorities would typically only allow people to vote in a district if they are registered there. This excludes people who live in the area, but aren’t registered to vote or those who just have moved to another district but still feel a connection with where they used to live. Moreover, many citizens live and work in two different districts, so they are often interested in improvements in both areas. In fact, people are not likely to abuse the opportunity for several votes as they understand the importance of participatory budgeting. Indeed, statistics from those who have used Polys - a blockchain-based online platform - revealed that on average about half of citizens choose two projects, while the rest vote once.
How to orchestrate voting
After officials come up with the rules, it’s time to organise the voting itself. Traditionally, there are two major ways for people to cast their votes – either at a meeting or through paper balloting.
The benefit of the first one is time, as it only takes a couple of hours to come up with changes that suit the majority. An issue here though is the ‘show of hands’ method – if people can see how others vote, they are likely to change their mind and choose the same option as fellow citizens who raise their hands first. But the most important disadvantage of this approach is the number of people who can participate in the discussion, which is limited by room capacity. For example, in 2019 we supported participatory budgeting in the Volgograd region (Russia) where more than 80,000 people took part. Despite already having such budget planning in place, only 200 people used to attend these meetings.
Voting using paper ballots can resolve these issues – everybody can visit a voting station and cast a vote. It also guarantees that nobody can see what options a certain person chose. However, paper balloting introduces other obstacles. Local authorities need to hire observers and volunteers to manage the process at polling stations and count votes. While it might not be an issue for small communities, participatory budgeting in large cities and even whole region requires a significant number of staff. The process might also not be convenient for citizens, as some of them don’t want to spend their time visiting a polling station.
To resolve these issues, some areas have moved to online voting services, as this allows people to vote from any device in any location they prefer. However, this method also has some barriers that may affect people’s ability to vote. Firstly, some local authorities want to implement strong authentication, for example, through public services portals. This may decrease turnout as some people are not registered on such web services. Instead, we recommend using SMS authentication (where a person receives a message on his or her phone with a special code to enter on a portal), as it helps to avoid votes cast by bots. In addition, security measures are also needed to distinguish and protect from malicious traffic.
Secondly, it is also important to provide a way for those who are not confident in using devices to vote using this method. We recommend that organisers do not mix paper and online voting, as it introduces the risk of vote rigging and makes it difficult to count votes. Instead, it may help to organise several voting stations with devices and assistants who can explain how to use the solution. And, of course, it is preferable to use an intuitive interface to make the process easier.
There isn’t a silver-bullet solution that fits every community, as people have different demands and habits. So, when officials decide to implement a participatory budgeting process it’s important to consider local specific needs, and consider rules and ways that allow the majority of citizens to express their opinion. Only then will the process bring successful results and improve a community’s wellbeing.
Evgeny Barkov is business development manager at Polys