The Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition initiated participatory budgeting in 1999 in order to promote civic participation, deliberation, and democratic decision-making. The initiative has allowed neighbourhoods to allocate funding toward projects such as community centres.
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Problems and Purpose
The Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition (GNSC) implemented participatory budgeting in 1999 in Ontario, Canada with the aim of promoting citizen participation through neighbourhood deliberation and creative program development. This participatory budgeting scheme purposefully forms a coalition of neighbourhood groups in Guelph who collectively combine their resources and distribute funding as needed by each community, developing neighbourhood projects such as family services and community centres (Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition, no dateA). The GNSC takes approximately 4 months to collectively discuss budget allocation, and a further year for implementation, ultimately aiming to improve community life.
Background History and Context
Beginning as a small civic organization in 1997, the GNSC developed with only 5 participating neighbourhoods in a city of only 130,000 residents of all ethnic and economic backgrounds. The organization initially sought to reduce the effects of those struck by poverty, and the realities of limited social and health care. Today, the coalition has grown into a full participatory budgeting scheme with 12 participating neighbourhoods, expanding its vision to community building and creating opportunities and a high quality of life for all its citizens.
The GNSC consists of several entities which participate in the process of decision making, focusing mainly on the structure and process of budget allocation. From 1997 to 1999, the GNSC would allocate equal funding to each neighbourhood. However, this process has since been refined as it was observed that many neighbourhoods were left with a surplus at the end of the year, and others were struggling to successfully disperse its funding throughout the community. From 1999, the scheme began to use participatory budgeting as a means of deliberating and allocating funding through consensus. The process ensures that funding is appropriately distributed to each community by collectively combining resources and involving communities in the decision making process.
Funding from the GNSC contributes to the development of many community programs and initiatives, ranging from parenting classes, youth clubs, sporting activities and adult learning. For example, participating neighbourhoods such as Grange Hill East and Brant Avenue develop regular programmes surrounding the environment and young parents, which explore the variety of community life and the diverse range of local interests.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
There are 4 main bodies within the GNSC, who individually represent all those involved in the decision making process, including residents, partners and governmental actors. All of the bodies are interconnected and work with each other regularly. The 4 factions include:
- The Neighbourhood Panel
- The Board of Directors
- The Partner Panel
- The Finance Committee
The process begins with one delegate from each participating neighbourhood to join the Neighbourhood Panel, a body made up of elected representatives who meet 6 times a year to discuss the success of projects, concerns and ideas (GNSC, no date). The delegate is chosen to convey the issues of their own neighbourhood, and feedback any information taken from meetings within their own communities, serving for a period of up to 2 years (Pinnington, 2009). As well as sitting on the Neighbourhood Panel, five of the representatives are nominated to also join the Board of Directors, an entity which attempts to devolve power and responsibility throughout the GNSC.
The Neighbourhood Panel and the Board of Directors are mainly made up of citizens and committee members who are active members of the communities and neighbourhoods they serve, as well as governmental figures. However, an additional body, the Partner Panel, is also included as part of the decision making process. Organizations which are partnered with the GNSC and many of whom provide funding, such as the Guelph Police Service, work directly with community members to support the process of budget allocation in any way they can. For example, the Guelph Police Service assists in discussing issues of safety and security in the Guelph area and improvements that could be made in regards to public spaces.
The Partner Panel consists of one representative from each of the ten partner organizations, of whom five are also nominated to be part of the Board of Directors. The Executive Director of the GNSC also plays a key role in co-chairing the Neighbourhood Panel, attending regular meetings to set the agenda and update citizens on any information from board meetings, and vice versa, ensuring that everyone is well represented on behalf of the Executive Director.
A final body, the Finance Committee, is made of 12 elected representatives from each neighbourhood and members of the partner agencies who meet every month. The committee is also joined by a municipal staff member to assist with budget allocation. The committee is designed to finalize participatory budgeting decisions; this includes allocating funding to each neighbourhood and developing financial plans for the year. The Financial Committee is seen as a progressive body, as it examines how financial resources can be efficiently used to expand collective and individual neighbourhood programs, as well as admiring the sustainability of projects.
All members of the GNSC interact with each other regularly, from volunteers and staff, to partners and residents to ensure that every faction remains well informed. Regular meetings also help to increase the sharing of ideas, mediation between all groups and provide an opportunity for all bodies to communicate with each other. This ensures the continuous progression of the participatory scheme.
The GNSC has enabled hundreds of community projects to be funded, and due to the successful nature of the scheme, its funding has increased greatly since its initiation. The coalition is funded by a variety of governmental bodies, granting organizations and community groups. These include: the Government of Canada, the Guelph United Ministries, the Ontario Trillium Foundation, United Way Guelph, Immigrant Services, Guelph Police Service, Foodland Ontario and Family and Children Services (GNSC, no dateB).
The GNSC’s total budget (in 2007) amounted to $320,000, where the majority of the budget comes from the municipality (Pinnington et al, 2009). The largest cash funder to the GNSC is the City of Guelph Council, who has increased its funding to the GNSC from $65,000 in 2000 to $125,000 in 2007. For a small scale participatory budgeting scheme, the GNSC has proven to effectively develop the neighbourhoods which it serves, and act as an inclusive body which assists community services.
Additional key investors such as United Way Guelph (who aim to build community life by working close with local groups in Guelph) have also contributed substantially to the GNSC, investing $50, 000 to assist in program development (United Way, 2014). For the GNSC, working alongside bodies that also contribute to the community and focus on development is crucial, as it allows the coalition and funders to work coherently as all parties understand the aims and objectives of the other. The GNSC is supported by organizations who orientate themselves towards diversity, family development and community progression, issues which correlate effectively with the innovation whilst ensuring the feasibility of the GNSC.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
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Methods and Tools Used
This initiative 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. 
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The coalition takes approximately 4 months (from the end of the year up to April), to collectively decide how and where funding is allocated, and a further year to implement the allocated budget. The budgeting process is carried out in 5 main stages (ibid; p467):
- The GNSC collectively discuss the neighbourhood programs for the upcoming year, whilst staff members and the Board of Directors work to raise funds and donations from its supporters to establish the annual budget. This includes attending public service committee meetings, which are held monthly at the city council chambers to discuss funding allocation, and where the executive director is able to present the GNSC annual report (City of Guelph, 2015).
- Residents meet in local groups to discuss community issues and spending priorities, outlining individual projects and ideas they wish to develop or continue. This is done through project proposals, where each neighbourhood creates an agenda of its proposed projects and how the neighbourhood will disperse its funds accordingly, into ‘needed’ funds and ‘wanted’ funds. The residential meeting also elect candidates to join the Neighbourhood Panel.
- The Neighbourhood Panel meet the Finance Committee to present their budget requests to the committee, partners, the Board of Directors and the GNSC staff. In return, the partners and the Board of Directors outline the funding that is available. The information from this initial meeting is then taken back to the individual neighbourhood groups to re-evaluate their proposals, based on the available budget.
- The Financial Committee also meet again to deliberate on how the budget should be most effectively allocated, negotiating on certain proposals until the committee reach a consensus.
- After the budget is allocated, neighbourhood groups implement their projects and monitor its progress. This includes examining how fulfilling the budget is for their projects whilst raising more money to add to the collective budget for the following year.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
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Analysis and Lessons Learned
In simple terms, democratic innovations attempt to stimulate citizen participation in the political, social and economic realms of civil society. This is a crucial aspect of participatory budgeting (PB) programs, which aim to allow “the participation of non-elected citizens in the conception and/or allocation of public finances” (Sintomer, 2013; p168). The Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition similarly focuses on reducing the barriers to participation by enhancing negotiation in the Guelph region. One of the many ways the GNSC encourages decision making is the deliberative process of allocating funding across the program. Meetings that take place within the individual communities and as a collective allow citizens to be open to discussion and emotively share issues and ideas with the rest of the GNSC.
As Smith (2009) claims, participatory budgeting schemes allows citizens to participate in an area of decision making that is rarely available for public engagement, especially in relation to delegating the city budget. As one of the very first acknowledged PB schemes in Canada, the GNSC encourages the negotiation of funding from various sources, including the city budget, monitoring the feasibility of the program whilst encouraging active citizenship. Furthermore, the GNSC ensures that power is decentralized throughout the different factions in the program, where residents in the Neighbourhood Panel are also part of the Board of Directors. This allows participants to understand their rights as a citizen and the responsibilities of the regional and national governments (Wampler, 2000). The dispersion of power also assists to legitimize the project (by attempting to reduce the issues of elitism), as all parties are aware of the roles and actions of the other; this promotes the transparency of the budgeting process as citizens directly monitor the actions of city officials.
As a process, PB gives actors who are traditionally excluded from the political realm an opportunity to engage in policy reform and program development. A key aspect of the GNSC is its inclusiveness nature. Of the participating neighbourhoods, many of the residents are from diverse ethnic and income backgrounds. The GNSC provides equal opportunity for all residents to participate in the electoral process and open discussion; this has been seen where assistance, such as transportation costs and oral translators, have been provided to those who are less able, elderly, with childcare issues or language barriers, to reduce the challenges of participation (Schugurensky, 2009). The coalition attempts to remove the barriers which prevent marginalized groups from engaging in deliberation by ensuring that final decisions reached on the budget are met by consensus, rather than a majority vote. This allows the views of minorities and of low income to also be heard, a prominent similarity between the initial participatory budgeting innovation of Porto Alegre and the GNSC.
Like many innovations, the GNSC does have problems that restrain its progress. An identified issue in the scheme relates to the distribution of resources and funding. In Guelph, the income level across the region is quite diverse, where over 10% of residential households are below the poverty line. This includes single parents and immigrants (20% of Guelph’s population) who are most susceptible to the realities of low income in Ontario (Guelph Police Services Board). Although the innovation ensures that funding is appropriately distributed amongst the participating neighbourhoods, it requires participants to thoroughly understand the priorities of other communities, where residents who feel most socially isolated have to negotiate their neighbourhood funding with more privileged individuals. This forces neighbourhoods to have great patience with the participatory budgeting scheme, as participants, from both low and high income backgrounds may feel that they are not being emotionally or financially supported.
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Pinnington, E. et al. (2009). Participatory Budgeting in North America: The Case of Guelph, Canada. Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting and Financial Management. 21(3), p455-484.
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Sintomer, Y. et al. (2008). Participatory Budgeting in Europe: Potentials and Challenges. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. 32(1), p164-78.
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Wampler, B. (2000). A Guide to Participatory Budgeting. Conference on Participatory Budgeting. p1-18
Global Austerity and Local Democracy: The Case of Participatory Budgeting in Guelph, ON. - Canadian Political Science Review
Lead Image: PB in Guelph https://goo.gl/8KyNaQ