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‘I Count, I Participate, I Decide’ - Participatory Budgeting in Milan
‘I Count, I Participate, I Decide’ - Participatory Budgeting in Milan
Note: an Italian version of this case study is available here.
Problems and Purpose
One of the most advanced Italian participatory budgeting projects started in 2015 in the city of Milan by the name of ‘I count, I participate, I decide’. Partially influenced by the Porto Alegre’s example (Smith and Fletcher, 2016), it also presents elements of e-democracy and of territorial division inspired by French PBs (Participatory Budgeting). Moreover, the project also adds the principle of random selection, a practice commonly used by mini-publics. With a total budget of € 9 ml for the project, the Municipality dedicated € 1 ml to each one of the 9 autonomous districts of the city, promoting the redistribution of resources.
‘I count, I participate, I decide’ made inclusiveness one of its key principles. The purpose of the project was to enhance public decision-making, underpinned by a strong and institutionalized citizens’ participation and deliberation.
The scope was not only to reach out to the general public, but also to the young population -from 14 to 25 years of age- and to the numerous minorities that a metropolitan city like Milan inevitably has. Expanding the accessibility of the project to almost any member of society is vital for the understanding of its purpose. This PB project was seen by the Milan administration as an ‘opportunity to strengthen a method of wide, democratic and active consultation that characterizes the city of Milan’ (Presentation Booklet, 2015 p.2). The final approval of the projects to be realized on a three-year basis and equally divided between districts, proved the efficiency of the PB in terms of procedural structure.
The first experiment of PB happened in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989. Since then, this type of democratic deliberative systems developed in many other geographical areas of the world. However, PB has so far had predominantly small geopolitical scope, focusing on local municipalities big cities, but never an entire nation state. The reason for this has been explained by Pateman (2014), who highlights the fact that working on small units enhances cooperation and equality, which consequently translates into efficiency and a higher popular involvement within the local community. Notwithstanding, the project of the municipality of Milan is still impressively ambitious, since it tries to draw the participation of all the social groups in a city of over 1 million inhabitants.
The project was initially started by the left-wing administration in 2015 and the practice was then carried on by the new left-wing administration elected in 2016.
Even though there is a good distribution of Participatory Budgeting projects already running in Italy, ‘I count, I participate, I decide’ proves to be innovative and extensive, fully supported by the Municipality and with a notable budget to support the projects voted by the citizens.
Participant Selection and Deliberation, Public Interaction
PB as a practice in Milan was structured and organized into four main phases. This allowed the development of such phases and the introduction of features previously developed in other PB processes.
PHASE 1 – ‘Listening: public meetings for the gathering of needs’
The first phase ran from early May until late September 2015. A set of meetings was scheduled by the Municipality and the participation to these public hearings was open to the general public. A broad range of online and offline invitations were spread into the city trying to reach every citizen with a minimum of 14 years of age. After few introductory meetings in which the citizens were explained the scope and depth of this new PB project in the city, a total of 1442 citizens gathered together to attend 45 meetings. During these events, under the guidance of professional facilitators helping to achieve a positive and productive discussion, the participants tried to address the many issues they had experienced while living in the city. The initial ideas were then developed into projects of intervention with interests that varied from improving scholastic facilities to developing playgrounds in various parks, etc. The logistic of the meetings was fundamental to the realization of the project: the participants split into 9 different groups and had specific assembly points depending on which of the 9 different districts of Milan they were originally from. This latter aspect was key to fully exploit the efficiency deriving from the direct interest of the citizens. The Municipality of Milan also tried to address the minority issue and reached out to the various communities, with a total of 60 members -coming from 12 different minority groups- autonomously participating to the meetings. Various charities and other associations helped the Municipality getting in contact with members of minorities.
In addition to all this, 17 supplementary assemblies with elected peer facilitators were organized and run by citizens. Furthermore, 350 young participants aged 14 to 25 had 9 meetings (one for each area) with professional facilitators and every group produced proposals that can be found on the website of ‘I count, I participate, I decide’. At the end of September 2015 and of Phase 1, the totality of the proposals was gathered for Phase 2.
PHASE 2 – ‘Co-design: workshops to design interventions’
The division of meetings during Phase 1 into the 9 districts brought up numerous proposals to be advanced to the second Phase. Therefore, Phase 2 aimed at rearranging such projects and grouping up together as many of them as possible into bigger ones. The outcome of the meetings in Phase 2 was of 40 complete projects to be advanced to the voting phase (Phase 3).
Unlike in Phase 1 -which was open to any citizen or resident in the city-, during Phase 2 the participants were randomly selected from an initial total of 610 people who participated to Phase 1. These 610 participants were people who had previously actively followed Phase 1 and gave availability for the selected days (24th and 25th October 2015). The random selection was carried out by the Municipality over the course of one day and a total of 45 citizens attended, having the role of scrutinizing the process. Out of the 610 available from Phase 1, a total of 30 citizens for each district group was selected for a total of 270 participants, who met in the local assembly point of the 9 districts in order to deliberate. Of the 270 selected, 210 were actually present and participated to the meetings for Phase 2.
Random selection has the advantage of not excluding systematically any social group, especially with regards to the minorities of the area who would otherwise normally risk to suffer underrepresentation. However, the random selection system posed the danger of not being able to equally draw from the total of 610 citizens a participant for every municipal area or to give equal say to different gender or age. Therefore, it was made the choice to respect these parameters first, not focusing much on ensuring the representation of minorities. Consequently, the random selection (Municipality of Milan, 2015) was realized while still respecting a balance of gender, of geographical provenience and of age, but there is no information available over the number of members of minorities acceding to Phase 1.
At the end of Phase 2, the 40 final projects were rearranged with the help of two professional facilitators per district, with the addition of experts to give technical advices over the feasibility of projects and of the actual planned cost. The role of experts was to give advice over the costs and timings with the purpose to reorganize more projects together still trying to safeguard efficiency of results and total budget.
Meanwhile, there has been elements of online participation to Phase 2, mainly through social media. In this regard, the web site of the Municipality but more consistently the Facebook page ‘Bilancio Partecipativo Milano’, have proven to be extremely active in following the various stages of the project and dealing with online discussions over topics.
PHASE 3 - Voting: choosing the projects to be carried out
Once reorganized, the totality of the projects was uploaded online and accessible to every citizen. Phase 3 consisted in the voting process, that ran from the 12th until the 29th of November 2015. During these 17 days, citizens had the chance to vote online, or offline. The online vote could be completed on the Municipality web page and there are was an online voting tutorial (MetroNewsItalia, 2015) available on Youtube.
23835 citizens voted online and other 1700 voted with the so-called ‘assisted vote’ system. Population could also access a list of 20 voting points (Conto, Partecipo, Scelgo, 2015) all around the city where they could go and vote with the help of voting assistants. In addition to this segment of population, 6337 votes were collected from the schools all over the city, gathering votes from the young population from 14 to 25 years old.
However, the total of voters represented roughly a 3% of the total population of the city and included also people normally not entitled to vote (14-18 years old). An example of this is district number 3, in which 2724 people out of 150000 inhabitants voted.
Outcomes and Effects
PHASE 4 – Outcomes: projects updates and accountability
The outcome (Conto, Partecipo, Scelgo, 2015) to the voting process was published online with a detailed description of all projects and number of votes attributed to each one of them. In addition to that, a document (Conto, Partecipo, Scelgo, 2015) listing the winning projects and their description was published on the official web site.
More importantly, the updated progress in realizing the projects are available on the website. Every citizen can access it and see district by district how far projects have developed.
The 30th of November 2016, representatives of the administration ran a meeting for the citizens to acknowledge the progresse made in the development of the projects. The event was also live streamed on Facebook so that citizens could participate asking questions online. During the meeting, some issues were raised. Apparently, some of the projects that won during the voting process seem not to be feasible and have therefore been abandoned already, which would suggest a failure of the administration in completing the process and positioning the project among the most interesting Italian PB projects realized so far.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
As it happened in Porto Alegre (Sintomer et. al., 2008) this project grows on the hope that clientelism on the Italian ground could be reduced thanks to the direct participation of citizens to the budgeting experience. The fight to clientelism was also enhanced by a new Italian anti-corruption law, which protects the projects from the former issue. Clientelism in Italy often takes place when developing public interventions and especially when important budgets are involved and such law is therefore very important. However, it could be argued that the bureaucratic procedures requested by this new law contributed to slowing down the realization of projects.
Even though ‘I count, I participate, I decide’ aimed at including every social group including minorities, there is not much evidence about their active participation in the project.
Firstly, it was not clarified by any document on the website how the Municipality reached out to the 60 members of minorities who participated to Phase 1. Nevertheless, this latter procedural approach was personally explained by Lorenzo Lipparini – the Councillor for Participation and Active Citizenship of the city of Milan- during the phone interview. As displayed earlier on in this Participedia case study, the Municipality contacted minorities through institutions and charities, along with other private associations.
Lastly, it is not clear whether if the proposals from the minorities were treated as equally as the others in reaching Phase 2.
The form of sortition used was in fact distant from the standard random selection of participants drawn from a list of all citizens (Smith, 2016) and being innovative implies different potential issue. Being the citizens selected from the ones who previously participated to Phase 1, the scope of such sortition was partially limited and may have strengthened the minority dilemma, since the random selection used criterion far from ethnic identity.
Since this particular PB was structured to have a final voting process and a limited budget, it was inevitable the existence of losing projects not reaching the minimum number of votes in order to be executed.
As Lorenzo Lipparini explained during the interview, the administration partially addressed such issue by promising that the losing projects would have either been funded by the remaining of the budget from the €1 ml assigned to each district or they would have been considered as an indicator for the next years’ administration of the needs of the population.
Unfortunately, this latter approach towards the residue of the PB process could underpin popular disengagement and mistrust in the authorities since it reduces the scope of the whole PB to an act of simple consultation on budget (Sintomer et. al., 2008), thus diminishing the initial purpose for this PB project in Milan.
Other critiques moved to the administration by citizens included the suggestion to continue the meetings at a local level, as it was during Phase 1 of ‘I count, I participate, I decide’. The meeting happened the 30th of November did not manage to address in detail all of the updates about the projects district by district, but only gave a general comment on each of them. This latter approach to the post-PB (Phase 4) could be argued to be missing a structure. On this regard, however, as explained by the Councillor during the interview, the Municipality has already reconsidered the importance of decentralizing the process even more with the PB projects starting from 2017, following the new indications coming from the 2015 experience. Decentralization will also play a major role in the realizations of Phases 1 to 3, promising to reach even more people and get citizens to participate more actively at a district level.
However, it is still too early for a final evaluation since most projects are developed following a 3-year plan and should thus be completed in 2018. By then, it will possible to understand whether if this type of PB in Italy -and more specifically in vast multicultural geographical areas like Milan- could become part of a regular participatory practice embedded in the political structure.
The Councillor, during the interview, confirmed that the project will start again in 2017, based on a yearly basis and considering the experience drawn from the 2015 experimental ‘I count, I participate, I decide’.
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