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Participatory Budgeting

There has rarely been so much public attention and interest in how public money is spent. The economic crisis has brought this to a head. National and local government are increasingly making details of their expenditure available online in the name of “transparency”. Surveys consistently show that people want more of a say on how public money is spent, especially in an era of budget cuts. The logic of giving local citizens and those who use particular services more of a say about how budgets are allocated is compelling.

Participatory Budgeting (or PB for short !) is when local people or service users decide directly how to spend a proportion of a public service budget. We are not talking here about a committee deciding, but people making choices and their votes determining how money is allocated. In the words of one participant at a PB event: “If it feels like we decide, its PB, if they decide, it’s not”. PB relies on local people using their common sense and knowledge about their local area or service to make choices about how money is spent.

Unlike “consultations” or many other forms of “engagement”, PB makes people feel as if they really have made a difference. They have decided something and something changes as a result – a project gets funded, money is redirected to a different priority. They can see the difference literally happening in front of them. Experience here and abroad shows that PB tends to make people more inclined to trust the public body on other areas of participation, and even to make them more likely to get involved in traditional democratic processes like voting.

PB can be used to decide how to allocate local neighbourhood money, budgets for a particular service or even how to prioritise services and projects across mainstream budgets. There are now hundreds of public services (parish and other councils, police forces, health bodies and fire services) in the UK who have successfully used PB. Most start with smaller budgets and build up over time the skills, resources and trust to use PB for larger budgets. There is every indication that the demand for PB will continue to grow.

Governance International is grateful to Davy Jones for this outline of participatory budgeting. Davy Jones is an Associate of the PB Unit in the UK and has delivered a wide range of PB briefings and training courses with Governance International.

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For a visual explanation of what PB entails have a look at this video (which is part of a series) about a PB project in Bradford.

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