On June 2nd, 2016, at Brunel University in London there took place a full day of workshops and seminars entitled “Participatory Budgeting, Democratization and Open Government: State of the Art in Europe and the UK”, organized by the EMPATIA project in collaboration with UK Participatory Budgeting Network and hosted by Brunel University.
Participatory Budgeting (PB) is one of the most successful democratic innovations of the last quarter-century, involving citizens in decision-making on public expenditure, especially at the local level. It’s a process that has spread to more than 3000 municipalities around the globe, on all five continents.
EMPATIA is a Horizon2020 project, Funded by the European Commission, dedicated to research and development of technological tools to manage democratic innovations in general and participatory budgeting in particular. Brunel University London is one of the partners of EMPATIA’s consortium.
The UK PB Network brings together practitioners, policy makers and academics with the aim of supporting new ways of involving the public in the tough decisions around the public services that affect their communities. Founded in 2012, it builds on over 15 years of participatory budgeting activity in the UK, which has seen many millions of pounds spent in new and exciting ways. The UK PB network compliments and connects with similar networks in the developed nations of the USA, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Portugal and Spain, and learns from the many rich experiences of participatory democracy across the globe.
The day focused on the analysis of the state of the art of Participatory Budgeting and participatory processes in the United Kingdom and Europe. Key issues discussed encompassed the relation between PB and Open Government strategies, including the role of digital technologies and Open Data in multichannel participatory processes, the role of the citizen, and the impact of participatory budgeting as a means for democratic innovation.
Engaging more than 50 participants it led to lively debates between researchers, academics and practitioners, including representatives of many diverse UK academic institutions, including the Universities of Oxford, Westminster, Leeds, Glasgow Caledonian and East London as well as Brunel. It included members of NGO’s and think tanks such as the Democratic Society, as well as staff from Local Authorities spread across the country.
The morning invite only academic session made a significant step forward towards creating , for the first time, a UK knowledge exchange network for academics and researchers in many related, but too often disconnected disciplines, all looking at democratic innovation in one form or another.
The afternoon open seminar boosted the development of European wide knowledge networks for democratic innovation, and formed part of the ongoing process of strengthening the UK PB Network through promoting and recruiting participants to its new advisory board.
With hot debates ongoing in the media and elsewhere on topics such as ‘Brexit’, devolution (in Scotland and to the regions), migration (and its impact on public services), tax avoidance and offshore banking, or the problems emerging from the UK’s (post banking crisis) public sector austerity programme, the need to bring together diverse voices looking for new ways to ensure democratic accountability and trust in public institutions is much needed. These debates were reflected and referenced within the seminar.
The day even included discussion on whether institutional budgets, such as those of Universities, trade unions and QUANGO’s, or private sector money that influences local economic development (such as from planning gain) might become more participatory and more responsive to all the stakeholders in those institutions.
That conversation broadened the tradition view of PB being just about public budgets, to one of "budgets in the public interest".