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Cities across Europe have introduced schemes that give people a say in how public money is spent – but experts are raising questions about who really has a say and at what cost.
The participatory budget model, first introduced in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the late 1980s, gives residents the opportunity to propose projects they would like their local government to fund, which are then put to a local referendum.
The original intent was to solicit contributions from historically overlooked low-income residents and give them a say in how their money is used by local governments.
“Participatory budgeting was designed as a process to redistribute not only economic resources but also… policy makers,” said Pietro Reviglio, who works on governance issues at Eurocities – a network of European municipalities.
The concept has become very popular in Europe, which counted more than 5,000 such programs in 2019 – about half the total number of initiatives adopted worldwide this year. Some cities allocate a set percentage of their budget to the programs — in Paris, that’s 5 percent of the city’s investment budget, or around €75 million for projects funded in 2021 — while others spend fixed amounts of money.
Cities often display these programs as signs of an inclusive and progressive agenda.
A new one is being planted in Warsaw with participatory budgeting urban forest; In the Czech city of Brno, voters provided public funds for the construction of a Bike path. And in Lisbon, the money from the program finances the first monument Recognition of Portugal’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
But if in theory the ability to propose projects means that more voices are heard in the halls of power, in practice it is more likely to be used by communities already at the table.
“The middle class will definitely engage in participatory budgeting processes” since they have more time and resources to get involved, Allegretti said.
Although participatory budgeting typically seeks to expand participation, Allegretti says it often does not specifically target disadvantaged populations. That means communities with greater need for additional cash are being bypassed.
With very few exceptions, initiatives aimed specifically at empowering low-income residents “essentially never happen” in European cities, he said.
This risks creating a “boomerang effect,” according to Reviglio, as pet projects proposed by higher-income residents “are deepened[ing] inequalities within cities.”
barriers to participation
Ricardo Pita, head of the civic participation department at Lisbon City Hall, said the city has struggled to increase participation in its participatory budgeting program since it started in 2008.
While some central districts routinely present projects and receive support for projects, poorer, more “socially fragile” neighborhoods rarely submit proposals, he said: citing the poorer district of Beato with particularly low participation rates.
Pita attributes this to lower-income residents being more concerned about making ends meet and not having the luxury of spending their free time coming up with ideas to present to the city government.
“These communities could probably not afford to care about public participation until they get to the point where their basic needs are met,” he said.
Estela Brahimllari, a research fellow at the Freiburg School of Engineering and Architecture, said the program itself has become a “factor” contributing to gentrification.
Proposals aimed at making neighborhoods more livable — for example, with more green space or better public safety — also make them more attractive to potential buyers, so long-time residents are gradually being evicted from their homes, she said.
Another barrier to participation tends to be access to the voting system itself.
During the pandemic, most voting on participatory budgeting proposals took place digitally — a format that excluded poorer or less tech-savvy locals. As a result, people with “good ideas” were excluded from the process because they “didn’t own a computer [or] I don’t have internet,” Brahimllari said.
NGOs and neighborhood organizations, which typically do “a lot of work on-site and offline” to reach these groups, could not directly contact potential voters due to lockdown restrictions, Reviglio said.
In Lisbon, the city government tried to help local groups spread the word about participatory budgeting in the safest possible way, setting up public spaces where people who didn’t have digital access at home could vote.
Now that most of the coronavirus restrictions have been lifted, the key will be “to get back on the streets, go door to door and make sure we give every citizen a voice,” Pita said.
Cities looking to sustain digital voting need to look closely at the platforms they’ve created to make them as accessible as possible, Allegretti said. He pointed out that many often lack gender-sensitive language or accommodations for people with disabilities, which can put off potential voters.
Formats that are not user-friendly risk alienating people, who no longer see participatory budgeting as “a common good” but as something tailored to specific groups — “that is, those middle classes with the resources to engage participate,” he said.
let it happen
In addition to a lack of broad engagement, participatory budgeting can also be undermined by changes in government and logistical problems.
In Porto Alegre, the defeat of the Labor Party in 2004 proved disastrous for the city’s participatory budget. The new government cut funding for the program, eventually suspending it altogether in 2017. Talks about reintroduction are still ongoing.
“It is important that political leaders invest [political] capital in this process,” Reviglio said. “All of these practices work better when there is a strong managerial culture to manage these participatory processes.”
In Romania, projects failed due to a lack of transparency, mistrust of institutions and legal hurdles Cluj-Napoca – the first Romanian city to introduce a participatory budgeting system in 2017 – and other administrations that followed suit.
Some cities also lack the staff to carry out the projects. Pita said some plans approved by Lisbon voters in 2013 were still awaiting execution.
“Our team consists of only six people, a relatively small machine to realize large urban infrastructure projects,” he said. “But even then, we are deeply concerned about these delays and are trying very hard to move things faster so people can see what they voted for as soon as possible.”
In Paris, community leaders facing similar challenges have tried to save time by limiting the number of participatory budgeting projects approved each year.
“It’s best to focus on doing five projects well rather than doing 15 projects less well,” said Anouch Toranian, deputy mayor for civic participation. “We chose quality over quantity.”
According to Pita, Lisbon is also looking for ways to streamline the process and keep residents informed and involved in a project’s progress.
“We want citizen participation to continue even after the election process is complete,” he said. “It’s a way for us to include everyone in this politics, which is a way to build communities while also building our city.”
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