Participatory budgeting is all the rage at the moment, but is the stampede for ‘Wales to be more like Brazil’ realistic? Participatory budgeting is big in Brazil by the way, and you can read about it here.
The re-branding of Barry Island as ‘Barrybados’ was genius, but Cardiff-Copacabana-Bay might be a bit of a stretch. I do like the idea of participatory budgeting, but I am anxious that it might get bogged-down in the quicksand of Silver Bullet Syndrome.
Silver Bullet Syndrome can be summarised as:
- Someone does something amazing in their community or organisation,
- This, based upon hard work and a deep understanding of what makes things ‘tick’,
- People recognise what’s happened and praise the method used,
- Other people think, ‘this could be the answer to all of our problems’ and look on the method as a magical ‘Silver Bullet’,
- They try to implement the method with no real understanding of the underpinning theory, and what made things work in the first place (this is where the Leonardo Da Vinci quote fits in),
- The half-baked implementation of a Second Generation Silver Bullet doesn’t work,
- The method gets blamed, becomes discredited, and
- The guilty continue on their quest for the next Silver Bullet.
You might have seen this sort of thing before. You can read more about it in this post, The Life Cycle of a Silver Bullet.
Participatory Budgeting (PB) isn’t particularly new or different. There, I’ve said it.
If you want to see PB in everyday use, just wander down to the supermarket (Asda or Waitrose will do, depending on your preferences). In either store green tokens are handed out with a purchase, which shoppers can allocate to good causes… basically it’s a version of PB, citizens deciding democratically how resources get allocated.
The environmental sector has been involved in participatory decision making (PDM) for ages and have learnt lots of valuable lessons. Ultimately, PB is mainly about decision making, so why wouldn’t there be things that PB could learn from PDM?
If you want to learn more about PDM in the environmental sector I’d recommend reading this 2004 Public Administration Review paper by Irvin and Stansbury; Citizen Participation in Decision Making: Is it Worth the Effort?
What I like about this paper is some straight talking about the practicalities of PDM and an explanation of the advantages and disadvantages. Some of the key points for me:
- Advantages of Participatory Decision Making (some)
- Education – citizens will become better informed about issues that (should) matter to them (and possibly ‘official’ decision makers)?
- Involvement – to quote the paper ‘there is an underlying assumption that if citizens become actively involved as participants in their democracy, the governance that emerges from this process will be more democratic and more effective’.
- Avoiding Legal Costs – avoiding legal costs has to be a good thing.
- Breaking Gridlock – sometimes a citizen viewpoint can move things forward where there is ‘gridlock’ between the ‘official’ decision makers.
- Disadvantages of Participatory Decision Making (some)
- Cost – this is not a low-cost / no-cost activity. Under resourcing will undermine the process and upset everyone, particularly the citizens.
- Representation – as a citizen it costs to get involved in PDM. Some people have more time to ‘spend’ getting involved. Others might be better supported or organised through a special interest group.
- Selfishness – like it or not, some people will be motivated by self-interest rather than the greater good.
- Authority – if PDM isn’t actually linked to the ability to make decisions the whole thing can backfire and lead to increased citizen dissatisfaction.
Is PDM worth the effort? From the list of advantages and disadvantages it seems fairly obvious that the decision to engage in PDM isn’t clear-cut. It’s a complex human system that needs careful consideration. To help with this Irvin and Stansbury identified several indicators that influence the costs and benefits of PDM. This isn’t a straightforward ‘checklist’, ultimately it is a judgement call about what might work in different situations.
I do recommend reading the paper, but in the interim I’ve had a go at summarising their indicators (please use with caution):
- Low Cost Indicators (High Cost will be the opposite indicator)
- Citizens willing to participate
- Local groups in a relatively small / defined ‘place’
- Citizens who can ‘afford’ the time to be involved
- Citizens who are ‘similar’ (homogeneous) – so it requires fewer representatives to make a decision
- A relatively straightforward issue – it does not require understanding of complex technical information
- An issue that is recognised by the Citizens
- High Benefit Indicators (Low Benefit will be the opposite indicator)
- Hostility to government. Having something to ‘argue’ over is better than passive acceptance or indifference
- A gridlocked issue. Involvement of citizens helps to break the gridlock
- Involvement of Community Leaders (not just ‘ordinary’ citizens)
- Facilitators with credibility
- ‘Crisis State’ – having a real problem to ‘fix’
- Small populations, these are likely to hold less diverse views (than large populations) and it will be easier to reach consensus (in theory)
Don’t rollout your PB App just yet… This post by Helen Reynolds Public engagement: crap apps, Lego, conversation and politicians, gives a helpful explanation of some of the challenges faced by organisations that engage in PB. Where it is done poorly, it can be perceived as tokenistic and end up doing damage to the relationship with citizens. Helen rightly acknowledges that it is a complex issue. There is a great deal to be gained from having proper, meaningful conversations before you; launch the App, dish out the Lego bricks or some other similarly whizzy interactive online consultation scheme. They probably aren’t the Silver Bullets you were promised.
So, What’s the PONT?
- Beware of Going Brazilian and Silver Bullet Syndrome (that’s all I’m saying)
- It’s worth a careful look at what other people have tried. There’s always something you can learn from their failures and successes.
- Conversations are good. They might give you a better understanding than a whizzy App or a bucket full of Lego bricks.