Phil Teece, the Programme Director of the Participatory Budgeting Unit of Church Action on Poverty says that participatory budgeting strengthens democracy and value for money
Whether or not it is true, as claimed by some academics and commentators, that there is a crisis in UK democracy, it is reasonable to conclude that in some communities there has been a loss of faith in the capacity of our form of parliamentary and local democracy to serve them well. At the same time, the direction of government policy is towards more accountability and a stronger role for local people in decisions about public services, particularly at a time when hard choices and imaginative solutions are required.
And yet, despite the evidence that local people can be trusted to make sound decisions and are often better placed to know how services can be delivered better and more efficiently, most councils remain reluctant to devolve or share power – and the accountability that goes with it – to their residents. Too often, the requirement to “involve the community”, contained in many government initiatives, results in no more than token consultation or engagement with a self-appointed minority.
Perhaps it is timely, therefore, to consider whether a more participative form of democracy can be accommodated within our representative system, one which gives citizens a direct and meaningful share in the decisions that impact them. The World Bank advocates participatory budgeting (PB), probably the best known application of participatory democracy around the world, because it enhances transparency and accountability and reduces government inefficiency. Gerry Stoker, Professor of Governance at Southampton University, has recently pointed to the growing academic consensus that representative democracy needs to engage more with participatory democracy.
PB is applied to different ends around the world. Here in the UK, one of the key outcomes has been greater trust in local politicians, stronger and more engaged communities and a fundamental change in the relationship between service providers and citizens. The common denominator in PB is its adaptability as a means of giving local people a meaningful say in decisions about spending and services; at the same time, building communities that are able to be part of the solution to the challenges they are facing.
Until now, it has been a “top down” process instigated and led by a council or other public body. There have been around 150 projects implemented in England and Wales to date, many by Conservative led councils. However, a campaign – “The People’s Budget” – has just been launched by Church Action on Poverty, which aims to mobilise communities in persuading budget holders to give them a direct and meaningful say in how public money is spent; a kind of “community right to budget”.