Survey, idea gathering, participatory budget… when launching a citizen participation project, there are many options to choose from.

A survey will yield different answers and reach different audiences than a straightforward vote or a participatory budget – it’s therefore crucial to pick the option that’s best aligned with your goal. Here’s a list of the main participation methods that we’ve tested and approved after working with 100+ cities and municipalities in Belgium and abroad.

Votes: maximizing participation

Online voting is the most widespread and easiest way to participate. It allows cities to present citizens with several projects, and evaluate which ones gather the most support. Voting helps strengthen legitimacy by ensuring that a majority of inhabitants support the projects. The results of the vote are not necessarily binding: some cities counterbalance it with other factors such as price or ecological footprint.

This is an option to consider if:
  • Elected officials want to mobilise a large part of their population
  • There are already several concrete proposals, requiring little to no discussion.
  • The initial question can be asked in a neutral way in order not to influence the answers that will be given.
  • The city clearly explains to citizens how the vote will be taken into account – will it fully dictate the choice of the city? What are the other decision factors?

A practical example: the city of Marche en Famenne asked its citizens to choose between several architectural proposals for the city’s central square. The result of the vote represented 35% of the final score of each project. Citizens responded enthusiastically: nearly a quarter of the inhabitants of Marche visited the platform, and one in ten inhabitants gave their opinion. In the end, the city went with the project which had won the citizen’s vote.

Idea collection: helping new solutions emerge

Also called “ideation process”, this is a way for cities and towns to turn to citizens for new ideas. Idea gathering is a more complex process than a simple vote and requires greater involvement from citizens. As a result, participation rates tend to be lower than for votes, but can also lead to qualitative contributions and the emergence of new solutions.

Once the ideation phase is complete, cities often go through an analysis phase and a voting phase: after having collected the ideas, the administration then processes them and submits them to citizen vote. It is important for cities to structure the debate: it is preferable to define the themes on which the city consults its citizens (climate, mobility, education…) and to be clear which criteria will be used to select ideas.

This is an option to consider if:
  • Elected officials want to bring out new solutions and investigate what their citizens prioritise.
  • The quality of contributions matters more than their quantity.
  • There is a clear plan in place to process and select the ideas, and cities communicate this to citizens.
  • The city has the means (in time and resources) to process the contributions.
  • The administration is committed to providing feedback on the ideas submitted by citizens, and takes the contributions seriously.

A practical example: Grand Paris Sud used this process to gather new ideas from its inhabitants on three areas of its strategic plan: cycling, the environment and culture. The city is now focused on turning these ideas into real projects.

Online surveys: collecting detailed and nuanced information

Surveys give cities the option to survey citizens on specific topics in a more comprehensive way than voting. It for instance allows for proposal ranking, multiple choice question, demographic questions… Combined with voting, the survey is very useful in understanding how citizens’ priorities vary according to their location, age or income.

Surveys can give more precise results, but they also come at a cost. First of all, the investigation is not collaborative and/or open. Secondly, the way the survey is carried out and the way the data is stored and used must be strictly controlled. It’s also important to keep in mind that the longer the survey, the higher the drop-out rate will be. Finally, participation rates for surveys are usually lower than for voting because the higher time input they require from citizens.

This is an option to consider if:
  • Elected officials want to know precisely what citizens think.
  • There is no other way to obtain the results (ie, a vote).
  • There is no other way to collect this information (is there another source of data that could be used? Has there been a similar investigation in the past?)
  • The information collected will really help decision-making (will the city use all the information collected? How? Is the information being collected to inform decision-making, or to justify it?)
  • The city can collect and process the infirmation in accordance with the applicable GDPR standards.

A practical example: the city of Arlon used a survey to survey its citizens about the Leopold Space project. The open-ended questions provided feedback and new ideas. Now it has collected ideas, the city is getting citizens to vote for the ones they should be implemented.

Participatory budgets: including citizens and associations in the allocation of part of the municipal budget

Participatory budgets are a very powerful tool for participation, as they directly involve citizens in the process of allocating municipal budgets. Citizens choose projects they think the city should invest in, using money from a specially allocated fund. Some cities ask citizens to divide the budget between several scenarios, others start with an ideation process that will be followed by an analysis and budgeting phase.

This type of consultation is very educational as it allows citizens to project themselves into the budget exercise and to understand its constraints – for instance if they decide to allocate 60% of their budget to a certain project, they then agree to reduce fundings for other projects. This exercise helps strengthen the legitimacy of decision-making and increase citizens’ support for public policies.

Budget allocation can of course be a sensitive issue. For cities that wish to restrict participation, there are authentication software (such as ItMe in Belgium or FranceConnect in France) to ensure that each user corresponds to a natural person residing in the municipality.

This is an option to consider if:
  • Elected officials wish to raise citizens’ awareness of municipal management processes
  • The conditions for the implementation of the participatory budget are clear
  • The projects proposed by the city are feasible, and there really is a budget to allocate
  • The city seeks to prioritize several projects and allocate a budget rather than choosing a project from several options.

A practical example: The city of Rueil recently set up a participatory budget on its citizen platform. It has asked citizens to propose projects that will then be budgeted and then voted on, with budget being distributed from a virtual shopping cart. Citizens will be able to put as many projects in their basket as the budget allows.

Do you want to set up one of these consultation methods in your city or municipality? Get in touch with us today!

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