A participatory budgeting pilot held in 2006 in the three wards of Newcastle, concerning environmental, security and other community-building issues. The pilot was successful and the UDecide programme continues to run across the city.
Problems and Purpose
After holding a learning exchange platform across national borders connecting 8 European towns, the city council of Newcastle decided to join the widely practiced PB scheme, by involving the local population in the process of public spending. According to the report conducted by The Department of Communities and Local Government: “Newcastle’s involvement in Participatory Budgeting dates back to 2005, when the city was invited to join a European learning network, Particepando, as a result of which officers learned of the development of Participatory Budgeting in Italy.” (2011, p.58) Newcastle's Social Policy Team subsequently introduced the PB pilot project "UDecide: Cleaner, Greener, Safer" in 2006 in three wards: Denton, Lemington and Woolsington. While the primary concerns for participants in Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting programme - the first of its kind - were basic infrastructure projects like water supply and roads, Newcastle was significantly more developed by time it introduced PB and, therefore, the 2006 ‘Udecide’ project was focused on "improvement" rather than development; addressing issues of environment, community building, safety and security. The Participatory Budgeting pilot was intended to engage local residents with the "making of decisions around… expenditure" (Howe, 2008); to raise awareness regarding the subject of public money and how it is distributed; and to develop a stronger relationship between elected officials and the general public (Department of Communities and Local Government 2011, pp.58-59).
Background History and Context
Newcastle became a member of a European project ‘Particepando’ in 2005, when a number of councillors were invited to attend and study a participatory budgeting programme in Italy. Later “A working group was established of relevant council officers, Elected Members… and voluntary sector officers who considered the relative merits of Participatory Budgeting and possible options for a pilot scheme… The first two pilots were launched in December 2006” (The Department of Communities and Local Government, 2011, p.58) The pilots proved to be successful to a great extent and as a result ‘Udecide’ was officially set up. According to the report conducted by The Department of Communities and Local Government: “a dedicated Participatory Budgeting Unit was established within Newcastle City Council’s Social Policy team.” (2011, p.59) Finally, the annual programme of participatory budgeting events was organised. The event ‘Cleaner, Greener, Safer’ held in December 2006 with the wards of Denton, Lemington and Woolsington being the first to part take in the Participatory Budgeting event was one of the above-mentioned pilots.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The ‘Udecide’ project was in charge of organising the event. However, as ‘Udecide’ was itself set up by the Newcastle city council it would be logical to assume that this participatory budgeting programme was indirectly conducted by the local government. In fact, most of the necessary funds were supplied by either the central or the local governments. In terms of funding, an overall sum of £30,000 was allocated to the project. The central government was mainly responsible for funding the project, subsidising £6.20 for every £3.80 raised via the means of the Council Tax by the local government and the city council. Several proposed ideas that were of acceptable standards, but did not get funded within the framework of the project were advised as where to obtain further information regarding financial sources and actual beneficiaries of finances in the private sector, other branches of government, etc.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
All ‘Udecide’ programmes start after the formation of a working group comprised of participants that are randomly selected from all the volunteers who show up as well as specialists - local councillors. The working group then takes charge of further deliberation throughout the process of any Participatory Budgeting event. However, ‘Udecide’ is a platform set up by the Newcastle city council dedicated to holding participatory events, intending to include as many local residents as possible. Therefore, before focusing in detail on the design of any particular project or its delivery, a wider selective process was introduced. This initial selection process for the participants was based on volunteering on behalf of the residents of Newcastle, thus, there were no age, gender, or other limitations on social groups.
The first step to get the local residents involved was to send them a letter by post to inform them of the upcoming event. Afterwards, leaflets were handed out and presentations were conducted on behalf of the ‘Udecide’ members at local council and partnership meetings in order to raise awareness about the programme in general and seek involvement on behalf of local citizens. Ultimately, the selection process turned out to be a success with around 13 000 residents from three wards of Newcastle (namely Denton, Lemington and Woolsington) volunteering to take part in a community lunch within the framework of the programme, which focused on raising awareness about PB in general. The premises, etc. were provided by the council itself.
Later and, as with any other event organised by ‘Udecide’, a working group was set up to continue the process. “A working group of 30 residents and six council officers was formed to take the project forward” (Howe, 2008) for a total of 36 individuals in the working group. Interested individuals or groups involved in the programme then submit their projects to the working group. The working group examines the submitted ideas and selects appropriate projects for voting. Finally, 100 volunteers are randomly selected for the final stage of voting for the selected projects in order to avoid any conflict of interests acting as the only eligible voters.
Methods and Tools Used
Participatory budgeting (PB) as a concept is relatively new. It is a combination of democratic procedures and deliberation, as well as, finally, administrative action. It is a form of democracy with a participatory character, where the general public selects ways to distribute specifically provided sums of money by a local or central budget, private sources, donations, ect.
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
In terms of public interaction, a survey, which includes a thousand respondents, regarding the effectiveness of the previous Participatory Budgeting is conducted annually in January via telephone. Residents of Newcastle were also able to submit their suggestions to the working group, which later “check[ed] that they fell within the spending allowance, could be achieved in a relatively short period of time and fitted the agreed criteria” (Howe, 2008). All the deliberation within the working group is mediated by the 6 councillors. Overall more than 80 proposals were submitted via mail, and other means of communications to the programme and as a result of said deliberative process, 21 projects were selected for further discussion, by the working group comprised of the 36 chosen members. The following stage included a 100 local residents (randomly chosen volunteers) who decided on the funding of selected projects, via a Single Transferable Vote (STV) voting system, where each elector rates all the available options from 1 to 10. The projects gathering more of the rated marks compared to others would be realised. As a result, “15 projects were approved for funding and unsuccessful projects were given advice about alternative sources of funding.” (Howe, 2008). It is also noteworthy, that in terms of deliberation, there were cases of unplanned communication among the volunteers, leading to tangible, positive outcomes. According to Lamb at the Newcastle City Council: “We’ve seen some really creative relationships develop… On the actual voting day carers from a Barnado’s project [and] carers from the Dementia Care Partnership… started to talk… and… decided to… do a piece of work together.” (2014) This was not planned and was spontaneous, as Lamb goes on to point out that: “It was just a happy outcome of being able to put people together who may never have met each other otherwise.” (2014)
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
As shown by the Porto Alegre case, as well as the European experience within the framework of ‘Particepando’, such instances of direct cooperation between the public and the elected officers of local councils strengthen the relationship between the electorate and those representing it. According to Lamb at the Newcastle City Council “it’s also really important for us that there’s a relationship between participatory democracy and representative democracy, we don’t want to see them in isolation… I think it also builds an enormous amount of trust and confidence between officers and communities.” (Stephansen & Lamb, 2014). Apart from trust-building between the public and the local government such projects revive the community spirit and help create a healthy community overall. For example, one of the outcomes was an improvement in the relations of two social groups in the three wards. A recent attack on an elderly woman by teenagers had created tension within the community on a local level. Within the framework of the project, a fruitful ‘tea dance’ called ‘Bridging Generations’ was organised by a group of young people from Burnside (Denton) for the elderly, which helped improve the bilateral relations between the two age groups.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
There were several problems that the organisers came across during the course of the event like the lack of good and direct communication skills among the participants, due to the recent nature of Participatory Budgeting events in Newcastle. This resulted in low interest and high scepticism on behalf of local councillors during the initial states of the project, however, this eventually changed as the programme gradually became more and more successful. Therefore, it is logical to assume that initial scepticism should not be overrated when conducting events of such nature. One of the main lessons was that “there is no one model of PB [and that] it can be adapted to fit different situations.” (Howe, 2008). There were 15 different projects that made their way through the entire process and came to fruition varying from age-related tensions through to publishing a book in order to raise awareness of what it is like to be a young Muslim in Newcastle. Therefore, the ‘Udecide’ programme has shown the easily adaptive nature of Participatory budgeting. According to the report conducted by The Department of Communities and Local Government: “As such, Participatory Budgeting has facilitated a change in the responsibility from council/councillor-led to resident-led resource allocation decision-making processes” (2011, p.59). However, this statements remains debatable. Therefore, it also became apparent that Participatory Budgeting provides a healthy system of checks and balances to evaluate nominated proposals and make sure they are of acceptable quality for further work, in comparison to the sometimes opaque workings of the City Council. Also Local government tends to be less effective in addressing some of the most pressing needs of the community as they might be unable to detect them in time, like with the case of high tensions between different age groups. The public on the other hand is relatively quick in addressing such issues. Projects like Participatory Budgeting raise expectations locally and, therefore, the level of engagement rises. This in turn provides better services for the public. This is evident as five more wards within Newcastle became interested in the idea as a result of successful action in Denton, Lemington and Woolsington.
Howe, V. (2008) Participatory Budgeting for a Vibrant City. Online Resource, Available at: http://archive.ids.ac.uk/drccitizen/system/assets/1052734727/original/10... (Last accessed: 09/13/2018)
Stephansen, H. & Lamb, A. (2014) ‘Building relationships through participatory budgeting’, Open Democracy: Free Thinking for the World, 4th of April. Online Source, Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/participation-now/alison-lamb-hilde-c-stephansen/building-relationships-through-participatory-budget (Last Accessed: 4/1/2017)
The Department of Communities and Local Government (2011) Communities in the driving seat: a study of Participatory Budgeting in England. London: Queen’s Printer and Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. Online Resource, Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/6152/19932231.pdf (Last Accessed: 5/1/2017)
‘Udecide’ – Newcastle city council webpage. Available at: https://www.newcastle.gov.uk/communities-and-neighbourhoods/where-you-live/udecide/udecide-voting-event-2007 (Last accessed 6/11/2016)
Youtube Video covering the event. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PzdteTPwhiY (last accessed 6/11/2016)
Lead image: ukpbunit/YouTube https://goo.gl/ecxeW4