Deliberative Participatory Budgeting in Greater Geraldton, Australia
- General Issues
- Specific Topics
- Budget - Local
- Scope of Influence
- Start Date
- End Date
- Total Number of Participants
- Face-to-Face, Online, or Both
- Decision Methods
- If Voting
- Communication of Insights & Outcomes
- Public Report
- Public Hearings/Meetings
As part of Geraldton's four-year program of deliberative collaborative governance, ‘2029 and Beyond’, two minipublics were created to generate trust and legitimacy around budgetary decisions.
Problems and Purpose
Two deliberative minipublics were empanelled to create legitimacy around difficult budgetary decisions on 100% of the spending in a local government in Western Australia. The city of Geraldton also designed these minpublics to encourage greater trust in the government.
Background History and Context
A four year program of deliberative collaborative governance (‘2029 and Beyond’) at the local government of Greater Geraldton had witnessed several deliberative democratic initiatives including a deliberative poll, a citizen's jury and an enquiry by design. In the final years of the initiative, there was significant community dissatisfaction at the city's attempts to address cost shifting from the state government, looming infrastructure backlogs, and a revaluation of assets by significant rates and charges rises. A participatory budget (PB) on 100% of the municipal spending was seen as a way of addressing this community dissatisfaction and bringing community wisdom and legitimacy to this complex problem.
In September 2013, Council formally approved the implementation of two stratified, random sample Participatory Budgeting (PB) Community Panels. The first, the 10 Year Capital Works participatory budgeting panel, had the task of deliberating and recommending a priority list of capital works projects to be funded (around $70 million over 10 years), as well as a set of criteria (used to determine that ranking), that could be used by the city for deciding future priorities. The second, the Range and Level of Services Community Panel (recommending the allocation of 100% of the City Region’s operational budget of around $70 million annually) had the following task: recommending to the Council the community desired range, level, and priority of services to achieve minimal rate increases, or reductions, within the budget limitations set by the Council’s adopted Long Term Financial Plan.
The Council committed the following regarding both Panels’ recommendations: The Council will:
- Seriously consider all recommendations made by the Community Panel;
- Implement recommendations wherever feasible;
- Where a recommendation or recommendations cannot be implemented, Council will clearly communicate the reasons to the Community Panel and the broader community; and
- Where a recommendation or recommendations cannot be implemented, Council will seek to understand the intent of the recommendation/s and work with the Community Panel to find other ways to fulfil the intent.
- Retain the power to veto any or all recommendations made by the Community Panel.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The PB panel's were sponsored and organised by the City of Greater Geraldton with design, facilitation and implementation by Professor Janette Hartz-Karp, Dr Svetla Petrova, Dr Margaret Gollagher and Mr Rob Weymouth from Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute.
An “Independent Review Committee” (IRC) governance group was created with the purpose of overseeing the operations of these two panels and certifying their neutrality and transparency. It consisted of around 5 prominent community members and the Mayor as chair. The IRC was charged with verifying the representativeness of each panel, the usefulness and adequacy of the information provided, as well as the time, information, and support that panelists required. It also played the role of ombudsman for panel members if issues arose. IRC members attended each panel session, observed the facilitation and discussion, and then without staff and facilitators present, met with panelists to review their day’s experience. Following this, the IRC debriefed the project team to make improvements for the following week.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
To ensure representativeness of these two mini publics, an independent local demographer was employed to create a random sample stratified by age, gender, indigenous and multi-cultural background, and residential location (as a proxy for socio-economic level). Twenty-five randomly selected participants participated throughout the 10 Year Capital Works PB Panel, and thirty-five participated throughout the Range and Level of Services PB, authorized to allocate 100% of the city region’s operational budget.
Methods and Tools Used
This case uses participatory budgeting, an increasingly common method of democratic innovation broadly described as "a decision-making process through which citizens deliberate and negotiate over the distribution of public resources." There are many benefits associated with participatory budgeting including increased civic and democratic education; increased government transparency; and an increased opportunity for participation by historically marginalized populations. 
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
The two panels sat consecutively on Saturdays from November 2013 to April 2014. On each deliberation day, an agenda was disseminated to participants, with the purpose and step by step process for the day. Often, ‘take-home’ work was given to participants between Saturday sessions, varying from talking to family and friends to get their views on a particular matter, to actually piloting some of the assessment instruments the group has developed. Panelists worked both in facilitated small groups as well as in plenary sessions.
The overall deliberation process adhered to the following basic steps –
- Understanding the PB’s ‘charge’, and understanding participatory budgeting, deliberative democracy, and quality deliberation;
- Understanding the City’s overall budgeting process and those aspects most relevant to the PB’s charge, through briefing materials, short presentations, question and answer sessions, and continued availability of ‘experts’ when needed during small group deliberations;
- Clarifying the Panel’s common values (together with those outlined in the Strategic Community Plan), and then determining the criteria or reasons to assess options;
- Carrying out the assessment of options, calibrating findings between small groups;
- Prioritizing options, if needed, including weighing the criteria/reasons for assessments;
- Determining recommendations;
- Writing their Final Report, and later formally presenting it to the City, the Council, and the media.
To assist the panel members in making decisions on behalf of the whole community and to draw greater numbers of collaborators into this process, attempts were made to reach out to the broader community. For the Capital Works PB, community and industry groups were able to put forward capital works proposals for assessment and prioritisation; for the Range and Level of Service PB, the panel presented their draft recommendations for the range and level of services for the wider community at a community forum and gathered public responses. In addition to these measures, social media (Twitter, Facebook) were used before, during, and after the deliberations for broader comment and disclosure. The partnership with the local newspaper was also utilised to publish numerous articles about the PBs before, during, and after their deliberations.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
In terms of effective problem resolution, Panel members rated the quality of the deliberation process very highly. Some of the final survey results were as follows: 97% said they understood the issues under discussion very well; 93% said they learnt about the issues and got new information very well or quite well; and 100% said they heard from people with differing viewpoints very well or quite well. This did not imply a lack of divergence of opinion, which is expected. Participant observation of small group discussions during the phases of clarifying common values and prioritising projects and services revealed strong levels of dissent, sometimes quite passionate and emotional. This apparent disconnect between the quantitative survey data and the participant observation was clarified through the qualitative interviews with participants. Several participants explained how they felt able to hear strongly held views and express their own, but then through the facilitated deliberation process, felt they had come to a conclusion that best suited all perspectives.
The Council endorsed the Report of the Capital Works Panel and instructed the CEO to implement the existing prioritisation, and utilise the Panel’s rating system for future assessment of infrastructure. The Range and Level of Services report was also endorsed by Council and was used to form the budget for the 2014/2015 financial year. The final budget was passed by Council in an absolute majority, with Councillors speaking for the budget uniformly referring to the Panel report as being the basis for the budget, and hence their legitimacy for passing it.
All participants underwent significant shifts in attitude finding the City more trustworthy. Interviews with participants to further understand this shift indicated that their belief in City officials’ competency and benevolence (whether they act in the best interests of the community) had radically shifted. Most interviewees in our PB study pointed to a greater understanding of the complexity and size of the problems that the City struggles with as being at the root of their change in attitude over the PB.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
This work has been based solidly on the principles of public deliberation which assume that everyday people have the willingness and capacity to resolve tough issues together. To do this, they need opportunities to participate in an environment that is inclusive of all viewpoints and representative of the demographics of the population. It should also be egalitarian, respectful and encouraging of considered discourse, where different viewpoints are explored, options are created and a coherent voice is encouraged to emerge. However, such considered discourse is only likely to eventuate if participants understand that their time and work together matters, in particular that their considered voice will be influential.
The missing essential link is the need for mutual respect and trust between those who govern and those governed. However, for this to occur, it will require those in power to make the first move – to entrust ordinary people to collaboratively problem solve and make decisions. This is only feasible if there are ongoing and numerous opportunities for public deliberation - meaningful participation - involving considered discourse, bolstered by iterative, two-way communication between ‘experts’ and lay people. It is the decision-makers who need to find new ways to share information, and to find the space for opportunities to share in decision-making, especially when there are wicked problems to address where there are no easy answers. The evidence has shown that the decisions made after such deliberation consistently aim to achieve the good of the community, rather than self interest. Such decisions have greater public legitimacy, and hence are more easily implemented.
 10 Year Capital Works Plan Community Panel (2013)
 Range and Level of Services Community Panel (2014)
 Weymouth, Robert and Hartz-Karp, Janette Professor (2015). "Deliberative Collaborative Governance as a Democratic Reform to Resolve Wicked Problems and Improve Trust,"Journal of Economic and Social Policy: Vol. 17 : Iss. 1 , Article 4
Lead Image: changesCGG Community - Participatory Budgeting/Youtube https://goo.gl/UXPWGd