The Independent View: Participatory democracy and the People’s Budget

It’s budget season and here’s a question ….

Is it an exaggeration to claim that there is a crisis in our system of democracy? When so many people don’t bother to vote and there are communities in the UK which no longer have any faith in the willingness of parliament and local government to address their needs and concerns, to actually represent their interests, then I think not. However, the direction of the coalition government’s policy is avowedly towards greater accountability and a stronger role for local people in decisions about local services.

The reality is that, despite the rhetoric about localism and devolving power, so many government initiatives overlook the need for every section of a community to be properly engaged in decisions. Although the evidence is 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 public bodies remain reluctant to share power and responsibility with their residents. Too often, the requirement to “involve the community” results in no more than token consultation or engagement with a self-appointed, self-confident minority. It isn’t enough simply to invite those who are disempowered into the space. They need to be encouraged to participate.

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 their lives. Participatory budgeting (PB) is probably the best known application of participatory democracy around the world. The World Bank is even an advocate, because it enhances transparency and accountability and reduces government inefficiency. Quite simply it is a process which enables local people to decide directly how public money should be spent in their communities, on the things that they know will make the biggest difference. In doing that, it builds community cohesion, capacity and wellbeing. It changes the relationship between service providers and users and helps communities be a part of the solution. It helps rebuild trust in democracy.

Until now, PB projects have been within the gift of the council or police authority. “The People’s Budget” is a campaign aimed at mobilising and equipping local people and community groups to lobby for a say in how money is spent in their neighbourhoods. It is, after all, their money. Surely, this is what localism is supposed to be about; fundamental not cosmetic change. As budgets come under increasing pressure, it’s more important than ever to start rebuilding trust.

You can find out more, and get behind the campaign, at www.thepeoplesbudget.org.uk.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Phil Teece is Programme Director of the Particpatory Budgeting Unit, a project of Church Action on Poverty

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3 Comments

  • We may have local elections but I don’t think that is enough if turnout is decreasing amid a growing feeling of “what’s the point in voting if nobody is going to listen to me?”.

    I believe that if people can have a direct say in decisions (rather than via indirect elected representation) then they will feel more engaged in their community.

    For examplle, I’ve seen on a few occasions that if the people of a run-down neighbourhood get together and invest their own time/money/effort in improving the place, then it tends to stay in a better condition than if the council arbitrarily spent money on the area and got contractors to do the work.

    If Participatory Budgeting can engender a feeling of a tax-payer’s money being directed to where the local tax-payers believe it to be necessary then I believe PB would be a good thing. I’m not so sure it would work as an isolated measure to improve democratic engagement and localism – but let’s give it a go and see what happens!

  • Simon, I’m not sure you will call local elections what you see in this video : http://vimeo.com/17419565

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