by Alexander Svetlov
Good governance begins at the local level, and citizen participation in municipal processes is an important element of democracy. Interestingly, preparation and realisation of participatory budgets have spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world, even to the countries with frequent democratic abuses.
Participatory budgeting can be seen as a decision-making process through which citizens, either as individuals or through civic associations, may voluntarily contribute to decision-making over a part of local authorities´ annual budget. Thus, it is a decision-making process through which citizens deliberate and negotiate over the distribution of public resources. The participatory budget comes to the fore with the aim of democratising the state at a local level, as it often decentralises power, wealth and empowers people as individuals. It should be seen not as an end in itself but as a journey on the path of democratic innovation in various cultural, political, social and administrative settings.
Currently we witness a rapid process of devaluation of liberal democracy, which is associated with political representation, standardised procedures and effective electoral mobilisation, drawing our attention to the quality of the governance form. Political apathy and abstention from political participation are seen as a response to the disenchantment, as many people do not feel represented anymore and their role as citizens is reduced to that of vote casting.
There are very high rates of electoral abstention in many countries, which means that real representative democracy is losing strength, failing to serve as a mobilising tool for many people. With the ongoing crisis of political representation, the established political parties are losing credibility, as they seem to have neglected their role in ideology promotion, citizen participation and democracy education, simply becoming an arena for resource-hungry power- and office-seeking politicians.
Against this background participatory budgeting is emerging as one of the lively practices of participatory democracy and its dissemination process is unprecedented. Within the last three decades five major development stages could be identified. Born out of necessity, during the first phase (1989-1996), more than 30 municipalities started participatory budget projects in Brazil and Uruguay. More than 140 municipalities in Brazil expanded the practice between 1997 and 2000 during the second phase. In the 2000s the PB initiatives in local variations were adopted in further Latin American and European cities as part of the third phase. After 2007 PB networks emerged on the national and international level around the globe in the fourth phase. The fifth phase can be characterised as innovation and adaptation into the broader citizen participation concepts. Indeed, development has been expansive. Thus, there were up to 2,778 participatory budget cases in 2013, and since then over 1,300 in Europe, up to 1,138 in Latin America, over 200 in Africa and over 100 in Asia.
Indeed, studying participatory budgeting is an ongoing process, and it makes the task quite fascinating as this practice displays significant variations around Europe. Differing PB practices across countries are influenced by different participatory cultures and existing structures in given countries´ democracies, quite in accordance with diverse societal and stake holders´ configurations and models. Such models can be called proximity-democratic, participatory-democratic, multi stakeholder-participatory, modernizing-participatory, neo-corporatist and community-developmental. In Slovenia, for example, various PB procedures were set up, among other, in Maribor, Ajdovščina, Komen and Nova Gorica.
In the face of mounting evidence from the field, there are some further elaborations on what constitutes a “proper” participatory budgetary processes. For instance, an administrative unit with providable resources, such as city or district council have to be involved in consultation, which should involve citizens and, possibly, third sector (NGOs) and public organisations; PB should be a sustainable, i.e. repeatable process over extensive period of time; some fora or referendums should take place as a form of public deliberation; feedback and accountability over the project implementation have to be provided.
A set of factors, detrimental to the ultimate success of the participatory budgeting programmes can not be overstressed. These are the political will of all stake holders; the sheer organisational capability for realisation; procedural compliance and fairness in allowing equal access for all potential participants; the funds availability and financial autonomy of the proposing and implementing stake holders.
The direct citizen participation in PB is perceived as a means to enhance governance, encourage social justice and people empowerment in the form of direct democracy. Stake holders initiating and implementing PB programs promote public learning and active citizenship, achieve social equity through better policies and resource allocation and improve governing administration.
In Slovenia, Maribor was the first city to introduce participatory budgeting. It makes this an interesting case as it was preceded by people´s riots in 2012. In Maribor the protesters went on streets against the mayor´s criminality and mismanagement in the municipality. The protests grew in scale and up to a quarter of the city population took active part until the prime minister interfered and the mayor announced his resignation. The municipalities were affected by a steep rise in social expenditures for increasingly impoverished population and by scarce state funding due to the economic crisis. In such a context the participatory budgeting initiative found great response. It was backed up by the civic movement “Initiative for city-wide assembly”, which managed to engage 1% of the city dwellers in horizontally organized assemblies for direct action and active decision making. Some 78 proposals were proposed for consideration and over 10% of the population took part in the decision-making. Although 14 investment projects were selected for implementation, the mayor implemented only 4 of them by the end of the budget period. It shows us that the PB realisation is a strenuous, often open-ended process with many interfering variables and unforeseen obstacles.
In Ajdovščina the municipality drew some lessons from Maribor´s experience and ear-marked 1% of the budget (€360,000) for the PB initiatives over two years. Assisted by the local NGOs, all necessary organisational arrangements, such as public discussion, deliberations, voting were made in due course.
Overall over 100 proposals were tabled, out of which 31 were selected for implementation with a 12% voting turnout. After successfully implementation the PB procedures were incorporated into the city statute, which now arranges for spending up to 1% of the total budget for the participatory budgeting projects.
A small town of Komen, counting only 642 inhabitants, also followed suit and its municipality diverted 1.3% of its budget (€120,000) for the PB projects over 2 years. Overall, during the selection, some 156 proposals were submitted, i.e. one proposal per every 23 dwellers. Of these, 22 were selected and implemented within the set time frame.
Furthermore, the Nova Gorica municipality devoted 0.8% (or €250,000) of its annual budget the PB initiatives for one year. Some 120 applications were made and 19 out of these were selected and successfully implemented in 2018.
Thus, the case of Slovenia illustrates that the participatory budgeting as a form of direct democracy is making good progress in dissemination, as it addresses citizen needs and legitimises democratic arrangements in the face of tremendous challenges.