Participatory budgets

Participatory Budgets - the best tool towards direct democracy

(From Xàbia al Dia Propuesto particip
February 17th 2012

an article written by Guiomar Ramirez-Montesinos. This translation by Chris Betterton-Jones

In a world where people are increasingly critical of their politicians and feel underrepresented, direct democracy and citizen participation are seen as the only possible future. Today, Participatory budgets seem to be the best tool to move in this direction..

Fran Francés , expert on Participatory Budgeting and Professor of Sociology at the University of Alicante, is a specialist in researching participation and local management. He told the audience at the Casa de Cultura what a Participatory Budget is and how it can be realised.

Francés works for the  Interuniversity Institute for Development and Peace  following various lines of research into participatory methodologies. He has also undertaken the coordination of participatory budgeting in several municipalities such as  Villena , Petrel  and  Novelda , getting an award from the Regional Ministry of Solidarity and Citizenship  in January 2011 for the latter. He has advised Elche on its budgets and has written several articles and books on the subject, besides taking part in national and international projects.

Francés explained that there are three elements that characterize the participatory process:

  • Firstly: inclusiveness , that is, any resident can take part even at the individual level;
  • Secondly: intensity , that is the greater involvement of citizens to debate, negotiate and make binding decisions,
  • Thirdly: influence , which means that the decisions made by the people are binding.

There are many ways of getting people to participate, ranging from the forum of Agenda 21 to teledemocracy (democracy at a distance e.g. using the internet), but so far, experience has shown that the development of participatory budgeting is the method that best guarantees the inclusiveness, intensity and influence of the people.

A tool for participation and municipal management
But what exactly is a participatory budget? Francés defined it as: "a tool for participation and management of the town, through which the citizen decides on a portion of public expenditure." The proportion of the municipal budget allocated for discussion by residents depends on each municipality.

Participatory Budgeting in Spain has been developed over the past 10 years. First was an Andalucian town and now the practice has spread to nearly 70 municipalities of all sizes across the country, but mainly along the Mediterranean coast.

In cities between 10 000 and 50 000 inhabitants, it is normal to allocate on average 1.90% of the municipal revenue to a participatory budget. Last November, the citizens of Xàbia were able to vote on a preset list of projects making up €400,000, representing some 0.8% of the money in the municipal coffers in 2012.

Mayor José Chulvi , and the Councillor for Citizen Participation, Cesc Camprubí, explained that this is not exactly how the government team wanted to develop participatory budgets , but it was all they could do in the short time they had had after being elected. So this year they had decided to start the project earlier, with the idea of presenting the budget in October.

Discussion and consensus
Creating a Participatory Budget goes far beyond mere consultation. Francés reiterated that  deliberation and debate are the most important parts of the whole process . One person may think that what affects him directly is the most pressing issue to be solved, however, once he hears and understands the circumstances of his fellow citizens, he can begin to appreciate the relative importance of his problem within the context of the municipality as a whole. This helps to promote solidarity and reduce social inequality .

The development of a Participatory Budget also promotes the Town Hall's transparency while at the same time making citizens more aware of the realities of administration and more responsible of their personal social role. In short, when creating a participatory budget, the role of politicians and citizens switches.

If all this sounds familiar and similar to ideas that have already been worked on within the Xàbia citizen's forum (Agenda21 L), it is because ultimately we are talking about obne more process of participatory democracy. Francés emphasised that it is important that the various other participatory initiatives undertaken (e.g. Agenda21, Strategic Plan) should be tied up with the Partcipatory Budget.

This process also requires a clear political will i.e. a municipal commitment. It needs a Town Hall which must be open and willing to allow  residents to make decisions which are binding and commit to greater transparency concerning municipal accounts . Also, the administration has to facilitate the implementation of the system and encourage its dissemination.

Models of participation
Information on the needs and desires of citizens needs to be gathered. Francés summarised three different models of participation.

1. The Administrative model , in which all residents can contribute their ideas individually, after which the administration itself compiles the information and makes the decisions. There is no debate and citizen participation is limited to a sort of idea bank . Some of the municipalities which have adopted this model are Malaga, Tudela, Castellón, Pamplona and Segovia .

2. The Representative model in which citizens are represented through their associations. There is much debate and decisions are made ​​by consensus , producing a list of actions to execute. This model has been developed in the municipalities of Castilla-La Mancha ,  Albacete and Almansa . It runs the risk that sometimes associations are not informed of all discussions and conclusions. (Associations decide and there's no need to take individuals into account. CB-J)

3. The Participatory model , in which any individual can go to the forums. This system may be a better example of direct democracy, however, discussions tends to be poor and more disorganized.

The last two formats have been used during the eight years that the participatory process has been developing in Xàbia. However discussion has not always been important enough, and has also been limited to decisions made by majority vote through a show of hands. This has been to the detriment of consensus which can only be reached by long debate and a good mediation job.

An interesting alternative to choosing by voting is to create criteria for "distributive justice" (the fair allocation of resources among diverse members of a community) . In this case actions are not chosen directly, but instead various proposals are assessed according to the extent that they meet a set of criteria established by the people. e.g. sustainability , which benefits a majority of the population, and which helps coexistence.

Another factor to consider is which types of spending should fall within a participatory budget . Elsewhere, emblematic or expensive works are rarely included. Usually people discuss small investments to improve the community, sports, cultural, and tourism programmes and even the procurement of municipal services.

However there is no unique method to follow, and no set formula. Neither should anyone copy exactly what has been done in another town of similar size, because each town is different and has its own peculiarities. Still, it is important to draw on the experiences of other municipalities and learn from their mistakes. It is also essential that the people should be well informed and that their expectations are realistic, because this will determine the sense of satisfaction once the results are known.

Finally, Francés warned that no participatory process is a one-off. It is a process that must continue over time, although it is true that it is subject to political will, and will often be abandoned with a change of government. However, citizen participation, despite being a political process should not subject to partisan electoral whims.

Citizen participation was introduced in Xàbia eight years ago, and although its department stood up for the process, the rest of the Town Hall did not seem much interested in it. In the mean time the government has changed several times until now the people have elected a team which fully believes in the importance of an open government which is more transparent and which involves citizen participation.

The mayor of Javea, Joseph Chulvi , insisted that there is a clear political will to involve citizens, and gave as examples the creation of consultative councils, the continuation of Agenda 21 as a forum where citizens can go individually, the development of the Strategic Plan and the development of Participatory Budgeting . The mayor emphasised that the entire council , including the opposition, is involved in the process.


Javea Local Council is committed to participatory budgeting

An expert gives advice to the municipality on how to initiate this new means of participatory democracy

Javea. Thursday, February 16, 2012.

The Department of Citizen Participation of Javea has started the process of genuine participatory budgeting for 2013. Councillor Cesc Camprubi explained that after the citizens of Javea were able to vote on a pre-set list of projects to be included in the accounts of 2012, the local Executive made the commitment to go one step further and create mechanisms to allow the citizens themselves to put forth the suggestions of the projects they want included in the Town Hall budget. To do this, they must make an early start and look to other municipalities for examples. To this end, the sociologist Francisco Francés, with vast experience in this field, was invited to speak on the evening of Wednesday 15th February.

Frances started his talk by putting forward the growing social demand for more mechanisms for public participation, more opportunities for expressing public views and more politicians taking their proposals into account when making their decisions.

In the opinion of this expert, of the different instruments available for public participation, participatory budgeting has proven to have the most successful, as it fulfils the three premises of participatory democracy: inclusiveness (participation is open to anyone, even those not entitled to vote), intensity (generating debate and concrete proposals) and influence (the proposals are increasingly are more binding for politicians).

According to Frances, participatory budgeting is a good way for the citizens to propose infrastructure or services and also a good way for politicians to sound out which of these proposals are more important to the citizenship. Consequently, they provide a working guideline for deciding in what to invest part of the municipal resources.

This instrument also contributes to a more positive relationship between the politicians and the citizens they represent, who now perceive themselves as having influence in public decision-making. In addition to improving transparency by making local government spending public, it helps citizens to better understand the functions of the Town Hall and its limitations, encourages collective deliberation as well as solidarity, because when you compare your ideas with your those of your fellow neighbour, you realize that your needs are not such a priority after all.

The expert then went through all the steps that need to be followed in order to create the basis for this mechanism. First we will have to decide what percentage of the budget is to be reserved for decision-making by the people. Next, establish the rules regarding who participates and how (online or face-to-face forums), who is represented (neighbourhoods or groups). Finally, define the roles of the Town Hall managers and technical staff who will be needed to provide reports about the viability of the proposals.

The sociologist pointed out that in general terms, participatory budgets decide on small investments or services to be offered, and not on projects requiring year-to-year investments. He also stated that a municipality the size of Javea should ideally involve 2.4 % of the population in the process, a figure which the Town Council should try hard to achieve.

Closing the meeting, the Mayor of Javea, Jose Chulvi, insisted on the will of the Executive to build the bridges to public participation, whilst assuring the public that this new channel would interact and operate jointly with the Advisory Councils and Forums set up for the Strategic Plan.

PRESS RELEASE Announcing the talk

Javea Town Hall to make future budgets more participatory

A specialist will outline the methods next Wednesday, 15th February

Javea. Wednesday, 8th February 2012.

Javea Town Hall's Department of Citizens Participation has organised an informative meeting on Wednesday February 15th to explain the participatory budget process whereby the citizens decide on the allocation of money in a portion of the future budgets.

The conference, where methods and experiences will be outlined, will begin at 8.00 pm in the Casa de Cultura and all those concerned about their town and eager to become involved in decisions on municipal projects are welcome. The speaker will be Francisco José Francés Garcia, professor of Sociology at the University of Alicante and a specialist in participatory research and local management. Last year, for the first time ever, the local council set aside a portion of the budget for citizen participation. However, due to a lack of time, members of the public chose from a list of projects via a simple vote at an Agenda21 meeting. Councillor Cesc Camprubi, heading the department, wants to develop a more open and representative system. He explained that this first conference is to be an introduction to the procedure involved in a participatory budget process.

The speaker, Sociologist Francisco Francés García, is a specialist and researcher in citizen participation and local management. He is a fellow of the Inter-university Institute for Peace and Development, where he has been developing lines of research on participatory methodologies. He has carried out the coordination of participatory budgeting in several municipalities such as Villena, Petrer and Novelda, the latter receiving an award from the Regional Ministry of Solidarity and Citizenship in January 2011. He has also acted as an advisor to Elche and has written several articles and books on the subject. Francisco Francés García also participates in several national and international projects on participatory democracy and participatory budgets.

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