“Is participatory budgeting risky?” It’s the obvious any good manager asks when considering a new approach that opens up the budgeting process.
I recall very clearly a sitting with perhaps 25 other bureaucrats back in my public service days in a bland meeting room on the NSW south coast. We were talking about natural resources planning and had just been shown two graphs. The first was a histogram of financial grants distributed to organisations across the region for various projects. The columns were divided according to issue; things like feral species control, riparian corridor remediation, threatened species habitat protection, weed management and more.
The second was a histogram of the results of a survey of their stakeholders. The stakeholders had been asked to identify the priority natural resource management issues across the region. The results categorised along the same lines as the grants expenditure graph.
The thing that struck me was that the two graphs bore absolutely no resemblance to each other. The stakeholder preferences appeared to have little if any bearing on the pattern of expenditure.
I suspect that this is not a unique experience.
I’m not arguing that the decision-making should be handed over holus bolus to the stakeholder community. This would be naive in the extreme given the complexity of the issues under consideration. The importance of a particular issue is properly a reflection of a range of factors including in this instance; catchment impact, socio-economic impact, remediation cost, government policy of the day, scientific merit etc. All of which sounds completely reasonable and rationale, particularly when you are in a room full of like minded people used to centralised evidence-based decision-making.
The risk of this approach, of course, is that the decisions reflect the will and personal interests of the people in the room rather than the communities and stakeholders they serve.
I argue that there is both a need and a place for a methodology that gives stakeholders more input into the distribution of discretionary funds – community grants programs, catchment management grants, cultural development grants; there’s an endless list of government grants programs that could be better informed by a participatory budgeting model.
At the time, I, nor I suspect anyone else in the room, had ever heard of participatory budgeting. The notion of sharing the decision-making so transparently would have made for an interesting conversation.
Clearly participatory budgeting has great potential for a range of good governance reasons. But like all methodologies, it also has its weaknesses and is not without risk. Most of the risks are common to any participatory methodology that brings the community into, or hands over, the decision-making responsibility.
Among these I include, the risk that the agenda will be hijacked by special interest groups; the risk that decisions will be made in the absence of good quality information or a sound understanding of that information; the risk that decisions will be required within a time-frame that is incompatible with the needs of the community for learning, capacity building, dialogue and decision-making; the risk that community expectations will be raised beyond the capacity of the organisation or government to deliver; and the ever present risk that the Executive – be they elected representatives or organisational leaders – will be threatened by the direction that discussions appear to be taking and withdraw their support for the process.
The experience of thousands of community engagement exercises has demonstrated that each of these risks can be ameliorated by implementing robust methodology. As with all good methodologies, participatory budgeting requires the establishment of clear processes, clear ground rules, good quality accessible information, learning opportunities, and in the case of online processes accessible technology.
We’ve built a tool in Budget Allocator, that we think makes it easy for people to have a say about where their money should go while making it clear that there are consequences for running over budget and that prioritisation is a necessity. It gathers both quantitative and qualitative feedback from participants about their spending priorities on both a project and business area basis and makes it crystal clear when the participant has overspent.