Begun in 2015, Ontario's Budget Talks is a participatory budgeting program that allows citizens to propose and vote on various public projects. The process was changed in 2017 to include deliberative workshops.
Problems and Purpose
According to the Brookfield Institute at Ryerson University, "Budget Talks began February 2015 as a pilot program designed to address a public perception that the budget-making process lacked transparency. In response to these criticisms, the Government of Ontario looked to other jurisdictions and sectors to assess the potential of emerging public (particularly digital) engagement techniques that could be adopted to bring Ontarians closer to the budget process. Ultimately, a handful of public servants, with support from the Premier’s Office, set out to test one of those techniques: crowdsourcing." 
Background History and Context
In 2003, Dalton McGuinty was elected as Ontario’s new liberal Premier. Following his appointment, there was a prominent focus on ‘democratic renewal’ and transparency within the government. McGuinty’s government was faced with the challenge of balancing an inherited deficit and fulfilling the changes Ontarians wanted to see in their communities. It was accepted that in order to tackle Ontario’s deficit ‘a government redesign was necessary’.
McGuinty’s successors continued his initiative to embed citizen participation in to Ontario’s government. In response to Ontarians increasingly favouring online integration, at the end of 2014 Ontario’s Ministry of Finance introduced Budget Talks, an online consultation tool. It enables citizens to engage in shaping the financial Budget for the following year. Previously, legislators have solely met with Ontarians enabling them to participate in forming the financial Budget; however, with the development of Budget Talks this is no longer necessary. Citizens can suggest ideas in real time from wherever they are; the only thing that is required is internet access. Yvan Baker, the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Finance describes the innovation as ‘a unique opportunity’ for citizens to ‘engage with their government and their communities’.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The budget allocated to Budget Talks proposals has increased since the 2015 pilot. Initially, the Ontarian government did not allocate a specific percentage of the Budget for developing citizen proposed ideas. It was at the discretion of the government to decide how much money would be directly allocated to Budget Talks led proposals. This changed in 2016, as the Ontarian government proposed $3million would be spent on directly on planning, developing and implementing eight citizen proposals from Budget Talks. This figure increased in 2017, the government allocated up to $5million for up the top five submissions as voted by citizens during the Budget Talks process. Ontario is the first province in Canada to ‘commit’ to funding ideas from citizens as a part of its public Budget. The allocated funding helps to fulfil the Ontario government’s commitment to being an ‘open, responsive and people-driven’ establishment. There is no independent monitoring body for the Ontario Budget Talks process. The future of Budget Talks is uncertain since the Liberal Party lost reelection in 2018.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The government does not select participants to take part in Budget Talks, as the online consultation tool allows for self-selection. Citizens are ‘empowered’ to engage in the pre-Budget talks by submitting and voting on ideas online. Each year the innovation is advertised in the media, such as, news reports and social media, increasing awareness of the opportunity to take part in shaping Ontario’s fiscal plan. The Budget Talks are accessible to citizens as there is no cost to the participants and the platform is open to any one with internet access. It is important to note that those who do not have access to the internet can still take part in Ontario’s consultation via writing or in person meetings. In 2016, Budget Talks was the most popular tool for Ontarians to engage with the pre-Budget consultations, 1732 citizens in total utilised the platform. The government also received numerous written submissions and ideas gathered in face-to-face consultations. Two telephone town halls were also organised to widen the scope of participants in pre-budget consultations. 2016 also saw 53,402 votes cast on the proposals.
The age of citizens who participated in the Budget Talks online consultation ranges from 18 to over 75. Age groups were broken down as follows:
- 18 to 24 years (5.4%)
- 25 to 34 years (18.8%)
- 35 to 44 years (26.2%)
- 45 to 54 years (21.8%)
- 55 to 64 years (8.8%)
- 65+ (4.2%)
About 64% of participants were in full time employment or self-employed and 2% unemployed. The respondents included three more women than men, with 72% achieving or having achieved an undergraduate degree or above.
Methods and Tools Used
Ontario's Budget Talks are an example of participatory budgeting, a 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.
Budget Talks are unique for their use of information and communications technology including a dedicated Budget Talks online consultation tool and the use of social media. Those who do not have access to the internet can still take part in the process via writing or in person meetings. In 2016, the online Budget Talks platform was the most popular method of engagement with 1,732 proposals being submitted electronically. The government also received 489 written submissions and gathered ideas for over 700 citizens in face-to-face consultations. In addition, the government held two telephone town halls to widen the scope of participants for the pre-Budget consultations.
For the 2017 Budget Talks process (to decide the 2018 budget), the process was changed to include in-person deliberative workshops. These occurred after ideas were submitted online and reviewed by officials. Participants in the workshops worked together to determine evaluation criteria to narrow down the list of proposals using Dotmocracy. The final list was then announced to the public and put to a vote on the Budget Talks website for two weeks in January.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The Budget Talks process consists of 5 phases.
First Phase: Idea Submission
Ontarians are invited to submit their ideas regarding what the Budget should be spent on. The Idea Submission phase also provides a forum for discussion; in 2016 it received 697 discussion comments. For a proposal to be considered eligible it must meet the criteria set out by the Ontarian government. The proposals must be something the Ontario government has the ‘scope’ to complete. The idea must be submitted before the deadline and suggest a ‘new fund, pilot project, study, event or digital service’. Furthermore, it should help to achieve the focus areas outlined on Budget Talks and should only require a one time investment of a maximum $1 million. Finally, the idea has to be able to show ‘progress or completion’ within 4 years of receiving funding. In 2016, the most popular theme for submitted ideas was education; receiving 325 different ideas in total. A heavily supported idea was to ‘ensure that teachers are prepared to teach with confidence and efficiency, right from the start.'
Second Phase: Submission Review
During the review phase of the process, officials check that all ideas and submissions meets the submission requirements.
Third Phase: Live Events & Workshops
Phase 3 also acts as a form of review; it comprises of several workshops which allow for further discussion and deliberation. Citizen submissions that make it past the review and workshop phases are posted online, so that Ontarians can vote on which idea they would like to see implemented.
The following description of the public workshop phase for the 2017 budget has been adapted from the Government of Ontario Budget Talks website: Organizers structured the process to ensure people had time to read, think and discuss ideas before coming to their final recommendations. Each workshop reviewed a list of 82 ideas that were determined to have met the submission criteria. Their job was to help prioritize these ideas, and help whittle them down to a shortlist for public voting.
Workshop activities were the same for each panel in the four cities:
1. Developing evaluation criteria: Panelists were asked to agree on how ideas would be evaluated. As a group, they defined how they would rate each idea on three criteria: inclusivity, reach, and importance.
- Inclusivity: Is it possible to apply this idea in a way which can include Ontarians who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized?
- Reach: To what extent does the idea have the potential to impact a significant number of Ontarians?
- Importance: Overall, how important do you think this idea is to Ontarians? Consider its impact on your community, your region, or to the entire province.
2. Reading, discussing and rating ideas
Panelists were organized into small groups to read and discuss each idea, agreeing on ratings for each. Each group had to evaluate a quarter of all the ideas.
3. Presenting the short list
Once they had counted their scores, each group presented their top ideas to the larger group. They shared their thoughts on why they rated these ideas highest against the three criteria.
Everyone in the room was given ten stickers which they could use to vote for the ideas they think should proceed to the next stage. All the top ideas from the tables were put up on the wall for people to read and consider.
At the end of the workshops in the four cities, votes were tallied and sorted the ideas from most to least votes. The Government then selected the final list for voting from among the top 16 ideas recommended by the panelists. The Government deemed these ideas to be consistent with the submission criteria and with the government’s priorities. The Government also took regional preferences into account when creating the top list.
Fourth Phase: Public Voting
The government devise their own criteria for idea submissions and with the help of citizens in the workshop phase, the government holds the authority to decide what ideas enter the public voting stage.
Fifth Phase: Implementation
The final phase is implementation in which they announce what ideas received the most public votes and will be implemented.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The progress of the chosen ideas can be tracked on the Budget Talks Project Tracker. It shows all of the ideas that were selected in the final and what stage they are at, either the planning, developing, implementing or complete phase. An idea within the Improving Community resources and Services category is currently in the implanting stage. The idea was to improve digital services for libraries. The project will improve digital services for libraries in 22 rural First Nation Public libraries. Depending on the personal needs for communities various digital services will be available, such as, computer training, Wi-Fi hotspot lending programmes and access to computers, laptops and desks. Computer training and Wi-Fi hotspot lending programmes combined will significantly help citizens to develop technological skills that are now desired in many different job sectors. The project is expected to be completed by April 2018.
Another digital idea that was selected by the Budget Talks process is enabling Ontarians access to digitized health data. The pilot project aims to aid parents to ‘securely’ access their children’s immunisation records online. The government is currently piloting a digital registration and public authentication service that works using banking details. Furthermore, they plan to work closely with a couple of pubic health units that already have the technology in place required to pilot this project. This idea is in the implementation stage, with a goal to complete it by December 31, 2017. Evidently, the Budget Talks consultation tool enables Ontario citizens to have a direct effect on what their financial Budget is spent on. Ontarians also have the ability to highlight what personal issues are important to them, through sharing ideas.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Budget Talks is a form of deliberative democracy, because it encourages citizen discussion via the live workshop events. Proposed ideas are discussed and evaluated, before deciding which idea submissions precede to the next stage of the Budget Talks Process. Miller criticises deliberative democracy claiming that it does not provide a solution if there is no consensus reached between opposing parties. However, Budget Talks is an example of Saward’s ‘corrective’ solution to this criticism. Saward explains that deliberative democracy and direct democracy should not be viewed as ‘competing models’ that are isolated from one another. Instead, combining both models encourages citizens to deliberate and ‘reflect’ on political issues before making a decision. A successful combination of both models can clearly be seen in Budget Talks; deliberative democracy takes place during the idea submission and workshop phases, whilst direct democracy takes place in the public voting stage.
In addition, due to Budget Talks lack of participation selection it is a victim of skewed participation. Pattie et al. highlights that commonly ‘participation is strongly correlated to income wealth and education’; unfortunately, Budget Talks proves this study correct. The user demographics of Budget Talks 2016 shows that those in full-time employment made up 53% of participants, a stark comparison to unemployed participants accounting for only 2% of total participants. Participants also represented a range of education levels, however, the majority of participants had received college level education or higher; 19% had an undergraduate degree and 17% were college students. Despite encouraging and making it easier for Ontarians to participate in shaping their fiscal plan, little was done to combat lack or representation as a result of political apathy. It can be argued that those who submitted ideas to Budget Talks are likely to have participated in politics in other ways anyway. Therefore, it has to be questioned what was specifically gained through the introduction of Budget Talks.
Furthermore, it can be argued that the design of Budget Talks subscribes to Pateman’s theory of participatory democracy. Pateman favours inclusion and explains that ‘for a democratic polity to exist’ a ‘participatory society’ must also exist. She favoured inclusion of all citizens, in comparison to Schumpeter’s stance that average citizens do not possess the political competence or knowledge required to participate political decisions. Pateman believed citizen participation teaches people that when deciding on a political matter, one must take in to consideration wider opinions and interest, not solely their own ‘private interests’ Posting Budget ideas on a public, real time consultation tool allows citizens to take in other citizens ideas and discuss them. Conclusively, Ontario’s Budget Talks consultation tool does contribute to embedding citizen participation in to their constitution. However, overall Budget Talks lacks transparency, is an example of skewed participation and fails to combat the problem of political apathy.
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 Schumpeter, J. A., 1994. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. 1st ed. s.l.:Routledge.
 Budget Talks 2017 - https://talks.ontario.ca/
 Ontario Budget 2016 - https://www.fin.gov.on.ca/en/budget/ontariobudgets/2016/papers_all.pdf