17 February 2015

Beyond cynicism and complacency: Participatory budgeting in Scotland

Oliver Escobar, Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh and part of the What Works Scotland team, outlines how participatory budgeting is gaining momentum in Scotland.


Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a process that enables citizens to deliberate on priorities and decide on the allocation of public money.

It started in 1989 in Porto Alegre (Brazil) and has now spread to over 1,500 localities around the globe. One of the reasons it has become one of the most popular democratic innovations of the last decade is due to the substantial impact of the process in tackling inequalities, solving local problems and increasing civic engagement in some Brazilian cities. Its impact in other countries, however, has been often less impressive.



'Advancing Participatory Budgeting in Scotland: A learning event' (Glasgow, October 2014) Source: Scottish Community Development Centre















There are clear signs that PB is gaining momentum in Scotland:
  • Various localities and organisations have conducted PB projects in the last few years, and an increasing number are currently planning to start new processes.
  • There is a Scottish Government PB Working Group in place since last spring considering a range of issues including capacity building, alternative PB models and a Scottish approach to PB. The Group includes Fiona Garven (Scottish Community Development Centre), Angus Hardie (Scottish Community Alliance), Felix Spittal (Scottish Council of the Voluntary Sector), Martin Jhonstone (Faith in Communities), myself from Edinburgh University's Academy of Government, and officials from the Community Empowerment Unit.
  • There have been some introductory training programs completed across the country – e.g. by PB Partners in numerous Local Authorities and by myself with three Area Partnerships in Glasgow. There is also a new set of advanced training packages designed by PB Partners, and supported by the PB Working Group, to be rolled out across the country to support those Local Authorities planning to develop PB processes. This will be co-funded by the Scottish Government and the Local Authorities involved.
  • Minister Marco Biagi (Local Government) and Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil (Social Justice) have shown interest in PB – i.e. requesting evidence from academics and analysts, and discussing PB with the Working Group. Marco Biagi is also building on the work that Derek Mackay started setting up the PB Working Group and support for PB training.
  • There have been a series of seminars and sessions on PB, including the recent 'Advancing PB Learning Event' summarised in this report. There are also plans for a high profile national conference in 2015.
  • The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) has endorsed the findings from the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy, which includes PB amongst its recommendations to develop new forms of public engagement (see their recent landmark report 'Effective democracy: Reconnecting with communities'). Similar points have been made by civic organisations like the Electoral Reform Society Scotland as part of their Demo Max process, or the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations in their response to the consultation on the Community Empowerment Bill.
  • What Works Scotland, a three-year research and knowledge exchange program funded by ESRC and the Scottish Government, has included PB in its plans for research into community engagement in Scotland. I will be leading on this research, starting with a review of evidence about PB processes in Scotland to be published before the summer. What Works Scotland will therefore contribute to develop the evidence base for future policy developments on PB.

In post-referendum Scotland, it is becoming commonplace to talk about the aspirations of a growing number of citizens who demand new ways of participating in politics and policy making. PB is increasingly seen as an important part of the new 'democratic renewal' agenda in Scotland. Interestingly, PB is not only being supported by the SNP government, but also at local level by Labour administrations such as Glasgow City Council (where the figure £1.4 million has been mentioned in relation to 'community budgeting' via Area Partnerships). In other words, at least for now, PB has not become a political football, and there may be an opportunity for cross-party support of a long term PB strategy for the country.

However, this apparent momentum should not be cause for uncritical optimism by participatory democrats. There are different ways of approaching PB, and not all are equally effective in securing civic empowerment, tackling inequalities and solving problems. PB, like citizen participation more broadly, can be put to undesirable uses and be hijacked by managerial rather than democratic agendas. For example, I understand those who find it suspicious that PB is gaining momentum at a time of increasing cuts to public services. However, a simplistic analysis underestimates the impact of the independence referendum in opening up space for a more participatory democracy. Perhaps it is time to navigate and expand that narrow patch of hopeful land left between cynicism and complacency, and create a Scottish approach to PB that works for most and makes a difference.

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