After the Yanjin county-supervised village finance system reforms were implemented, the government initiated a participatory budgeting project in two townships to ensure funds were allocated responsibly.
Problems and Purpose
Yanjin county had long been suffering from a low rate of financial self-sufficiency, though this was largely mitigated when the county-supervised village finance system was implemented in 2008. As a result, in 2012, the county government of Yanjin created a participatory budgeting project in two of its townships: Miaobai and Dousha.
Background History and Context
In 2012, Yanjin County was identified as one of the priorities for the national poverty alleviation and development program. Previously, there had been a debate on how to best manage the balance between the financial power of a county versus a village. The county government of Yanjin finally delegated part of its financial power to the lower village and township level, offering incentives for revenue-enhancing and expenditure control. However, with this reform, there arose a concomitant problem on how to ensure the governments of villages and townships utilize their funds in a responsible way.
To solve this issue, the government of Yanjin County launched the reform of public participatory budgeting in the Dousha and Miaobai townships. However, in terms of public participation, the two townships responded very differently. The Miaobai Township was typically mass-dominated with the public basically competing to raise programs while the Dousha Township was just the opposite, making the government draft the annual program before the public voted on it.
In January 2014, based on the combination of the advantages from the two different models, the government of Yanjin enacted an experimental institution of public participatory budgeting. This created a working panel in county government and correspondent working committees established in lower levels.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
As early as 2005, the city of Wenling in Zhejiang province in China experimented with participatory budgeting in the Zeguo Township, followed by Harbin City and Wuxi City in 2006. Inspired by their success, Yanjin County in the administrative area of Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, made its first step towards the innovative public participatory budgeting model. It took place under the direction of the Department of Finance of Zhejiang Provincial government. In 2012, it was formally institutionalized in the experience from Dousha and Miaoba Townships. Funding for the Dousha and Miaobai townships comes from Yanjin county.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
When talking about public participation in budget plans, a top concern is how to select representatives properly. The process was done through the establishment of “People’s Councillors” who would be chosen in two different ways. Very similar to the method of electing representatives in the United States, one way was based on the unit of each village. Whatever the size of the village, it would have a quota of two councillors, selected from the nominations of village party branch and village committee branch. Another type of election method depended on the villages’ total population. Councillors would be randomly selected from a set of recommended candidates nominated by small village groups, according to a ratio of 0.5% of the number of councillors to the population. Each term for the “People’s Councilors” would be 3 years.
Methods and Tools Used
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The preparation stage before really voting on the budget plan encompassed two major segments. First, there was the determination of the total capital appointed to the public participatory budgeting plans before the formulation of concrete programs. To be specific, the township government would assess the annual financial resources and subtract basic expenditure as well as rigid spending from it, reaching the sum for public participatory budgets, which would be provided to the people’s councillors before handing-in the programs.
Program pools would then be established. The question here was the way to raise the program as well as the proper persons who would be qualified to raise them and who would play crucial roles in deciding the depth of public participation in budgeting. This is exactly where the subtle design of this model lies—both government and peoples’ councillors were entitled to raise the programs but the dominant role was held by the people’s councillors. In principle, each councillor could raise no more than two programs at a time, and he/she should also report widely represented public opinion. Also, the township government could present government-led programs based on the local developmental plans, which could also enter the program pool after a thorough discussion at a government working meeting.
The segment of program review, including qualification review, formality examination, and content checking, stands out as one of the typical features in the Yanjin Model. To be concrete, the working panel in county government would organize or designate experts to investigate the practicality and political permissiveness of the projects, providing a comprehensive review which would be sent to people’s councillors 10 days before the democratic meeting. Only those passing the examination would be presented at the democratic meeting for discussion and voting. It is worth noting that though the government basically dominated the checking process, it is the county government rather than the township government that took the lead role, avoiding the potential disturbance to public participation.
When the democratic meeting is finally held, the public discussion came to empower the peoples’ councillors. The democratic meeting, attended by all the peoples’ councillors without any government officials, was regularly held twice per year, mainly functioning to make annual budget plans and examine the adjustments during the plan implementation. During the meeting, the peoples’ councillors would vote on the proper programs according to their preference after hearing the reasons and presentations on needing funds. To ensure the efficiency and required order for the meeting, a host was selected randomly from the people to preside over the meeting, which is another unique feature of the Yanjian Model.
Besides the former preparation and voting stages, the subsequent implementation and feedback also calls for the public to join in. The peoples’ councillors would supervise the whole process of putting the budget plan into force and if the adjustments are needed, democratic meetings would be held again to vote for approval. Apart from that, the financial department in the county government would organize performance appraisal for the programs in the budget plan, which, together with the call report produced by township government, would be presented to all peoples’ councillors in the democratic meeting next year.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
In general, the practice of the Yanjin Model in 2014 was a success. With regard to representative selection, the dual selection mechanism ensures the representation of public opinion as well as the basic capability of participation. Reflected in the questionnaire, 92% of peoples’ councillors regard such an election system as fair and just. And looking at the program pool of 2014, one finds that though the government was able to raise programs, the majority were projects coming from peoples’ councillors to make sure that the public opinions could be conveyed well. It seems that the review segment from the county government would be a concern in terms of disturbing the conveying of public opinions; however, the result from the questionnaire proved such a concern unnecessary. To fully fail a program, the government needs to report a thorough reason. A total of 68.5% of investigated people’s councillors considered it to be convincing and only 4.7% of the councillors believed there was a lack of compelling persuasion. Also, the Yanjin Model not only empowered the peoples’ councillors with the right to propose the programs, but also fully endowed them with the final determination right, a democratic strength of the model. For all the townships that adopt this kind of model, 22% of the annual financial funds were distributed to the public participatory budgeting plan, going far beyond than in Harbin City and Wuxi City and making this initiative closer to the highest proportion of 30% in Brazil. According to the investigation on the competence of the peoples’ councillors, the statistic of 97.5% shows that most of the councillors would show direct concern to public interest through the way of holding village meetings or private conversations and 89.4% of them made a self-evaluation that the programs they hold basically stand for what the villagers mostly care about.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Though it may seem that this type of reform is only limited to the village and township level, the county level could also be a suitable size on which to launch the reform. Besides the limitation on the universality, some institutional design also has the potential for further innovation. Though the dual selection mechanism of representatives did manage to create a balance between the government influence and public preference, the introduction of population-based election systems further widens the representation area. That is, when the quota of people’s councillors is determined by multiplying the population size with a certain ratio, the candidates’ position should not be open to direct election but rather nomination from small village groups in order to avoid biased representation. Additionally, for the program pool, apart from the government-raised and peoples’ councillor-raised projects, it is worth considering the distribution of extra program representatives to a joint proposal system—as a means to encourage cross-village proposals. This will make the democratic meeting more like a platform for public deliberation instead of merely a place to distribute money.
By widening public participation, the Yanjin Model is effectively transforming the sealed management to open governance in running the crucial grassroots communities in China. However, the biggest challenge lies in its near future as to whether the institutionalization of this model in normal governance would be possible, which largely counts on the supporting policy from higher government. Thus, for China, legalization as seen in Latin America may be well used for reference in order to clearly define the position of a public participatory budgeting model.
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This article was adapted by Kathryn Bussey from a case written by Jing Han.