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(e) Participatory Budgeting in Germany

20. October 2009 – 15:48 by Rolf Luehrs

Like in other European countries participatory budgeting is one of the most prominent examples of citizen participation in politics in Germany. More than 115 municipalities or cities are currently about to implement or have already implemented participatory budgeting projects.

However, there are lots of different concepts of what participatory budgeting exactly means and even more ways to put these concepts into practice. The main differences are the following:

While participatory budgeting was originally designed as an instrument of direct democracy with a binding decision of the citizenry, most of the European PBs are implemented as consultations: The citizens were given opportunity to have their say but it is up to the elected representatives to finally decide about the proposals.

In many cases only selected parts of the public budget are under consideration in others the entire budget is subject to citizen participation. Interestingly the scope seems to depend on the chosen approach: When the entire budget is under consideration, the opinions and preferences of the citizens usually are not binding.

Instruments & Channels
Some of the participatory budgeting projects are still implemented using only traditional communication channels. In most cases the Internet is leastwise used to spread information. Quiet a lot of municipalities or cities are providing interactive channels on the Internet to support the offline activities. And in a few cases the Internet is the only channel for the citizens to participate.

In the following I will focus on the cases where citizens have been provided with an interactive website allowing them to express their views and priorities online.

ePB Germany
Click on the map for further information


The first to mention is a borough (Bezirk) of the city of Berlin called Lichtenberg. The borough counts more than 250.000 inhabitants.

Since 2006, when the first participatory budgeting process has been realised, Lichtenberg invites the citizens each year to discuss the spending tax payers money. Lichtenberg has developed a complete participatory approach, comprising an Internet platform, involvement by writing letters and 13 district assemblies.

The citizens are asked to prioritise the different proposals and a list with the top rated proposals is subject to a representative survey. Finally the borough’s central assembly of representatives decides which of the proposals will be realised and which not. All decisions in favour or against the budget proposals are justified in writing.

In 2008 almost 2500 citizens registered to participate in the Internet, 1800 of which were eligible to vote. However only 218 citizens participated in the final voting. Round about 600 people attended in one the 13 district assemblies.

Concrete examples of realised outcomes of the participatory budgeting process are:

-    The school for continuing education got an elevator and is handicapped accessible.
-    21 trees have been planted in several streets of Lichtenberg in spring 2008.
-    The coordinator for participation of children and adolescents has been appointed on January 1st 2008.
-    Books and DVDs in Vietnamese can now be borrowed from the Anna-Seghers-Library in Lindencenter


The second case to mention is the city of Hamburg’s participatory budgeting, which has been realised twice in 2006 and 2009. In 2006 the Internet was the exclusive participation channel and in 2009 it has been complemented by paper and pencil interviews of pupils and elderly people.

There are a few things which makes the situation in Hamburg quite different to that in Lichtenberg. Hamburg has round about 1.7 million inhabitants and as a city state has its own parliament and is one of the 16 federal states (Bundeslaender) in Germany.

With regard to the participatory budgeting project this is considered both, a chance and a challenge. Compared to those from middle sized municipalities or boroughs Hamburg’s budget is not only much bigger but also much more complex. Nevertheless Hamburg decided to discuss about the entire budget and not only about selected parts.

The focus point of the 2006 ePB, which has been initiated by the parliament, was the City’s difficult financial situation: With more than 10 billion Euros debts, Hamburg had to pay about one billion Euros interests each year. Hence, the main question was how the city could reduce the debts.

To display the city’s expenditures a budget planer has been introduced, which split the overall budget into various policy domains like family policy, interior, the environment etc. The planer enabled all participants to design their own budget by reducing or increasing the individual positions with a budget slider. The only limitation was that the overall budget should not exceed the numbers of 2005. As a result additional spending in one domain had to be compensated by decreasing spending in other.

It turned out that the almost 3000 participants who registered for the ePB reduced the expenditures in all domains but child care, education and science. Additionally to the budget planer the participants could also take part in a moderated online discussion (DEMOS) and collaboratively develop proposals on how to better use the city’s budget. 35 five comprehensive concepts have been generated during the 4 weeks lasting discussion.

The results have been forwarded to Hamburg’s parliament and were discussed in the plenary. Finally three proposals have been selected for implementation. However, the fact that the reasons for this selection have not been published provoked criticism. During the second ePB in 2009 some of the local media questioned the value of the participatory budgeting because of the comparatively few political consequences of the first one. This might be one reason why the number of participants decreased to only 600.


While Hamburg’s participatory budgeting relied on word of mouth and media coverage to get known, the city of Cologne informed all citizens in writing when they started with ePB in 2007. The forth largest city in Germany with almost one million inhabitants selected three policy domains to be discussed with a total budget of 311 million Euros, namely “highways/byways/public spaces”, “green spaces” and “sport”.

The consultation process was based on a multi-channel communication strategy comprising  an eParticipation platform, telephone lines (call centre), letter and personal contact.

Interestingly the majority of the ca. 11000 citizens who participated used the Internet: 85% of the almost 5000 suggestions and proposals have been submitted during the four-week online discussion from 22.10 to 19.11.2007. 9% of the suggestions have been submitted by traditional mail, 4% via telephone and 2% via E-Mail.

Cologne’s city council has decided to implement the best 300 ideas, for which it has approved additional resources  of €8.2m for 2008/2009. The citizens’ budget 2010 is about to start in November 2009 and it is planned to include additional areas like education/training and protection of the environment.

Cologne’s citizens’ budget has won several awards, among them the United Nations Public Service Award. It is also one of the nominees for the public prize of the 4th European eGovernment Awards. The voting for this prize is open until November 11th – see here how it works.


The fourth case I would like to introduce is the ePB of the city of Freiburg im Breisgau, a city located in the south-west of Germany. Round about 200.000 citizens are currently living in Freiburg.  Like Hamburg Freiburg used the DEMOS approach combined with the budget planner to conduct a participatory budgeting trial from 7 April to 9 May 2008.

Additionally, a representative survey has been conducted and the citizens have been invited to a city hall conference.
The goals were to engage members of the public in participating in planning the city’s budget for 2009/10 and to generate ideas and knowledge for savings and efficient spending. In addition, the aspect of gender budgeting was introduced to address gender-specific issues connected to the city’s budget.

Citizens registering for the online platform and participating actively in the online discourse and the budget planner numbered 1861. Participants wrote 757 articles in the discussion forums, created 1291 individual budgets for Freiburg and complied 22 wikis discussing specific issues to be addressed by Freiburg’s public administration.

The quantitative results produced by the budget planner had two very promising traits. Firstly there were no radical changes to the budgets even though the participants had the possibility to change every budget in a range from -100% to +100%. The strongest budget change was -23%. This means that the collective results of such a process were very reasonable. Secondly the results of the online budget planner were very similar to those produced by the representative survey mentioned earlier.
Most of the participants of both, the ePB and the survey wished that spending increases should mainly be directed at schools, education, and social programs. According to an unpublished report of the Canadian consultancy nGernera, “the government was very open to heeding to these demands. In one instance, 400,000 Euros were reallocated for spending on child care projects, due in large part to their widespread support throughout the consultations.21 Upon its completion, the Citizen’s Budget had a “huge influence” on the writing of the actual municipal budget”.


Finally the participatory budgeting project of the city of Leipzig will be introduced. Leipzig is located in the east of Germany and counts almost half a million inhabitants. Different from all other cases the ePB in Leipzig has neither been initiated by the government nor the parliament but by the local Agenda21 group. The group asked the citizens to come up with budget related proposals and provided an online budget planner displaying the actual amount of spending in the different domains. Furthermore the administration provided the opportunity to formally object to the budget plan online. However, the respond rate was rather low. In 2008 only 40 citizens participated in the consultation process and only 14 citizens objected against individual parts of the budget plan. One reason for this low participation rate can be seen in a lack of marketing measures to make the citizens aware of the participatory budgeting.

The current experiments with Internet supported participatory budgeting in Germany  led to quite different results. As some cases showed, there is a huge potential to successfully involve the citizenry in the budget planning process. To be successful, (e) participatory budgeting should be implemented on a regular basis and the citizens have to be informed about the opportunity to become involved. Further to this the decision making process and the chances for citizens to influence the budget planning should be pointed in a clear and transparent way.

Further information:

(1) Click on the map

(2) Comprehensive information on  participatory budgeting in Germany is available at www.buergerhaushalt.org

(3) Case description on epractice.eu: Freiburg, Cologne

(4) For international trends I recommend the partcipatory budgeting group on facebook


The company I work for, TuTech Innovation GmbH, was responsible for the development of the Internet platforms and the moderation  in Hamburg and Freiburg.

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  1. 9 Responses to “(e) Participatory Budgeting in Germany”

  2. By Tiago Peixoto on Oct 21, 2009

    Great post Rolf.
    I added these cases to the Participatory Budgeting google maps


    Thanks for putting it all the German cases in a single piece!

  3. Avatar of Rolf Luehrs

    By Rolf Luehrs on Oct 21, 2009

    Great, impressive map!

  4. By Fraser on Oct 21, 2009

    Great update, Rolf. I hear you may get chance to try out some ePB in the UK.

    In the meanwhile, the ePB report from the UK ePB unit might be of interest:-


  5. By Elke Loeffler on Oct 30, 2009

    Excellent overview on the PB-scene in Germany! Clearly, as local councils in Germany (and elsewhere) now face serious budget deficits, the kind of ‘proposal schemes’ that are practiced in Berlin-Lichtenberg and Cologne (so-called ‘community kitties’ in the UK) are becoming less valuable. A survey of senior budget officials at a recent national PB conference organised by the KGSt (the UK equivalent of IDeA) and Governance International showed that only 22% of the participants intend to implement such ‘proposal schemes’. 44% of the respondents, however, want to consult with citizens on service priorities. Even though this participant survey is not statistically representative, it raises a number of other interesting issues:

    1)When asked what objectives local councils want to achieve through PB, respondents identified “increased budget transparency” as the most important. Yet, most citizens are not interested in budgets – just try selling a budget plan on e-bay! Generally, levels of public participation are only high when citizens can discuss specific quality of life issues which are of interest to them – as the Cologne proposal scheme illustrates!

    2)”Improved dialogue with citizens” was indicated as another important objective – but again, the question has to be asked here: “Are there not more effective public marketing tools to achieve improved dialogue at less cost?” Certainly when the whole dialogue is managed by an external ICT company, rather than by officials and elected members of the council there is not much of a dialogue at all. The council only comes in at the end of the process but who wants to read myriads of individual proposals, particularly when they only amount to 0.1 % of the local budget as in Cologne? No wonder the PB budget was passed without any discussion by the council.

    3)Finally, improving public service quality was considered as an important objective – yet service providers can only get useful feedback on service quality if the dialogue is with those who do use the service, or who would like to use the service, not with those who have no interest in the service, as is often the case in PB.

    The time has come to get real. Effective co-commissioning of public services requires the use of customer insight techniques. But it does not gain from using ‘catch-all’ internet platforms, where we ask general questions to everybody, rather than the right questions to the right people. We have now got sophisticated marketing and social media tools which allow us to have our dialogue with the people who want to talk to us, around things they care about, in ways they find interesting. Let’s use them.

    And, finally, we should be clear about one thing: the public budget is the responsibility of elected members. Only they can balance the conflicting interests of the many groups who we have stimulated to contribute to the local dialogue over public services.

  1. 5 Trackback(s)

  2. Nov 30, 2009: PEP-NET » Blog Archive » PEP-NET newsletter Issue 2, 30 November 2009
  3. Dec 10, 2009: PEP-NET » Blog Archive » eParticipation and the Tyranny of Scale
  4. Mar 3, 2010: Séance du 2 mars 2010 « Espace public et Internet
  5. Jul 2, 2010: Archive: More ePB | ParticiTech
  6. Nov 12, 2010: Séance du 10 novembre 2010 « Espace public et Internet

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