On September 15th the Participatory Budgeting Unit, a project by the Church Action against Poverty, organized the first National PB conference in Manchester (UK). For a short introduction to the topic the PB Unit does explain Participatory Budgeting and the reasons why it should be done very well on their website. I was at the event as one of the few non UK citizens and therefore had kind of an outsiders look on what is going on over there. I would like to talk about a few of these impressions.
The first significant fact was that an estimate of 250 representatives of mainly public bodies and councils took part in an event which was focus on what is still a niche topic. This shows that the interest in Participatory Budgeting in the UK is strong and that we can assume that there will be a number of new towns and quarters who start using PB in the next years. I had the opportunity to speak to some of the representatives of cities who already use PB and they were very clear in stating that they will keep up their efforts and that PB has to be a long term process which can not be done “right” at the first try.
Secondly the discussion of good practice cases and related inputs by speakers showed that, while all cases are clearly differentiated, PB in the United Kingdom has a number of specific attributes which distinguish it from the efforts in other countries. Most cases focused on finding a certain budget of varying size which can be solely committed to be distributed by citizens. One speaker made the, from my point of view controversial, point that if this distribution is not binding for the decision makers the effort can not be called participatory budgeting at all. It was clear that in this model only a small amount of for example a cities budget can be committed. This way of approaching PB is for example different to some cases in Germany where the whole city budgeting was up to discussion and the results where then fed into the parliamentary discussion (see for example Freiburg or Hamburg).
Another distinguishing factor was that the PB efforts presented almost exclusively depended on face to face meetings among citizens to decide over the budget in discussion. There seem to be little use of electronic tools and especially the Internet. When talking to attendees is was clear that the use of for example online tools was in their focus and that they were in some cases planning to use these tools in the future especially to get segments of the population involved who are absent in the process right now. It seems to be clear that future PB efforts will have to include different forms of media and channels to reach out to the constituency and that the Internet will be clearly one of them.
In conclusion participatory budgeting in gaining steam in the UK and the concepts and ideas get adapted to the local conditions. In certain field however, as for example with electronic participatory budgeting, there seems to be the need to keep innovate and keep and eye on the activities in other countries in Europe and over the world (which is true also in reverse).