There is a very real desire to make Participatory Budgeting more deliberative and thoughtful. One of the concerns about voting is that it doesn’t force people to think through the options. That PB needs more deliberation.
Nevertheless Jez Hall of PB Partners/Shared Future CIC argues that the vote is crucial for legitimacy and trust within a PB processes.
At the recent Going Global Participatory Budgeting Conference in Scotland I attended a workshop on whether a participatory budgeting process (PB) requires there to be a vote. The workshop emerged from a discussion that has been going on in the background in Scotland around how to increase deliberation and widen access to PB processes.
Is a vote even required for it to be called PB? It is true that some people have expressed they don’t like the competitiveness that a vote might bring. Or concerns that marginalised groups may not be able to mobilise in the face of more popular causes.
Voting in PB for me highlights crucial issues around power, voice and equity.
PB is never ‘power neutral’. Real money is at stake, and the quality of the process is crucial if PB is to create trust. Yet it also points to another uncomfortable truth. How well, fairly or transparently do existing grant making processes work? Are we measuring PB against perfection rather than reality?
PB, in its grant making form, questions traditional mechanisms for grant giving. Which have been criticised for being top down and favouring those that can write good applications. Hence a growing interest amongst grant funders in more participatory forms of grant making.
There is a very real desire to make PB more deliberative and thoughtful. One of the concerns about voting is that it doesn’t force people to think through the options. That PB needs more deliberation. This is especially important when marginalised communities or unpopular causes are the target audience. Interestingly Antwerp’s PB started out with seeking consensus and only later added an online voting element. Read more about this innovative consensus based approach to PB here.
Why I favour voting within PB
I’ll begin by focussing on the threats to PB. In particular ‘decaffeination’ or dilution of PB.
So it is no longer seen as a radical democratic process. Becoming another engagement method, that occurs as PB moves away from the dynamic immediacy of mass voting in public forums. Or alternatively, online only PB where people participate remotely. They may vote, but its a solitary act.
This links to a second threat to PB, one of institutionalisation. It’s my belief that many public officials just don’t like sparking challenge or contestation.
In particular public servants don’t like contestation risking a potential criticism from the politicians who they serve, or may serve sometime in the future.
PB is inherently, even intentionally disruptive. Challenging perceptions of power. Offering new solutions. Or seeking fresh ways to advance grass-roots democracy.
The direct participation and decision making PB implies democracy flowing upwards from citizens, not dripping down from above. PB should support representative democracy, but not be cowed by it. Those were my opening lines in the voting debate. But I would like to nuance my position with positive and the pragmatic reasons why PB voting is helpful.
Voting in PB is helpful for public servants and officials
Voting provides essential accountability. You can count up the votes, and follow the decision to take action. I would argue that PB voting allows us to come to a conclusion and move forward. PB is not just another consultation without an end.
Further, by having counted the votes we can quantify that our PB has had real reach into communities. Voting can be used to prove you have reached the places other processes don’t. PB processes often use the levels of voting to measure, or benchmark their impact. And then build on that in their future processes, aiming higher next time.
Voting in PB is helpful for politicians
Voting uses the ‘language of democracy’ with which politicians are familiar. And similarly it allows the debate to be concluded. To reach an end point from which politicians and public officials can take the next step and be seen to live up to the mantra of ‘you said, we did’.
The vote can also reduce a very long list of demands to a defined list of pre-budgeted actions. Prove that a particular policy or spend was indeed popular with citizens and not just the ambition of officers.
PB also allows politicians to play a new leadership role within their community. Potentially mediating conflicting interests that might have been surfaced by the PB process, without haven taken the decision themselves.
Politicians must always have a role in overseeing that any vote was conducted fairly, and that participation was inclusive and widespread.
Most importantly, voting is helpful to citizens.
Voting is a clear and unambiguous expression of the reality that ‘we decided’. A tangible expression of a real participatory democracy, where people in community present their ideas, consider the ideas of others and then decide which to support. It most importantly shows citizens have real leverage and influence over budgets. That is, crucially, those citizens have the power and the means to decide.
This does not mean that voting is the be all and end all of PB. Deliberation, consultation and other techniques are valuable community engagement tools, and should certainly play a part in a fully fledged PB process.
It is possible to organise voting poorly. And it is possible to create more spaces for deliberation before the vote. But in the end, in Participatory Budgets, we, the citizens decide.
Blog By Jez Hall, Shared Future CIC director and coordinator of PB Partners, November 2019
First published on the Shared Future CIC website, this blog has been edited for length on this site.
Go to this link to read the full blog