7 September 2016

Scotland and international experiences of scaling-up participatory budgeting

The Scottish Government has recently reiterated its support for participatory budgeting with a blog post by the Minister for Local Government and Housing which confirms a national support programme for local authorities and communities

An international conference on participatory budgeting will be taking place in Edinburgh on 20th and 21st October 2016.

So we thought this was a good time to ask Giovanni Allegretti, who talked about international experiences of participatory budgeting at a What Works Scotland event in June, to share his reflections on ‘scaling-up’ participatory budgeting and how Scotland can learn from, and contribute to, the international expansion of participatory democracy.

A guest blog by Giovanni Allegretti, Senior Researcher, Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

The seminar held by What Works Scotland in Edinburgh was an great space for exchanging still rare experiences of ‘scaling-up’ in participatory democracy, with special interest for participatory budgeting (PB).

The investment that Scottish Government is doing, in my view, opens multiple opportunities for spreading a tool that offers its best when used in an experimental environment where dynamics of mutual exchange, virtuous emulation and contamination of models and techniques are fostered.

I had two personal experiences of work in 'scaling-up participation' experiments at regional level in Italy.

Key ideas for cultural shift from the Lazio region

In the case of Region Lazio (during the political mandate 2005-2009), the four most important ideas were:

  1. Working on a double track simultaneously: i.e. supporting PB experiments at municipal and district level (with 900,000 Euros allocated through calls for projects), but also experiencing PB on some regional competences (5 million euros on a different topic every year).
  2. Offering to local authorities a structure in charge of “capacity-building” and "support/counselling" through the creation of a special office, strictly linked to the powerful Regional Ministry of Budget, Finances, Economic Development and Participation
  3. Providing rules for the distribution of funds which could stimulate aggregation of local authorities in experimental consortia (privileging the cooperation of public entities over the fragmentation of competing interests, for example through giving major scores to projects of participatory processes presented by several local authorities together)
  4. Providing a special fund (of additional 10 million Euros per year, since 2007) to small municipalities to support the implementation of first priorities approved by citizens through PB, to avoid the frustration due to the structural lack of resources for public investments.

In my view, the effect of such combined measures (which all together were counting on a special budget of 16 millions per year) managed to promote a real cultural shift, so that many municipalities discovered the benefit of public participation in decision-making, and continued to invest in it also when a sudden change of the regional government stopped the policy of supporting PB.

Furthermore, a range of new actors capable of offering good quality services in the domain of facilitation and conflict mediation flourished, allowing the production of interesting evaluation analyses, books, and new experiments of social innovation also beyond the regional borders.

Support for diverse approaches in Tuscany

The experience which started in 2007 in Tuscany (where I am still working as co-director of the newly-created Independent Authority for the Guarantee and the Promotion of Participation) somehow represents a continuation and, partially, a deepening of the Lazio experiment.

The creation of a crowdsourced Law for granting Citizens Participation, represented a form of institutionalisation and a strong driver to consolidate a participatory culture at all administrative levels within the regional territory.

Tuscany lawmakers decided not to bet on a single mode of participation (participatory budgeting, for example), but to promote different experiments and techniques of participation, related to different topics and policies.
Giovanni Allegretti speaking in Edinburgh 
Since 2007, several waves of different typologies of participatory processes were tried in the region, testing new methodologies in the domain of urban and rural planning and budgeting, environmental protection, collaborative governance in the management of commons, as well as pedagogic processes with young citizens, experiments in integration of immigrants, actions devoted to civil protection, sustainable mobility, co-housing etc.

Unlike in Lazio Region, in Tuscany the 700,000 Euros annual fund for improving participatory processes was not only open to local authorities’ proposals, but also to projects coming from the academy, schools, groups of citizens and private enterprises. This meant approaching the issue of participation from different perspectives and starting points, including a dialogue with some participation initiatives ‘by irruption’ (e.g. local social movements). Such an approach was strengthened by the commitment to a compulsory and binding process to be invoked before the approval of every public equipment and infrastructure projects with an expected cost of more than 50 million, in accordance with  the methodology of ‘Public Debate’ experimented with in France since 1995 at national level. Such a commitment – to be fulfilled before (and to contribute to) the Environmental Impact Assessment procedures - has proved very important to promote a transcalar approach to participation, integrating local issues with shared planning of region-wide infrastructures.

The Tuscan experiment, which started just after the spreading of the Web 2.0 paradigm, put a strong emphasis on the use of information and communication technologies, to the point that the Region today offers free web support and space to all participatory experiments in the area, on its Open Government Portal.

This seeks not only to create a unitary space for collective memory about participatory processes, which could activate a cycle of virtuous emulation and mutual learning between the different existing practices, but also aims at fostering a collection of open data about participatory processes, to facilitate comparative studies.

In the Tuscany experiment, more than 16 participatory budgeting projects have been co-funded up to now, including interesting experiences for fostering the civic engagement of young citizens. Anyway, such experiments represent just a limited part of the more than 160 experiences co-funded in local areas since 2007. In fact, the goal of this sectorial policy for promotion of participation is to stimulate the creation of hybrid experiments which could count on ‘multichannel’ perspectives, i.e. a differentiated series of synchronous channels of participation capable to attract and involve a diverse range of civic actors in permanence in decision-making on local and regional policies and projects.

The multiplier effect: from local and regional to national

It is important to underline that the success of such ‘critical masses’ of participatory practices could have an important multiplier effect. The case of Tuscany well illustrates the importance that the regional commitment to expand a culture of participation as a basic citizens’ right could have on higher institutional levels, given that the Italian National Government (with Legislative Decree n. 50/2016) recently adopted the Public Debate as a rule for planning all huge infrastructure projects, while the French Government modified its Law on Public Debates, taking inspiration from the Tuscanian Law on Participation which allow participatory processes to be activated by a petition of citizens through the collection of signatures.

Specifically, in the domain of participatory budgeting, another country has recently started a pilot-experiment of extension of PB methodologies at national level, thanks to the wide success of a national network of more than 80 active PB experiences. This is the case of Portugal, where the secret for PB being able to impact on national choices derived from the construction of a dynamic network of local authorities (called Rede das Autarquias Participativas) created specifically to provide a space of mutual learning between different social actors and a wide range of diverse experiments of participatory processes aimed at promoting the involvement of inhabitants in a large series of different decision-making processes of various topic of collective interest.

I strongly believe that the Scottish experience, with its multiple opportunities of fostering a collaborative environment between different participatory experiments at municipal level, would benefit a lot from (and could offer a valuable set of bold ideas to) the construction of a solid platform of permanent collaboration with other regional and national governments which are pursuing similar goals of scaling-up the quality and quantity of participatory processes in their areas.

See the presentations 

The presentations from the What Works Scotland event in June are available on our website:

Look out for more information soon about the Edinburgh participatory budgeting conference in October on the PB Scotland website

Views expressed by guest bloggers may not reflect the views of What Works Scotland.

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