The Vicenza City Council introduced its first process of participatory budgeting from April to December 2016. The main purpose of this initiative was to empower citizens making them able to make proposals and then to vote about proposals related to improvement of public spaces.
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Problems and Purpose
The need to create an instrument of public participation and shared decision making led to the introduction of this participatory budget. The aim of the project was to encourage citizen to participate in the political process. By offering the possibility to share, decide, make processes, propose ideas and vote about their priorities, it was hoped that citizens and public associations would become more civically active. The project was predecated on the belief that promoting discussions and debates around the needs of the local city gives citizens a stronger voice in the allocation of resources on specific projects which affects positively the community (Personal correspondence 2017).
Background History and Context
During a cabinet meeting in April 2015, the council of Vicenza defined several public-interventions including the introduction of the first participatory budgeting which they hoped would lead to a new approach to the political dealings of the region and, indeed, the country. As the assessor first declared, the initial allocation of funds for the budget would be low (300,000 Euros), but it was worth unsing this as an experimentation, and to use these resources to produce projects and ideas for the territory (Vicenzatoday.it, 2016).
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The council of Vicenza was the institution which put 300.000 euros for the first participatory budgeting of the council of Vicenza, and this budget was to be divided in 3 projects of requalification of public spaces in the city (Bilancio partecipativo a Vicenza, 2016). The participatory budgeting in Vicenza was sponsored directly by the council, through the councilor of “participation” whose aim is to deal with the engagement of citizens in the activity of the council.
Methods and Tools Used
The information phase involved open public assemblies; an information website; the dissemination of information via booklets, leaflets, and emails; and 10 prepatory meetings.
Public Assemblies were open to all; attended by citizens and councilors. Officials informed citizens about the participatory budgeting process and opened the floor up to feedback, questions, and concerns. This stage also acted as brain-storming sessions as citizens discussed priorities and city needs.
Prepatory Meetings were similarly open to all, seven of which involved simple oversight of citizen proposal development and three of which involved a more rigorous technical inspection of proposal feasibility.
Proposals could be submitted by all citizens and organizations (limit of one each) through a form provided by the council. However, there was a limit of one proposal from every participant hoping to guarantee different perspectives and making citizens decide their priority.
The Voting phase began with a presentation of the accepted proposals in 3 public assemblies and the publication of their details on the council's website. Every citizen over 16 was given 2 votes.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
There was an information phase, where the council explained the participatory budgeting by assemblies, online communication or face to face discussions, trying to engage as many citizens as possible. At the same time it was an occasion to discuss with citizens and to listen to their concerns trying to involve them later in developing a project with the help of the staff both coming from the administrative body than from specifically selected facilitators.
The first phase was so opened to every citizen which wanted to give a contribution or to develop a project individually, collectively or as an association. Citizens discussed together the participatory budgeting and discussed the needs of the city, and what should be done.
In this first phase, the numbers of citizens that participated were 360, together with 140 associations.
Public assemblies were organized in every district of the city (7 assemblies for 7 districts). 3 more introductory assemblies to present the projects which had passed the legal control where held by the council. During the assemblies, the project was explained by the administration and citizens had for the first time the chance to express their concern about the issues they thought were the most important ones.
The diffusion of the project was realized in different ways trying to inform as many people as possible to transmit an open approach:
There is one Web section on the council website and the council produced an Informative booklet for citizens, 1 advertising poster and more than 10.000 leaflets.
During the process the council held 10 preparatory meetings (seven inspections and three technical meetings to help participants in developing their proposals).
Moreover, as an informative instrument, 150 emails were exchanged between the council and the participants (100 received, 50 sent).
In a second phase, citizens, organized in groups or individually, developed coherent projects facilitated by the presence of technicians and architects who were available for advices or practical supports in developing a project which could have passed the legal check. As declared by the council “In relation to the preliminary assemblies, everyone who was interested to present a project has been guided and helped by architects/facilitators, selected with a dedicated ban, and from the participatory service in all its articulations (central and decentralized headquarters) […] The assistance took place in several ways: by email, phone, in person, with visits, through specific meetings” (Personal correspondence, 2017).
All citizens and associations had the possibility to present proposals using a form provided by the council. However, there was a limit of one proposal from every participant hoping to guarantee different perspectives and making citizens decide their priority.
The open character of this initiative was an attempt to engage as many citizens as possible in the phase of information and discussion (Comune di Vicenza, 2016).
The technical offices of the administration had analysed the proposals sent by citizens and associations to make sure they respected some legal requirements (spending limits, urbanistic compatibility).
In the final phase, projects were voted. Every project which got through the legal control were presented in 3 public assemblies and published on the website of the council. Since the day after the presentation, the proposals could be voted both online and directly in the assemblies by every citizen over 16 years old. There was not a specific target within the citizenship. Every citizen over 16 had 2 votes to express on the projects they liked most, and that was done in order to allow everyone to spend one vote not just on the project that was more convenient for them, but also to express another preference for one project they believed to be necessary as well.
Public interactions were high in assemblies, but also in the phase of voting, because every citizens or group proposing a project, had to convince fellow citizens to vote for their project, so people had to talk and they tried to do a political campaign not as political parties but as citizens, who discussed with their fellows on the best and more useful project for their city (Comune di Vicenza, 2016).
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
In the end the total number of participants is in line with some PB undertaken in the country and we can say that the percentage of participants (4.8%) was higher than expected in the first experiment. Comparing the PB in Vicenza with similar PB in the north of Italy, that had higher budgets and more citizens, it emerges that the percentage recorded in Vicenza is still higher even when compared with bigger cities, where the percentage of participants was around the 3%.
The assessor declared she is going to support an increase in the budget and that all the proposals which have been formulated by citizens and associations are not going to be forgotten. They will try to propose another participatory budgeting in 2017 to improve it further (Youtube,2016).
The winning projects which had the majority of preferences were three, spending respectively 316.200 EUR all together. The process of voting allowed the citizens to express 2 votes, and votes were expressed through the internet or in the assemblies. The total number of participants was 4710, equal to the 4.8% of the population (4710 on 97.308) and the number of votes expressed online (3987) was consistently higher than the votes expressed in assemblies (723) (Comune di Vicenza, 2016). In terms of gender, there was a gap between the percentage of men voting (42,8%) and women (57.2%) (Personal correspondence, 2017).
The impact of the participatory process seems to be a good one as a start. In fact, the council has declared that this was the first experiment, but they are going to build on that a more developed participatory budgeting year by year.
Citizens were engaged, they participated in a good number, and they have seen their project realized in the city.
As the council declared: “Even if the first experiment of the Participatory budgeting took place in a rather limited time, the answer from the citizens, especially from the associations, was higher than expected. Citizens demonstrated that they wanted to participate to the life of their territory being active and propositive protagonists, underlying what they believed to be the priority of the area where they live in and of the entire city” (Personal correspondence,2017).
The monitoring phase allowed citizens to be in control of the situation and to control that the council applied the ideas and proposals in the exact same way they were presented, analyzed and discussed.
As such, this process contributed in reducing the gap between citizens and politics, and the fact that they participated and voted in such a good number, and that assemblies were well participated and dynamics, seems to be the signal that citizens want to participate when they can have a say, which is real and has consequences on their lives and the community in which they live.
In a long-term perspective, the council seems committed to work again on the PB to re-propose it in a developed form: “The council is committed to repeat this experience, making some operative changes, (maybe also an increase on the budget per year but it will depend on the budgeting of the council in 2017), such as: the articulation of the activity in a longer time than the one of the experimentation: strengthening further the engagement and participation of citizens, trying to create synergies and more convergences around a project: utilizing new instrument in a more capillary way in the informative phase: building projective networks, improving the informatics management of the participatory project; generating correctives, in the voting phase, to counterbalance the weight of the vote of associations and groups, with the hypothesis to institute a “Quality’s jury”; realizing laboratories for the transformation of the winning projective ideas in achievable projects” (Personal correspondence,2017).
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The participatory budgeting in Vicenza can be identified as the ideal-type defined by Piper (2014), “Porto Alegre adapted for Europe”, because it maintains some characteristics (shared decision making, driven by the local government, based on citizens or associations’ initiatives and implies a specific budget and investments selected by popular vote).
Certainly, participatory budgeting in Europe has gone in the direction to solve the transparency deficit which is important in modern debates. Moreover, it seems to be helpful in developing good practice, in involving citizens in the political process.
However, there is no evidence yet that the PB has led to an increase in popular participation, probably because this is still a new area which is trying to build a more effective framework day by day, and this process can take time.
These models, which are based on public vote and public participation, are the most important ones to start with in order to develop a model which empowers citizens and make them part of the decision making process (Piper, 2014).
Where the PB is applied to an environment which aims at empowering citizens giving them real possibilities to become part of the governing process can lead to important transformations (as I believe in the case of Vicenza). Where the political process is not inclusive, plural and transparent, so it may be a useless tool of control and fictitious democratization, which will never lead to any profound transformation in the way which we do politics, in seeing the PB as a complementary alternative to the mainstream parties’ crisis, as an opportunity to give voice to those left behind (Ganuza and Baiocchi, 2012).
Anon, (2016). Bilancio partecipativo 2016, 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: http://www.comune.vicenza.it/fotonot/150444-bpv_21_06_2016.pdf [Accessed 27 Oct. 2016].
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Comune di Vicenza. (2016). Bilancio partecipativo, 43 i progetti presentati per oltre 2 milioni e mezzo di euro. [online] Available at: http://www.comune.vicenza.it/albo/notizie.php/150443 [Accessed 2 Jan. 2017].
Ganuza, E. and Baiocchi, G. (2012) "The Power of Ambiguity: How Participatory Budgeting Travels the Globe," Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 8: Iss. 2, Article 8. Available at: http://www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol8/iss2/art8
Piper, L. (2014). How Participatory Institutions Deepen Democracy through Broadening Representation: The Case of Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Theoria, 61(139).
Sintomer, Y., Herzberg, C. and Röcke, A. (2008). Participatory Budgeting in Europe: Potentials and Challenges. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32(1), pp.164-178.
Vicenzatoday.it. (2016). Vicenza, investimenti, previste opere per 28,7 milioni di euro. [online] Available at: http://www.vicenzatoday.it/cronaca/vicenza-investimenti-previste-opere-per-28-7-milioni-di-euro.html [Accessed 2 Jan. 2017].
YouTube. (2016). Votazione per il bilancio partecipativo, il racconto dei vincitori. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ptVVTnoOhrg&t=245s [Accessed 2 Jan. 2017].
Personal correspondence with Emanuela Ongaro (Administrative assistant to the Participating Office), Vicenza city council, 02/01/2017.
Lead image: Legambiente Vicenza https://goo.gl/X7wx7C