Along the last 20 years ‘Democratic Innovations’ — institutions specifically designed to increase and deepen citizen participation in the political decision-making process — have become a ubiquitous feature of policymaking and governance building. Representative democracy is being questioned on the idea that traditional representation mechanisms are no more sufficient to ensure to proper participation of the citizens cyclically involved in electing their representatives, through free and fair elections, to make decisions on their behalf. Although positions in the political and scientific domains widely differ regarding how to handle the crisis of representative democracy, there is a considerable convergence in their diagnosis. Deliberative “remedies”, based on several mechanisms for citizens’ participation in decision-making processes, are being pointed out as a proper answer to the various troubles pervading contemporary democratic systems. With this respect, Participatory Budgeting can be defined as one of the most successful Democratic Innovations of the last decades, with a capacity of dissemination and replication under a variety of social and political contexts. PB is a structured and cyclical process of engagement where ordinary citizens become central actors in decision-making processes concerning the allocation of public funds, experimented with the engagement of local and regional authorities, even if the “city” is the privileged stage for PB.
PB could be defined as a type of democratic innovations that modify the procedures of one of the most important aspects of urban politics — the formulation of institutional budgets – through repeated negotiations between the local government (or some local administrative agencies) and participants. The public of PB could be limited to citizens or include other groups (e.g. including commuters, migrants, children and other inhabitants of a specific territory, not necessarily holding formal titles of citizenship), or, in some rare cases, limit the participation to specific members of civic associations, taxpayers, or an even more reduced groups of persons chosen through methods of random selection. PB designs also vary significantly, combining in different ways elements of deliberative, participatory, and representative democracy.
PB was originally developed and diffused in Brasil and Latin America since the ’80s, while in Europe it has been limited to a fistful of small cities at least until a decade ago, when the financial crisis and the crisis of representative democracy and related generalized fall of political participation that have been following in Europe, pushed a number of local governments to test new means of democratic engagement. Nowadays, PB is used in the largest European metropolis as Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Milan, and it is calculated that more than 3000 European cities have been tested it at least once, involving already millions of European citizens (it is an approximation because the number of new PBs is growing up on daily basis). Such a growth was also fostered by the new opportunities opened by the widespread diffusion of digital technologies and networks. Indeed, PB was originally carried out through traditional in-person means of engagement (assemblies, focus groups, ballot voting, etc.), but along the last 10 years its design - the set of rules and procedures that make it work - has been cross-fertilizing with cultures, methods and tools coming from the digital domain. A number of collaborative platforms specifically developed to support citizen engagement appeared in what seems to be a growing niche of market driven by public sector demand. A recent research promoted under the framework of the EMPATIA project (https://www.empatia-project.eu/ - CAPS project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme under grant agreement No 687920), mapped more than 20 platforms currently used in Europe (to which a number of customized cases of use should be added).
Platforms for PB can be considered as a subset of the larger category of collaborative platforms for social innovations developed and diffused during the last years, and this provides PB with the opportunity to feed into e-Government plans and practices. In some cases, we have platforms expressively designed and developed for the purpose to support a PB process, but in other cases we can find adaptations of broader collaborative platforms configured for this specific use case, or even the adaptation of popular CMS (as Wordpress or Drupal) for those use cases that do not require particularly advanced features. On one hand the arrival of collaborative platforms has been opening new opportunities for the delivery of inclusive PB processes at limited cost also in medium and large cities, targeting large communities of inhabitants interested in participating in decisions directly affecting their life space. On the other hand, municipalities and local authorities that are primary actors of PB often have limited technical and institutional capacity to adapt and manage such complex and diversified tools.
Within this picture, this proposal targets the adoption of the PB as an Action to be included in the eGov action plan, promoting its replication and diffusion in new geographical contexts and exploring the possibility to adopt PB methods in new domains than the local finance, cross-fertilizing other areas of Social Innovation as well as urban innovation and Smart city policies.
Potential of action
The methodology and tools used in participatory budgeting have been already proven their benefit on the social and political cohesion of the local society engaged in such kind of participatory process. A digitally powered version of PB is strongly coherent with the E-Government Action plan as a tool to foster and trigger digital interaction between public administration and and citizens. It also offers the opportunity to stimulate public dialogues on budgetary issues thus converging with the eGov Plan principle of ensuring transparency. At the same time, new opportunities to exploit Open Data in Participatory Budgeting processes to support citizens and the administration during the whole process. Last but not least, the routinization of PB through on line platforms within the administrative structures can provide civil servants and political and administrative personnel directly engaged in its delivery with new digital skills that can be reused in a variety of other fields of public sector management.
Description of action
At the moment we foresee three possible way to operationalize the action, some of those already initiated in the framework of the Initiative Participatory Budgeting for Inclusive Smart Cities within the EIP Smart Cities and Communities (http://eu-smartcities.eu/initiatives/844/description):
- Activities of standardization of methods and tools within the framework of EU to support the delivery of PB process at local level Europe -wide, ensuring high standards of quality and compliance with the overall objectives of the PB.
- Emphasis on PB within the eGov action plans and other policy instruments able to influence the development of national and regional scale of planning and execution of ESF and ERDF.
- Research activities to explore new possible domains of implementation of PB in new policy domains (ie the use of PB methods in the development of smart city plans) and at a new territorial scale (ie: regional, national and eventually EU level)
- Creation and population of a knowledge sharing on line platform functioning as a one stop-shop gathering and classifying existing learning resources and tools on PB processes and tools and facilitating dialogue and exchange among implementers, decision makers and civil society organizations interested in PB.