Participatory Budgeting: It doesn’t have to become a bun fight

A blend of participatory budgeting and citizen juries could help solve some of Wales’ policy dilemmas, argues Jez Hall

Jez Hall is a director of Shared Future CIC, a not for profit company that have run many citizen juries, mainly on topics related to health and wellbeing.

Let’s have a well crafted and democratic sharing of the cake.

The holy grail for politicians is to be seen to responding in a meaningful way to public opinion, without it becoming just another form of populism; where those with the loudest voices or the most radical agenda dominates the conversation. So it was a brave idea to use Participatory Budgeting (PB) on the national budget of Wales, as discussed in the new evidence review from PPIW. The report took a hard look at PB in many different contexts and made many good suggestions. Crucially it identified that it wasn’t sufficient to run PB like a traditional consultation. Whilst “the available evidence suggests that well implemented PB can lead to improvements in citizen engagement, intergenerational understanding, levels of self-confidence among participants, and in perceptions of public service providers“ it was crucial to be clear on “what are the public being asked to do and why”.

At Shared Future we have long experience of participatory democracy. Both PB, but also other forms of democratic innovation, such as citizen juries. These ‘mini-publics’ are gaining recognition worldwide, especially when there are complex issues of public policy to be considered. Whether it’s the RSA’s Citizen Economic Council, the Irish Constitutional convention, or the upcoming citizen jury on Realistic Medicine in Scotland, they are being used, in one form or another to get under the skin of policy dilemmas.

PB is really good at engaging people. Especially the model common in the UK of ‘participatory grant making’. Where small budgets are devolved to a locality and local people can bid for, and vote on that money. Scaling it up to mainstream services, let alone a national budget is a daunting task. But often we find the ingredients are all in place. What is needed is the right mix. The right recipe for combining them. So my idea is mixing PB and citizen juries. This is how.

First, recruit a stratified random sample of residents from across Wales. Mix them up by age, gender and other characteristics. Apply some raising agents if needed – incentivise them to participate through some type of voucher or rewards. (After all public servants are paid to make these decisions). Bring their ideas to the boil using expert facilitators and expert witnesses to inform their deliberations, and offer them a budget to actually implement their ideas. Too often participation is just a tokenistic talking shop. Say £1m? Why not £10m? Wales’s budget is around £15bn after all.

Once a set of solid proposals have been cooked up put the public servants to work turning them into a set of bite sized projects, that test out new approaches and new ways of working. And then put the results onto a digital platform, where every citizen of Wales can chew them over, and then vote on the top 5 or so ideas they think will make a real difference.

It’s a brave politician that is willing to share power. A rare public servant that can come out of their silo. Cooking up a more vibrant, appealing and thoughtful democracy seems a simple idea. But it takes experience to become a good cook. It takes practice. It takes the right ingredients. But most of all it takes the right recipe.

Paris is already doing wonders through a massive PB project. The budget of Paris’s PB is nearly £100m per year. In 2016 alone 93,000 adults voted online and another 65,000 odd young people through their schools. That is big. That is brave. Is Wales up to it? Not in one mouthful or in one go probably. That would be greedy. Yet I believe with the right ingredients and the right recipe there could be a right tasty slice of Welsh democracy. Laverbread anyone?

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

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