Yesterday, I attended a meeting of the Participatory Budgeting Network, hosted by the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster.

The PB Network is a newly formed body advocating for and leading new learning and innovations in PB. It takes over from the work of the PB Unit, which sadly was forced to close due to lack of funding in mid 2012. The PB Network has a small volunteer steering group and aims to put on learning events, publish policy related papers and stimulate debate on where PB might go next.

You can receive updates of the network via Twitter, Facebook and/or LinkedIn, and find resources on PB on the PB Unit’s now archived website:

These are my notes from the opening panel session, titled “Hearing the voices of the unheard”. The issues of inclusivity and equality in democratic participation are something that, like many others, we at Involve are very concerned with. The following thoughts from the panel, which I’ve recorded as faithfully as possible, include a range of useful observations, arguments and reminders for anyone interested in democratic participation.

Here are five things that particularly hit home for me:

  • Participatory processes can achieve as much, if not more, through their ability to bring people together to discuss, share and take action, as their impact on decision making (though the latter must not be forgotten). PB should be about building a democratic movement – not the distribution of small grants.
  • Process design is all-important for ensuring people are able to speak and be heard. Effort and resource is required to ensure that power imbalances are overcome.
  • It’s important to be aware of who the unheard voices are in different contexts. There may be some surprises.
  • We should be mindful of and challenge participatory processes that are being used to control and appease people, rather than hand over genuine power.
  • If PB, or any other democratic innovation for that matter, is to make a real impact on power balances, they must be focused on core issues (and budgets) – not scraps on the edges.

Professor Yves Cabannes

Professor Yves Cabannes kicked off the session. He has a large amount of practical experience of participatory budgeting, including as senior adviser to the Municipality of Porto Alegre, Brazil, where PB was first developed.

Yves began by noting that the vast majority of participatory budgeting processes are either thematically or territorially based, and advocated the use of actor based participatory budgeting instead, to hear the voices of the unheard.

Listening to the voices of the unheard, Yves says, can lead you to projects that are very different. For example, he spoke about his experience of a PB process with young people in slums in Brazil who identified that the short length of time school buses would wait at a stop for them to get on meant that the younger ones were pushed and shoved by the older ones to get on. Negotiating a longer stoppage time with bus companies meant the young people arrived at school in a much better state of mind – an outcome that could not have been anticipated before the process.

Yves also spoke about PB being a means rather than an end. For example, he spoke about PB being a pretext for bringing together migrants in Spain, giving them a place where they could speak to and learn from each other.

However, Yves noted that there are a number of ongoing challenges and issues relating to hearing the voices of the unheard through PB. For example, he noted that very little progress has been made on increasing women’s voices in PB, and suggested more effort is required to break the power imbalances.

He also noted that just because people are present at a PB event, does not mean their voices will be heard. It’s therefore important that we create the right conditions for people to feel comfortable to speak.

Another challenge, according to Yves, is to include the voices of the unheard in the implementation of a project as well as the initial decision. The risk is that in the transformation into a project eligible for PB, an idea becomes coopted by those with power. Too often, according to Yves, people are not empowered fully and others take over.

Yves went on to talk about the importance of deliberation in a process, arguing that one of the duties of PB is to open up an opportunity for people to speak and exchange their opinions. For Yves, the deliberative quality of a PB process determines its success. He therefore said he was reluctant about the use of electronic voting in PB and also commented that while technology can be useful, deliberations can be difficult, especially for the unheard, if not face-to-face.

Finally, Yves spoke about the risk that PB is used to keep people in “their ghetto”. PB can maintain segregation and just as well as it can lead to people voice and power. For Yves, PB needs to give people power in their city, not just in their neighbourhood.

Professor Graham Smith

Next up was Professor Graham Smith, a specialist in the theory and practice of democratic innovations at the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, who responded to Yves’s remarks.

Graham agreed with Yves on the importance of how PB processes are designed; it’s not just an issue of wanting to hear the voices of the unheard, but also about how it’s done. It’s one thing to have people in a room, but it’s another for them to have a voice, and another for them to be heard. Therefore, for Graham, the issue of institutional design has not had enough attention paid to it.

He spoke about how the clever separation of different types of voice that can be found in the Porto Alegre process have been collapsed in the UK; for example, there is no separation between where demands and decisions are made. The best PB processes, according to Graham, are those where somebody has thought very carefully about what space they are creating and why. Asking the question, “how do we design this in order that the voices of the unheard will be heard?”, because it won’t happen by accident.

Graham finished by commenting that we still have a lot to learn from Latin America about willingness to take a risk on different types of institutions.

Cllr Simon Henig

Simon Henig is Leader of Durham County Council. He spoke about County Durham’s experience of implementing PB via its area partnerships.

Simon began by commenting that the formation of the new unitary authority in County Durham in 2009 presented an opportunity to change the way in which public engagement was done. He noted that, in common with other councils, there was a great deal of cynicism from residents about how decisions were made.

The newly formed authority set up 14 area partnerships based on geography decided by local people. Each partnership was given a devolved yearly budget to spend and some chose to hold one-off events with local residents to decide how it was spent. He referred specifically to one area, with a relatively poor population, in which they were surprised by the level of interest: 800 people turned up to the event in the first year and many stayed until the ballots were counted and results announced – something he noted never happens for councilor elections.

Simon also spoke about a process whereby local people were consulted on County Durham’s overall budget, including which services should be protected and which should be saved. While by law the decision has to be made by a full Cabinet, he highlighted that the eventual decision went with what the public had voted for. This, he said, effectively meant that County Durham’s £500 million budget had been allocated by residents.

However, he also noted that only 10-15% of the money spent within an area, is spent by the local authority.

Finally, Simon suggested that there currently exists a political opportunity to embed PB as all of the main political parties have expressed a desire to empower the public and acknowledged problems with the current political system. On the other hand, he recognised that getting politicians to give up power can be difficult and anyone with a budget at the moment will be loath to give it up. However, he also suggested that at a time of austerity, it is perhaps easier to get PB implemented as, for a politician, it is potentially easier to say “because we’ve got difficult decisions, let’s make the public make them”.

Shazia Hussain

Finally, Shazia Hussain, currently service head for localism at Tower Hamlets Council, spoke about her experience of developing and leading the UK’s largest PB process – You Decide! – in Tower Hamlets in 2008 and how they are continuing to develop PB now.

Shazia began by commenting that the unheard are often thought to include the young, BME communities and women, but in Tower Hamlets they had experienced the opposite: those not turning up were white men.

PB has achieved support from politicians across parties and officers alike in Tower Hamlets because it’s been shown to give people an opportunity to be heard. Shazia later commented that when people go into the room and see people engaging in the PB process, then they get it.

For Shazia, PB is not about consultation; it’s about people’s ideas and how to grow them. The question they are seeking to answer in Tower Hamlets is “how do you get people to influence and co-produce on core services?”, recognising that they need citizens to help tackle gritty problems. They are therefore moving from a large to a smaller pot of money, but one that impacts core services.

Finally, Shazia highlighted that working with councillors was key to success, in part because councilors have the networks into local groups and communities.

Picture credit: higgs2007