As we are currently finalizing our platform’s new module for participatory budgeting, we researched this emerging domain extensively and listened to more than 20 city councils. From the Canadian Toronto (2.8 million inhabitants) to the Belgian Wortegem-Petegem (6.000 inhabitants). Some had years of practical experience behind them, others just worked hard on their ambitious plans for the future.

Participatory budgeting guide
A guide to participatory budgeting.

What did these discussions teach us? There are almost as many different setups of a participatory budget as there are citizens in your city or municipality. Yet we discovered some common threads. And we are happy to introduce you to them in this guide:

  1. DESIGN: Which types of participatory budgets exist?
  2. PROCESS: Which steps does a participatory budgeting process consist of?
  3. OBJECTIVE: What do you want to achieve with your participatory budget?

I. Which types of participatory budgets exist?

In the very wide range of participatory budgets, we identified the following key variables:

1. Decisive or advisory

This is all about the outcome.

What will the council do with the results of the participatory budget? Are the results actually carried out according to predefined rules? In that case we speak about a participatory budget with a decisive character.

Are results, on the other hand, taken into account as one of many factors when allocating or drafting a budget? If so, the participatory budget has an advisory character.

This decision obviously has a huge impact on the expectations that a participating citizen will have. Therefore, always make clear from the start whether this is a decisive or advisory process. 

2. Themes or ideas

This dimension covers the scope of the participatory budget.

What is the participatory budget about? In some cases, a participatory budget is held at the level of themes or policy domains. In other cases, the focus is on concrete ideas or projects.

And in still other cases you get a hybrid process of the two aforementioned ends of the spectrum. As a first step, you organise a participatory prioritisation of which policy domains should be invested in. Consequently, within each of the withheld policy fields, the most desirable ideas or projects can then be chosen.

3. In group or individually

The process is at the heart of the participatory design.

How can citizens participate? Often we see in offline projects that ideas or themes get discussed in (small) groups before voting unanimously or by majority takes place. 

Online trajectories have a rather individual participation. Citizens express their personal preferences when they participate in the participatory budget.

Of course, there are also intermediate forms. For example, on the CitizenLab platform you vote individually on the ideas of your preference, but every idea offers the possibility to enter into a discussion with other citizens. Even stronger, discussion is promoted by asking the user why one voted for or against a certain idea.

4. Local or regional

This factor concerns the designated area of the participatory budget.

Does the project have an impact on the entire territory of the municipality or city? Or does it focus more on one particular neighbourhood?

In practice, this choice also has its consequences on who is invited for the process. It makes sense for projects with a local impact to only (or mostly) involve the residents who will actually ‘experience’ that impact. Whereas with less territory-specific processes, it is rather logical to exclude no one.

Read here how CitizenLab deals with geographical segmentation by supporting you with so-called ‘Smart Groups’.

In short, we identified four characteristic elements and, hence, a plethora of possible combinations. Nevertheless, in practice we often see two specific combinations coming back:

Combination 1: specific projects, organized locally, with a decisive character.

Participatory budgets focussing on specific ideas or projects are often organized at the most local level and usually have a decisive character.

Combination 2: general policy areas, city-wide organized, with advisory character.

On the other hand, there’s the second category of participatory budgets that ask residents to prioritize different policy domains or themes. These often cover the entire municipal or city budget, and thus take place at regional level. The outcome of such a project comes as a non-binding advice.

II. Which steps does a participatory budgeting process consist of?

Here, too, we observe some common threads, despite the big variation in actual use cases.

The process behind a participatory budget.

1. Provide information  

In this first phase, the participating citizens are informed about the plans, the process and the rules of game of the participatory budget. As mentioned earlier, it is already very important in this phase to communicate clearly about what the council will do with the final results.  Are they included as advice or are they decisive?

Some cities and municipalities seize this phase to work with their citizens and determine the rules and the scope together.

2. Collect ideas

In a next phase, citizens (or a group of citizens) can submit their ideas for the participatory budget. If desired, other citizens can already vote or respond to these ideas at this stage. However, at this point in time, this phase merely focuses on the content of the ideas and not on its budgetary dimension yet.

Important to mention is that in this phase virtually all councils with whom we spoke clearly indicated that determining a budget or the cost of an idea is not (only) in the hands of the citizens. When submitting a proposal, residents can of course give an indication of the cost, with the best possible substantiation. But it is the city or municipality that determines the precise cost, or the precise budget (see next phase).

Note that this phase does not occur within every participatory budget. Sometimes, as a city or municipality, you already have a list of ideas from which the citizens can choose. And if the participatory budget is focussed on themes or policy domains, there is often no need for concrete ideas either.

3. Decide on budgets and select ideas

In this phase, the city or municipality takes a close look at every idea. Various aspects are taken into account to determine whether or not the idea is retained for the participatory budget.

First of all, of course, there is the expected cost of the proposal. For this, a city or municipality listens to the advice of internal or external experts. Is there a proposal to plant trees in a certain street in the city center? Then you can probably consult your department in charge of the parks or public spaces to make a realistic estimate of the cost. Naturally, the expected cost must fall within the predetermined budget (ie. the total budget for the project or a maximum per idea).

On the other hand, there is also the technical feasibility and / or desirability of an idea. Can we really implement this idea within the predetermined time? Does the idea have a positive impact on all citizens? Or does it cause damage to certain groups? Perhaps certain proposals are already being implemented? Here too, internal or external experts are called upon.

Often, you will have to refine the selection by looking for an appropriate equilibrium between the ideas. For example, you should ensure that not all retained ideas are in the same neighborhood. Similar ideas should be merged into a bigger one, ideally after having consulted the idea initiators of course.

Finally, when votes for ideas were allowed in the previous phase, it is also the case that only ideas with a certain number of votes or with the highest number of votes are considered at the start of this phase.

4. Participatory budget

In this phase, citizens distribute a certain budget over a number of themes or ideas. There is a clear difference between the two important types mentioned above:

If the participatory budget takes place at the level of themes or policy domains, experts often work with the principle of communicating vessels. What you want to add to the budget in one theme, you will have to remove from another theme (or you have to collect higher taxes). In many cases, the actual budgets per theme or policy domain are used as a starting point.

Participatory budgets with concrete projects or ideas work with the principle of a ‘shopping basket‘. You can freely add ideas from the list to your basket until the total budget of the selected ideas exceeds your budget. Often the personal budget is equal to the actual total budget. 

Both types can also be implemented alternatively by using a simple ranking principle of themes or ideas.

5. Results

This phase speaks for itself, but cannot be forgotten: communicating the results. Which ideas were selected? Which policy domains were allocated the most budget?

At least as important in this phase is communicating about the next steps. Who will implement the selected ideas? And when? And can citizens possibly contribute to this themselves? How is the distribution across the different policy areas taken into account in the budget exercise of the city or municipality?

III. What do you want to achieve with your participatory budget?

Against all blog and marketing guidelines: the most important question comes only at the end this time.

Every citizen budget has both direct objectives and rather indirect ones.

Direct objectives

The direct objectives are self-evident. 

In the case of an advisory process, the main aim is to gain insight into what is priority among the population, what your residents give most importance to, and how different preferences are weighed against each other.

In a process with decisive force, the direct objective is the actual distribution of the budget according to what the participating citizens have decided.

Indirect objectives

The indirect objectives are a little less obvious. 

For many cities and municipalities the importance appears to be mainly in the process itself. Participatory budgets with an opportunity to interact with other citizens often result in people learning to debate with citizens with a different background, different preferences or other needs. This fact can also promote empathy for ‘the other’ within the same community.

In all citizen budgets it is also an indirect objective to create awareness and support.

Consciousness means that by taking part in a participatory budget, one must learn that choices must be made. The budget to be spent is finite, and what you add to something, you have to take away somewhere else. You want more budget for cultural projects in your city? Fine. But does that mean that you want to spend less on health care or…?

This is also the reason why we recommend not to use an arbitrary amount on a particular idea in the phase during which citizens select ideas. We recommend giving only binary choices: either you choose a proposal, with its full budget, or you do not opt ​​for it.

And support means that, when the advice or decision of the participating citizens is taken into account, this group of people will already be able to find more legitimacy in the chosen policy. In particular, the involvement of otherwise hard-to-reach target groups via the instrument of a participatory budget contributes to an increase of support.

As you can see, there are many possibilities with a participatory budget, and the impact can be enormously positive. The concrete interpretation of it is then again highly dependent on your own context and needs. But do not worry, with the CitizenLab team, we will gladly help you shape your plans!

participatory budgeting process
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