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Radical innovation or technical fix?Participatory Budgeting in the UK how Latin American participatory traditions are reinterpreted in the British context.
This paper explores what happens to Latin American models such as Participatory Budgeting when transplanted from their native context to the UK, drawing on fieldwork with an LSP-led participatory budgeting pilot, carried out as part of a two-year research project: Municipal Innovations in Non-Governmental Public Participation: UK/Latin America.(1) In Brazil, participatory budgeting grew out of a particular social, political and ideological context, led by a grassroots impetus for greater participation. In this paper, I ask whether such processes are being seen in the UK as a ‘technical fix’ to the problems of a moribund representative democracy. However, it is worth asking whether such processes can have the same impact when separated from their native context. In the UK the contested role and autonomy of the voluntary and community sector (in particular as it negotiates the impetus away from advocacy and towards service delivery), the collapse of the Left, and changing notions of poverty, all shape attempts to address poverty, exclusion and conflict through Latin American-inspired models of community engagement. I ask what difference these different contexts make to Latin American ideas in the UK.Introduction
Interest in participatory methodologies for engaging citizens in decision-making appears to be at an unprecedented level in the UK. And it is not just about how widespread interest is, but who is interested. The bastions of representative democracy are being opened up, and the masses are being invited in. Or, of course, perhaps not. But whatever your view on how meaningful this new epoch of participation is, the landscape has undeniably changed. This is the era of Blunkett’s ‘active citizens’ and ‘double devolution’ not just to communities but to the individual level through the ‘choice’ agenda (Miliband, 2006). New Labour has introduced language that at least creates the expectation that decision-making should meaningfully occur at a level below elected representatives.
It seems clear that this higher profile for citizen engagement in decision-making is rooted in the perceived crisis of representative democracy (most clearly evidenced through the findings of the Power Inquiry, 2006). Some activists and practitioners look to Latin America for answers, where a long history of social mobilisation has more recently been able to open up real opportunities for engagement with the state. Participatory Budgeting in Brazil is a notable example of this, most famously in Porto Alegre, though the system has also been implemented in many other places. Under this system, the city’s neighbourhoods collectively develop budget proposals for the municipal investment plan, which are debated by the administration and the people. The investment plan usually reflects about 40% of the people’s proposals. This system has resulted in real improvements in the living conditions of many of the poorest people in the area (Hall, 2005a:13).
In the UK, many feel that our traditional form of representative democracy is now failing to deliver such clear improvements. Increasingly, given falling voter numbers (Clarke, 2002:13-21), this system does not even deliver an unequivocal mandate. It is hardly surprising then that there is growing interest in a method that might reverse this trend, and – more than that – really deliver on the promises of ‘neighbourhood renewal’ and regeneration for the poorest areas.
But can a ‘technique’ really do this? Is it possible to transplant a political method from Brazil and expect it to deliver in the same way here? There are many critics of the modern project to ‘spread’ representative democracy around the world – to implant it, as in Iraq and, less recently, Latin America itself, without sufficient reference to local conceptualisations of democracy or local political contexts (Avritzer, 2002). Perhaps, with even the World Bank promoting participatory budgeting as “an innovative mechanism … for promoting social learning, active citizenship and social accountability, opening new ways of direct participation which complements traditional forms of representative governance” (World Bank, 2007), it is time to take a closer look at how effectively ideas such as participatory budgeting do – or could – transplant to the UK.
The aim of this paper is to offer exploratory thoughts on this question, through the case study of a town in the North of England, where the Local Strategic Partnership is conducting a participatory budgeting pilot. I will use this case study (with comparative reference to participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre) to explore not only the difference that context makes, but also in what aspects of participatory budgeting its radical potential lies, and what forms of implementation would foster – or limit – this potential. I argue that this question of implementation matters, that to think of models such as participatory budgeting as a ‘technical fix’ has a real cost in terms of outcomes for the poorest communities.
This paper draws on interim data from fieldwork carried out in the North of England as part of an ESRC funded research project: Municipal Innovations in Non-Governmental Public Participation: UK/Latin America. This project includes three examples of participatory budgeting: the pilot in the North of England on which this paper draws,(2) Porto Alegre in Brazil, which has an eighteen year history of participatory budgeting, and Medellin in Colombia, which has since 2003 been implementing a city-wide process of participatory budgeting under an independent mayor. The research includes two other case studies: Caracas in Venezuela, where new forms of participation are evolving under the national Chavista project, and a second city in the North of England. In addition, the UK Participatory Budgeting Unit is carrying out a review of participatory budgeting experiences in the UK through a practitioner fellowship linked to this project.The Radical Potential of Participatory Budgeting (PB)
Any reflection on how participatory budgeting is implemented in the UK must start with an understanding of its potential. There may be many different purposes to implementing PB in any context, ranging from the desire to reconnect people with the existing democratic system to more radical transformational agendas. As mentioned, even the World Bank is now an enthusiastic proponent of participatory budgeting.(3) The World Bank’s focus on improved services, and the ability of PB to deliver increased trust in government, as opposed to emphasising the transfer of power implicit in PB (World Bank, 2007), suggests that models of PB can fit with a strong neo-liberal agenda, as well as more radical agendas. My interest in PB lies towards the latter end of that scale. Like many, I am interested in a structure which has led to real changes in the living conditions of poor communities, and which has given previously disenfranchised communities the opportunity to engage meaningfully with decisions which affect them.
In this paper I distinguish between ‘radical’ and ‘technical’ implementations of PB. By radical, I mean the capacity to build greater justice in society, rather than simply making unjust systems work a little better. It is important to note that ‘radical’ implies a rethinking of how and why systems work. This differs from a ‘technical’ implementation, by which I mean the utilisation of a technique, or a method, within existing systems. The technique is expected to improve the functioning of the system. Its capacity to deliver different outcomes is assumed to be inherent within it, and as such, it does not necessarily generate a radical rethinking of the assumptions and power dynamics within the existing system. This is of course a crude division, and in most cases the reality will lie between the extremes. In addition, all sorts of factors influence the extent to which implementation can be ‘radical’ – not least the current UK political context, which is difficult to influence from the local level. Furthermore, even within one process individuals may have very different visions of the work they are engaged with.
However, I strongly believe that we in the UK have something to learn from the experience of different, and fundamentally more participatory, ways of doing politics in Latin America. There have been a number of attempts to replicate PB in many parts of Europe because it has been successful in improving services for the poor in Latin America.(4) While there is no question that PB in the UK should simply recreate a model from elsewhere, in order to understand what it is that we can learn, and thus reflect on PB processes here, we need to know more about the development of PB as an idea. It is important to recognise that the outcomes of PB in Brazil arose not only through giving the poor space to make decisions over resources, but because this rested specifically on a belief in social justice. In this sense, the implementation of PB in Brazil was radical according to my definition.
While this is not the place for a full discussion, it is useful to include a brief introduction to PB in Porto Alegre. Essentially, it rests on the following four principles:(5)
PB originated when the Worker’s Party (the PT) came to power in Porto Alegre in 1989, shortly after the re-establishment of democracy in 1985. The PT was a party born of and closely allied with radical social movements, and was fundamentally participatory in its own organisational structure (Abers, 2000:48-49). In Porto Alegre, the PT encountered a bankrupt municipality and a disorganised bureaucracy; PB emerged to tackle these financial constraints, give citizens a direct voice in government, and increase spending in poorer neighbourhoods (Wampler, 2000:3). PB in Porto Alegre has continuously evolved over the years; one of its key features has been that the people are not only participants, but have a central role in overseeing the process itself. PB in Porto Alegre involves public meetings, and year-round mobilisation of budget participants. It rests on a known annual cycle, so people understand when and how to participate.
PB in Porto Alegre has led to both intended and unintended outcomes. Few would dispute that it has generated real change in terms of the lived realities of the city’s poorer communities, in line with its intended goal of helping poorer citizens and neighbourhoods receive greater levels of public spending (Wampler, 2000:3) and has reversed a historical trend of declining participation within poor neighbourhoods (op. cit. p15). In just ten years, participation in the budget process rose from little over 1,500 people in 1989 to over 20,000 people in 1999 (Schneider and Baquero, 2006:13). PB also acts as a ‘citizenship school’ for participants – their ability to participate increases through the process itself (Abers, 2000:132).
An ‘unintended’ outcome of massive significance is the role of Porto Alegre as a ‘symbolic multiplier’ that has caught the imagination of cities and activists around the world (Pearce, 2005:5). Porto Alegre has inspired increasing numbers of cities across Latin America, North America and Europe to develop and deepen their own democratic processes, using the PB model. This is a creative two-way dynamic. These new manifestations of PB may have the capability to evolve both the theory and practice of PB itself in interesting and radical ways, as our research in Medellin shows, where activists are trying to look at questions of economic livelihoods as well as services within the PB process.
The UK of course also has an important history of democratic process. It is worth attempting to identify the elements of PB (as an example of participatory democracy) which distinguish it from the representative process here, and which indicate an alternative radical potential. I would like to propose four linked factors which are significant in this regard.
These factors serve to focus our attention on what it is about PB that offers a potential for ‘doing politics differently’ in the UK, and on the extent to which PB pilots here have been able to reach that potential. The first three factors in particular indicate a rethinking of the existing norms of our democratic structures, thus justifying the label ‘radical’. The fourth factor is different in the sense that the outcomes are evidence of – rather than contributory factors towards – a significant radical potential. Thus we understand the radical nature of PB to be within its potential as a mechanism of participatory democracy that enables a more just and more equitable delivery of services to the poor. However, in order to understand the reasons behind these levels of success (or otherwise), it is important to consider the different contexts in which PB is being implemented.The Context for Participation – Latin America and the UK
Clearly, Latin America and the UK have had radically different political histories. While there is not space to present an overview of both political contexts, it is worth drawing out a few of the distinctions that may be particularly significant in terms of participatory processes.
Levels of centralisation
It is notable that PB has emerged where the significant decision-making level is either local or at least regional. Latin America has a long history of centralised state control, with more recent (and uneven) processes of decentralisation, which have coincided in some cases with an increase in participatory practice. In contrast, the UK has seen a long process of withdrawal of power from the local to the national state. Significant funds at the local level come directly from government, including much that is in the hands of un-elected officers within the NHS and the police. In Bradford, even the education service has been contracted out to a private company. The government does also have a strong localist agenda, but our research suggests that even this national objective can have the effect of drawing decision-making responsibility from the local state, in the sense that national government has a tendency to dictate how and when local government should devolve which power, with the result that decision-making processes are still shaped by Whitehall at the local level. All of this is in marked contrast to recent Latin American history, Brazil in particular.
The UK of course has a much longer history of representative democracy than Latin America. In contrast, many Latin American countries have a recent and bloody history of dictatorship. Importantly, the active public value placed on the right to participate and be involved in decision-making by people who have themselves struggled for it is qualitatively different.
Strength of state institutions
The long history of governmental structures in this country has engendered a level of bureaucratisation unmatched in Latin America, where many state institutions are notoriously weak. This inevitably has a direct impact on the nature of participatory spaces emerging in each context. While the strength of state institutions in the UK brings many benefits, including stability, it also brings a marked bias towards procedural complexity, and reduced scope for local innovation.
Social and economic realities
One key difference here relates to the percentage of the population that is poor. In the UK, a minority of the population would be considered excluded through poverty and socio-economic disadvantage. Perhaps related to this, the UK has a markedly different culture of political activism and levels of social mobilisation from Latin America. Though volunteering and social activism in the UK remain healthy (Home Office, 2004a:175), this is increasingly divorced from the formal democratic system, generating a very different political culture in which to encourage participation. While in the UK activists are increasingly disillusioned with and distant from the state, in Latin America, there is a strong tradition of collective action which has mobilised many excluded and marginalised people, who now seek inclusion within the state (Pearce, 2004:485).
Impetus for participatory innovation
Finally, I would like to suggest two models of the impetus towards participatory innovation. These are linked to the cultures of activism described above. Broadly, in Latin America, the key actors developing new participatory spaces are social movements mobilising for greater inclusion, with the backing of certain political actors. This was significantly the case in Porto Alegre, with the PT closely allied to social movements (Pearce, 2004:498). The situation in the UK is very different. New participatory spaces are emerging from an essentially top-down project to re-engage people with a political system in need of reinvigoration. This project foregrounds state officials and the professionalised voluntary sector, whose ‘job’ it increasingly is to encourage participation. The UK national reference group on participatory budgeting illustrates this context, being overwhelmingly made up of national and local civil servants and council officers, with no politicians and no community members. By contrast, PB in Porto Alegre emerged clearly as a PT project.Participation & Participatory Budgeting in the UK
Participatory Budgeting is presently a minor element of work to open up new spaces for participatory governance in the UK. However, there is national interest, evidenced by the above-mentioned national reference group hosted by the Department of Communities and Local Government, as well as the specific mention of PB as a model of good practice in the recent Local Government White Paper: Strong and Prosperous Communities (2006).
At the time of our research (2006-2007), six localities were running PB pilots in the UK. and more are under development. Now, towards the end of 2008, this number has risen to 34 local authorities running or developing PB processes. To date, although with some exceptions, these have been essentially ‘participatory grant-making’ processes rather than participatory budgeting.(6)
In contrast to these small-scale innovations, mainstream government requirements around community engagement rely heavily on ‘representative’ processes, whereby the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) is expected to present the voice of communities. This is how the Local Strategic Partnership works, under whose aegis a plethora of themed ‘partnerships’ evolve in each LSP area, making this the primary forum for bringing together statutory bodies and communities. The ‘voice of the community’ in these spaces is supported by government initiated Community Engagement Networks. These facilitate the VCS in coming together to elect representatives to the partnerships. There is a whole other discussion to be had about the effectiveness of these structures. However, they undeniably represent a marked step forward for the VCS. Community representatives are being invited into many more spaces and structures than ever before. They have become a significant actor in local decision-making, and are recognised as the acceptable mediator of community perspectives by local and national government. This level of VCS involvement rests within a national government context of visible support for – and increasing mandatory requirements around – participation. However, it is not hard to make the case that genuine participation and local decision-making is at the same time constrained by conflicting government agendas. Prime amongst these is the New Labour culture of national targets, which is associated with loaded language such as eradicating the ‘postcode lottery’. While highlighting the geographical dimension to issues of exclusion is clearly important, this should not obscure the fact that local differentiation is arguably an inevitable (even desirable) result of genuinely local decision-making. If the commitment to participation is genuine, then measures to address the former must not preclude the latter.
Practitioner debates around this nationally structured model of participation, as evidenced by our fieldwork in the North of England (which explores these experiences as well as the local PB pilot) reflect two conceptualisations of participation: a ‘partnership’ model whereby the VCS works hand-in-hand with the statutory sector on decision-making, and a ‘negotiation’ model in which the VCS understands its role more in terms of presenting community views and demands, and in ensuring the accountability of the decision-making process. For some, the partnership model brings respect, and real access to decision-making, and therefore to change. For others, it impacts on the capacity of the VCS to challenge, and to organise an autonomous radical agenda outside state structures. While this is not the place to discuss the advantages and pitfalls of formal structures of community representation, current models of community participation in the UK can arguably be categorised (for better or worse) as a process of ‘bringing the VCS into the fold’. It may also worth be noting that the emphasis on partnership, shared work and joint decision-making is accompanied by an apparent ‘privatisation’ of politics. A result of the ethos of ‘joint working’ appears to be that the voicing of radical agendas has a very limited place at these tables. This may be linked to the increasing ‘professionalisation’ of community work: the emergence of a VCS ‘career path’ in which participation and partnership work plays a role. This is of course not an entirely autonomous development, but is itself shaped by government, for example through the ‘Change Up Agenda,’ understood by many as seeking to develop the service delivery capacity of the VCS. However, it is also true – and undoubtedly related – that community participation in the UK has a higher profile than ever before.
So, if there is a ‘place at the table’ for the VCS as never before, why is interest in models such as PB growing now? For those within the system – and we must remember that most examples of PB in the UK have been implemented by statutory sector officers to date – it may actually be in recognition that the VCS representative model of participation does not succeed in engaging ‘real’ community members. It may be simply because it does represent an alternative to that model of representative and professionalised participation. And for some actors the implications of this may well be broader than that goal of ‘engagement’. The defining distinction between the VCS partnership model and PB is the direct involvement of individual citizens in decision-making, in contrast to the representation of their views through organisations. It could be argued that in creating more meaningful opportunities for ‘the people’ to articulate their own agenda, as opposed to commenting on or shaping pre-existing agendas, PB can provide a platform for challenging the centralisation of decision-making to national level. In addition, the project of implementing PB draws on learning from outside the UK which implicitly involves a consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of our own democratic assumptions (including the centralisation of decision-making), and as such opens up possibilities – not merely for bringing excluded voices in – but for doing politics in a radically different way.Case Study in the North of England: a brief overview
The PB pilot that we have observed in the North of England exists therefore in a complex national context. There is evident political support for participation at the national level, but this exists in tension with strong governmental directives and targets. In the municipality we observed, as everywhere, there are numerous attempts to engage people in ‘participation’, of which the PB pilot is but one. Popular understandings of the local political context suggest a Council seen as offering weak leadership in tension with a strong and innovative Local Strategic Partnership. The social context is also troubled, with marked ethnic divisions – the extent to which the town’s internally cohesive communities share living, working and social space is arguably very limited.
The PB pilot is led by the Local Strategic Partnership. Their implementation of PB builds squarely on their history of innovative neighbourhood renewal work which has centred on Neighbourhood Action Planning (NAP): the development of Neighbourhood Renewal funded local plans. The groups developing these plans were encouraged to work with local service providers, creating a NAP group structure that was to act as a ‘clearing house’ for local information between service providers and residents. The 2006-2008 round of Neighbourhood Renewal Funding is being distributed by the LSP via these NAP groups, except in one locality (the focus of this case study), where they have used a PB process developed from the LSP’s own two prior PB experiences using environmental funds.
The PB process has been led by the LSP’s neighbourhood partnership manager for the area, with a high level of organisational support, notably from the LSP’s senior team. These key individuals have a consciously political vision of the potential of PB (though explicitly not party political), focusing on its social potential (in particular, more efficient and targeted use of resources with the outcome of better services to more informed and active communities), and its political potential (in terms of overhauling how and by whom decisions are made). The political potential is seen to include the sense that what they call ‘mature discussions’ can replace unrealistic demands – that this model can be liberating for service providers and the state as well as for people, through helping communities understand the budgetary constraints on service providers, in addition to understanding their own needs. Thus PB (alongside other participatory processes) is seen to bring benefits to both existing decision-makers, and those currently excluded from decision-making. It also is seen to entail a responsibility – even a challenge – to communities as well as decision-makers, in terms of accountability for serious decision-making, and the consequences of those decisions.
For some key actors in the process, it is important that this process evolved at least in part from local discussions and the values of those involved, rooted in many years of personal work (within and outside the LSP) for social change, based on recognising the expertise that local people bring that work. However, they acknowledge a debt of learning as well as inspiration to Porto Alegre.
The process as it has evolved in this locality has been described as ‘participatory grant-making’ rather than budgeting, though there have been some clear efforts to move beyond this. It is worth describing the process in brief here, to illustrate the roles of the actors involved, and the broad similarities and dissimilarities with PB as it occurs in Porto Alegre.
In March 06, the Neighbourhood Partnership Manager for the locality presented a proposal to the LSP, to use PB for the 2006-2008 round of NRF spending, which was accepted. He brought together a reference group, comprising LSP staff, staff from the main VCS umbrella and support organisation in the area, including their community development team manager who supports a number of community development workers based in deprived areas, the Council’s area coordinator, and the UK PB Unit. From time to time other ‘senior VCS officers’ and staff from the LSP themed partnerships attended these meetings.
The LSP secured additional funding through three of the four blocks of the Local Area Agreement: Children and Young People, Safer and Stronger Communities and Environment. This, together with NRF money for the area resulted in a ‘pot’ of £130,000, to be spent only in areas identified as ‘deprived’ and therefore eligible for NRF funds.
During the Summer of 2006 the reference group developed a ‘budgeting process’ which was implemented in the main by LSP staff and the voluntary sector community development team. This was carried out at existing community events, and by going ‘door-to-door’ in some of the areas. Residents were individually asked to choose their top three priorities for their area from a list of nine, and given space to identify particular issues within those three categories, and suggest solutions. Approximately 400 residents completed these forms. This information was collated. The decision was taken that the money should be distributed according to area allocations based on head of population, as this was a non-negotiable rule of NRF funding, and because it was felt to be too complex to allocate according to the themed data as well as by area. Accordingly, local organisations were given information on the priorities generated, as a guide only, and invited to propose projects. This process was open to VCS groups (funded and unfunded), statutory organisations (on the basis that their proposals represented ‘added value’ rather than replacing core expenditure) and private companies.
The bids were ‘scrutinised’ by a panel made up of local councillors, members of the PB reference group, and local staff from statutory organisations. The group’s remit was to ascertain that the bids met the rules of the process and to offer advice on deliverability to the applicant groups. They did not have a remit to reject bids – decisions on which projects received funding were entirely to be taken by residents.
Residents of the areas involved were invited to a voting day held at the end of November (half the areas in the morning and half in the afternoon). A letter went out to all eligible residents, posters and fliers were used, and the community development team spread the word (in practice, the most effective means of invitation). In total, approximately three hundred residents attended. Each project had three minutes to present their idea. The schedule for the day, given the number of projects, did not allow time for questions. When five projects had been presented, residents were asked to individually give each of them a vote out of ten. The next five projects were then presented, and so on. The votes were collated, and results announced. According to the evaluation forms from the day, the overwhelming majority of voters (and a clear but smaller majority of presenters) felt that the process had been fair and effective. There was a tangible ‘buzz’ amongst organisations and residents around the additional benefits of the process, in particular the networking across different of the different neighbourhoods of the town, and the shared learning about different communities and organisations.
The key organiser from the LSP believes that the following factors were very important in creating space for this pilot to happen: the nature of the LSP itself – large enough as a statutory organisation to put resources behind the idea, but small enough, and hence free enough from the usual institutional bureaucracy, to be creative and flexible, permission from senior managers to take risks, existing working relationships with other actors, and ownership by the VCS locally – not just by the LSP. This last point was the result of conscious team working by the organisers.Some Emerging Issues
The organisers would be the first to admit that it was not a perfect process – and it was never intended to be. They told us that they wanted it to be ‘good enough’ and consciously thought of it as a ‘first time’ – that what didn’t happen this time, could be built on and developed next time. Feedback from those involved, the evaluation forms from the day, and anecdotal evidence since the event all very strongly suggest that it was ‘good enough’ – it demonstrated some possibilities to residents, opened up alternatives to ‘business as usual’ decision-making, and generated a sense of control over local decisions. It also, limited though it was by being a pilot, generated an important sense of where and how to get involved in local decisions. The community development team reports that some people, community organisations and residents alike, are already planning for ‘next time’ even though no ‘next time’ has been announced. It is very important to recognise the depth and breadth of commitment that went into the process, and the purpose of this paper is not to criticise real processes (which are never ideal), but to take the opportunity to reflect on where the radical potential lies in the implementation of this process here, and where this may be being squeezed – and why.
To illustrate this, we can consider the key decision to allocate funds by area rather than according to the ‘community budget’. Two factors appear to have influenced this. One is that it was a pilot. In a cyclical process, it was felt that it would be acceptable to ‘penalise’ communities which did not participate, as they would have the opportunity to learn through the process, and could choose to mobilise around the issues that mattered to them in the future. In a discrete process such as this, it was felt to be unacceptable. However, it is not coincidental that this process (and other current pilots in the UK) was ‘stand-alone’, rather than part of a cyclical process. While most have some commitment to continue the pilots, for most this is in the form of an aspiration, as a result of (in this case at least) uncertainty over identifying or securing suitable funds with which to repeat the process. Arguably, this demonstrates the gap left by a lack of political will. As we have seen, these processes are being implemented in the UK by committed individuals and creative officials, not on the back of a groundswell of opinion, or as part of an explicitly political process. Therefore, the officials who make them happen are obliged to make use of contingent possibilities found in ‘funny money’ such as the NRF – and the life of a government-led initiative is even shorter than the life of a political administration. As a result, it is hard for organisers to plan long-term enough for processes to grow, develop and become embedded.
Furthermore, an initiative such as NRF has its own goals – it is not per se a ‘participatory’ initiative – which brings us to the second reason influencing the LSP’s choice to allocate funds by head of population in NRF areas. The LSP was given NRF funds to address the ‘floor targets’ of neighbourhood renewal, and to make an impact on issues of deprivation in specific areas, not to implement a participatory process. This money came with targets, and it is against these targets that the organisation and its staff will be measured – not on their success in developing an effective and participatory process of local decision-making. It is not hard to make a case that the two are intertwined, but it is much harder to evidence this in one year, without allowing the process growing space. As a result, the national parameters and targets perhaps inevitably take priority over local will. This is not simplistic – in our case, the organising group felt and wrestled with the tension. However, it illustrates the ultimately anti-participatory character of this national pressure. I would argue that it also demonstrates the role that an overtly political agenda behind PB could play in these circumstances, in challenging these pressures. For example, in our Medellin case study, the Mayor took an explicit decision to honour the wishes of the participatory budget even where the action might prove to be contrary to national rules (this arose specifically over education).(7)
This is evidence of one of the key impetuses towards the implementation of PB as a ‘technical fix’ rather than a radical political innovation: the ‘delivery culture’ of targets and measurements that is closely associated with New Labour’s style of governance (Wright and Ngan, 2004:2). A delivery culture – expectations of what will happen and by when – emphasises bureaucracy over leadership, the ‘how’ over the ‘wherefore’ – and it encourages organisational control. It is their heads on the block if they do not deliver, not the communities. As a result it is hard to let go of real power – it might be possible to involve residents in decisions within existing processes, but it is very hard under a regime of this nature to cede real power over decisions that might lead in radically different directions. Ownership by the people requires this flexibility – and this is why it is hard to implement radical change in a marked ‘delivery culture’.
There is thus a real impetus towards presenting (and indeed implementing) PB as a means towards an improved end, as distinct from as a political vision in itself. Even where the political vision exists in the initiation of the process, the context still exerts a powerful pressure to present the process as a ‘technology’ (a way of delivering better outputs). For example, there is keen interest within the national reference group in evidencing the ‘cohesion’ benefits of using PB, as a way of ‘selling’ the idea within Government departments.(8) Our case study illustrates such difficulties in overtly espousing a political agenda around PB. Our research suggests that organisers consciously endeavour to present PB as ‘non-political’, as ‘win-win’ for residents and for politicians of all colours. Not working on behalf of a political party themselves, there is an obvious rationale for this: the need to be able to continue working whatever the local administration. However, as I have suggested, this is at odds with the development of PB processes that have been able to deliver radical change. Wampler suggests that PB processes tend to be implemented by left of centre, progressive parties, in order to challenge traditional governance and promote social justice (2000: 17-18). It seems apparent that it would be harder to use PB processes to challenge structural impediments to radical change (such as the delivery culture described above) if the public rationale for the process has been de-linked from overtly political aims.
The general culture of participation in the UK facilitates this ‘technological’, means-to-an-end, non-political presentation of PB. As I have already mentioned, our fieldwork on the more vertical structures of community representation suggests that the new participatory space is increasingly a depoliticised space, which ‘privatises’ overtly political voices. It could be argued that overviews of the growing ‘field of participation’ emphasise tools and techniques, for example the Home Office Civil Renewal Unit commissioned research in 2004/5 to ‘map’ the field and produce a guide to different techniques and when they are applicable (Involve, 2005). This seems to speak to an emerging market for ‘toolkits’ and guidance on how to ‘deliver’ participation, linked to the many new statutory ‘participation’ responsibilities, further highlighted by the significant enthusiasm expressed by consultancy organisations at the October 2007 National Reference Group meeting in supporting the ‘delivery’ of PB. Is this evidence of the ‘commodification’ of participation? What started out as a set of ideals becomes a sellable technology – and it loses something of its radical nature in the process, not least because it becomes most easily accessed by those who can ‘buy’ it through training courses and consultancy.
This issue illustrates to a degree the current character of participatory processes in the UK. Overall, it can be said that these processes are not the outcome of a bottom-up struggle for inclusion, but rather an orchestrated attempt from above to re-engage the ‘poor’ with existing representative processes. This has serious implications. A bottom-up approach may be beset with difficulties, but it does encourage a re-imagining of the democratic process – rethinking how it should work and for what ends. The status quo is itself the focus of efforts to create change. In contrast, the top-down attempt to ‘include’ focuses attention on the excluded as the problem and the area needing attention, rather than on the democratic structure itself.
Therefore, for all the above reasons, it is clear that we need to understand PB processes as they develop in the UK, not just in terms of the vision of those implementing them, but with a realistic – and critical – appreciation of the factors constraining their radical potential.A radical innovation?
Before I conclude, I would like to briefly revisit the four facets of PB which I suggested might indicate its radical potential: the principle of shared resources and decision-making power, the strong deliberative element, individual responsibility and radical outcomes, with reference to the case study.
Shared resources and shared decision-making
Very clearly, the whole process rests on the sharing of resources, and the opening up of decision-making over funds to residents. This worked effectively in this case, and the response of residents underlines the power that this concrete gesture has.
However, residents have been essentially absent from the planning process, and it seems at present that there are no clear plans for them to be involved in reviewing and developing the process. The role envisioned for residents who signed up for the ‘scrutiny committee’ still remains within the process – monitoring the delivery of projects – rather than allowing them to step outside the process, review it and contribute to its development. This is easily explained by the timescale and the lifespan of the process. There are concerns on the part of organisers about ‘raising expectations’ when there is no certainty that the process will be repeated. Furthermore, the organisers appear very conscious of their own role in maintaining a delicate balance between increased participation from residents and reticence towards this agenda on the part of elected members. Nonetheless, it may be that boldness in involving residents would indicate a commitment to a clear shift in power – giving residents a meaningful say in the decisions that affect them – and thus open up potentially riskier but perhaps more promising directions.
This is a key feature of participatory budgeting in its native context, and one that is arguably strongly linked to its radical potential, indicating as it does the collective re-imagining of problems and solutions. Sadly, it was essentially missing from the process in this case. The consultative ‘budgeting’ or prioritisation process rested on an individualised selection from a list. It did not require participants to explain, defend or test their views with others. Similarly, the voting procedure did not allow for discussion, or even questions. This element of the process attracted considerable criticism from the more experienced observers, particularly those involved in financial decisions elsewhere, who felt that they had been unable to share observations or ask for further information, which might have made a material difference to the quality of decisions made. We could take this as an indication that, should the pilot be allowed to develop into a cycle, the developing budget literacy of participants would encourage them to demand increased space for discussion. That, however, may rest not only on the development of space for shared ownership of the process between organisers and participants, but on the space being granted for such long-term growth and development of the process. It is a frustrating reality that the lack of sophistication of the process with regard to individual proposals (compared for example to the more discursive process of small grants committees) may be used, by some within the existing decision-making structures, as evidence of the lack of capacity of residents to be involved in financial decision-making, and therefore as a reason not to grant that space for growth.
Here, our research suggests that, however small-scale the pilot, the direct link between participation and outcomes does motivate people to act, to take responsibility. Approximately half of the total number of participants were from just one neighbourhood out of the seven neighbourhoods represented. Here, the local school had held a meeting for parents prior to the event, and communicated the idea that their involvement would directly affect whether the school’s project would be funded – and they responded overwhelmingly.
It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to measure the impact of such a small pilot. However, in observing the voting day, I did form a tentative impression that there might have been some different outcomes from a more traditional grant process. In particular, I felt that established projects did better, perhaps as a result of residents valuing their known worth to the community, where a panel might have looked for innovation and development. Our research cannot of course offer a clear perspective on the impact of the spaces we are following – not enough time has passed. However, in our culture of measurement and number-crunching, it is perhaps worth remembering that the impacts of such a process can be wider than ‘who comes’ or what the money is spent on, but can include the impact that the process itself has. For example, many participants valued the insight that the experience gave them into the nature and responsibility of decision-making, and especially their increased knowledge of community activity across their district, and the new links they made within and across communities.Conclusion
In conclusion, the case study illustrates that the radical potential of participatory budgeting that does play a role in engaging people in the UK – both organisers and participants. Its key proponents locally see it as a route to change: within individuals (greater understanding of political and social processes, and a greater sense of their own responsibilities, for example), within communities (collective action, and potentially increased interaction with other communities, as well as positive outcomes in terms of better services and use of resources), and within the political system itself (a maturing of how and by whom decisions are made).
However, this radical potential is beset on all sides. The process is in danger of being fundamentally depoliticised by the manner of its implementation, which is essentially contingent: contingent on ad hoc funding, contingent on individual actors with a political vision choosing to push for innovative participation (as opposed to the implementation, however creative, of a government-led process such as the more vertical structures of community representation), and contingent on the wily appropriation of what limited spaces exist for local autonomy.
The capacity for any local actors to develop new genuine, and genuinely radical, models of participation is clearly limited by a centralising and controlling national political climate, and shaped by the increasingly organised and professionalised VCS. Those wishing to achieve radical ends through PB must guard against the technocratic ‘quick-fix’ use of PB as a means to an end, which can ignore complex and difficult to tackle realities – realities that demand time and embedded processes if we are to begin to address them.
The current climate of political activism is also a constraining factor. Proponents of PB have two hills to climb – not just institutional scepticism, but the need to convince a politically disaffected public that they can have faith in the democratic system as an effective route to change.
However, the contingent reality of spaces such as the case I have explored here do show that the potential exists to create alternatives, that discouraging trends in the UK context do not inevitably mean that radical experiments must have their teeth drawn.
This case demonstrates the power of experiential learning. While the pilot discussed in this paper is clearly limited in size and nature, compared to its Brazilian inspiration, the evidence suggests that at least some of the residents grasped a direct link between their action and the outcomes that does not seem to exist for them through our traditional representative system. Accordingly, the favourite phrase of the LSP in relation to participatory budgeting is ‘show and tell’ – you won’t convince anyone by talking about it. You have to seize whatever opportunities there are and demonstrate the potential.
However – and maybe, given the constraining context, this is a simply a matter of stages – if ideas like PB are truly to come good on their radical promises in the UK, they need to emerge from their protective, apolitical covering of ‘technology’ and become a project of the people. There is a recognition on the part of the organisers in the case study that ‘show and tell’ applies to the residents as much as to the sceptics within the system, that the process needs to demonstrate its own potential to a mistrustful and disenfranchised public. It is hard, however, to see how it will do this without being explicitly political – and without finding a way to challenge the national political context of the day. If ideas such as PB do have a radical potential – the potential to help us re-conceive our politics as opposed to the attempt to re-engage the disengaged with the same old system – then perhaps the activists with the vision to instigate it here need to recognise their role as catalysts not managers, and eventually let go of their ownership of the process. Perhaps then it stands a chance of igniting ownership by those outside as well as those inside the system – and who knows where the ideas will take us then?