Participatory budgeting can be a powerful tool for cities to educate, engage, and empower communities.
This blog post is an excerpt from our Beginner’s Guide to Participatory Budgeting. Curious to learn more? Download the full guide!
What is a participatory budget?
Over the years, participatory budgeting has become a buzzword in (digital) democracy circles. You might’ve already heard about it. You might’ve considered starting one for your community. Or it might be entirely new to you. But no matter which of these boxes you tick, you’ve come to the right place.
Let’s start with the basics. A participatory budget is an innovative policy-making tool that directly involves citizens in the allocation of public funds. In short: cities ask their community members to help them define which social domains, problems or opportunities should receive a share of the city budget. And, of course, which share of the budget that should be.
Since PB’s first appearance in Brazil in 1989, councils worldwide have implemented over 1,500 participatory budgets. It has become a widely used tool to give residents a say in the formation of local policies. For example, Peñalolén, a commune of the Chilean capital Santiago, engaged 24,450 citizens to propose and prioritize local initiatives. Participatory budgeting enables residents to allocate resources , prioritize social policies, and monitor public spending. Therefore, it is a valuable tool for the education and empowerment of local communities. And while it might sound like an intricate process, any local government can get on board.
Implementing a participatory budget in your city
At first, this preparation process might seem a tad complex. But in reality, it’s all about keeping a transparent overview and following clear steps. From laying the groundwork to processing input and implementing the results, we’ve got your back.
So here we go: these are the eight steps to implement a participatory budget in your city or town.
The 8 steps of effective participatory budgeting:
1. Lay the groundwork
No two participatory budgets are the same! In the first phase of a participatory budget, there are some important decisions to be made. The type of PB you choose, the success measures that you define and the way you’ll engage residents will shape the outcome of your project.
- Read and learn about participatory budgeting through guides, case studies and best practices
- Decide which type of PB matches your situation: will it be decisive, or advisory? Will participants be able to contribute ideas? Will it be local, or regional?
- Decide on the main goal of your project: besides distributing funds, the project can be about educating community members about local taxes, about creating interactions between participants, about gaining insights about participants’ priorities…
- Decide how you want to engage your residents (online, offline or a mix of both).
2. Inform participants
Providing clear information about the project helps create trust. If everyone knows the rules of the game, the whole process is bound to run a lot more easily. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.
- Communicate the timeframe, process, and rules. Until when can the community take part? How long will you need to process their ideas, and when can they expect to see outcomes? The CitizenLab platform has a built-in timeline that helps cities clearly communicate this with participants.
- If residents can contribute ideas, it’s important to share the eligibility criteria for these ideas. Cost and accessibility are for instance often used.
- Educate community members by proactively sharing important information about the project. If residents are distributing funds related to mobility, you could share traffic data, explainers about the current rules and expert opinions on the topic.
- Manage your community’s expectations by being transparent and honest about the impact their participation can genuinely have.
3. Collect community input
Some participatory projects include an ideation phase, where residents can contribute ideas they’d like to implement in the city.
- Getting your community members to your platform is one of the most challenging steps of the process. Here are some tips – for more information, check out our communication guide. To obtain a maximum number of responses, focus on the wide-spread communication of your campaign. Pick the channels that work for you – the most effective channels are often email, SEO and social media.
- Work with intermediaries (specific associations, religious leaders, syndicates), or other micro-influencers to help expand your reach and lower the threshold for groups that are harder to access.
- Once the project is launched, your citizens can vote, comment, and (depending on the project) share ideas.
4. Process the input your community shares
If residents are able to share ideas, then that input needs to be processed. Community input is analyzed by city experts and checked according to the eligibility criteria set earlier on in the process. The city selects the final proposals and offers feedback to the participants on their initial input. Because it’s not always easy to select ideas, most cities use clear and measurable eligibility criteria such as cost or technical feasibility.
5. Set up a vote, depending on the PB type:
This is where your project really takes off. In this phase, residents distribute a set public budget over several themes or ideas. There’s a difference between both options, so let’s break them down.
- ‘Communicating vessels’: what you add to one domain, you have to remove from another.
- ‘Shopping basket’: you add ideas until you reach the limits of the “budget”.
The more complex the projects, the more time residents should be granted to vote. We would recommend giving residents at least 2 months to vote, so they have enough time to get informed.
6. Communicate the results & the next steps
Which ideas made the cut? Which domains were given the biggest share of the budget? What are the next steps? It’s important to plan in a communication campaign at the end of the project to share the results. Results can be shared on the platform themselves, by email, on social media, in a mailing campaign… for maximum impact, we recommend getting coverage in the local news. Being transparent helps build long-term trust and will inspire your community to participate in the next project.
7. Implementation phase
The implementation might just be the most crucial step of all. This is where residents get to see how their participation makes a real, tangible impact. Turn dreams into plans and plans into action. Meanwhile, keep your community up-to-date, so they can see what’s changing. To turn a PB project into a success story, there are a few key conditions to keep in mind:
- There have to be enough resources to implement the projects chosen by residents. Local governments must have sufficient funding available to be financially flexible.
- Once the budget is finalized, cities have to make it public, offer participants feedback about their ideas, and notify them of the progress.
- If you decided to implement an ideation phase in the participatory budgeting process, it’s vital to let the contributed ideas inspire your prioritization and policies.
8. Create a cycle
To gain the trust of your citizens, it’s good to make participatory budgeting a fixed part of your community’s budgeting cycle. This will help you boost engagement and strengthen your local democracy.
The phases of implementing a participatory budget: plan, act, review, make the necessary changes… and start over!
Ready to launch?
Did we spark your curiosity? Great! In our Beginner’s Guide on Participatory Budgeting, you’ll find a more elaborate explanation of the eight steps. Above all, here’s what to expect:
- A clear definition of participatory budgeting and the idea that lies behind it;
- An overview of critical success factors and possible hurdles;
- A clear explanation of the different types of projects and their specific benefits;
- Real-life case studies from across the globe.