The third year of Ontario's participatory budgeting programme allowed citizens to propose and vote on five projects to be granted a share of $5 million. The process saw
Problems and Purpose
The 2017 Budget Talk is the third year in which the Liberal government of Ontario has given citizens and organizations a say in pre-budget consultations via email, twitter, the budget talks website, and letters. The information gathered gives the government an idea of public priorities with which to shape the direction of next year's budget. Like it's previous iterations, the 2017 Budget Talk utilised modern technology to facilitate participation.
Background History and Context
Traditionally, Ontario legislators have invited individuals across the province to have a say in decisions concerning the budget. For decades, the legislative finance committee travelled across the province for face to face input on the budget. These pre-budget consultations have since evolved with the changing technologies, New technologies have paved the way for people to connect in new, more innovative ways (Ministry of finance, 2016). These face to face consultation evolved into letters, fax and the telephone town halls, which saw input delivered to legislators directly from constituents. With the evolution of the digital era, telephone town halls were soon joined by email input; “Email gave us the power to make submissions at our fingertips. And now, in this digital age, we can connect to discussions — anywhere, anytime and on any device” (Ministry of finance, 2016).
The most recent of these advancements in public engagement is the creation of Budget Talks; an online platform for participation implemented and created by the Liberal government in 2015. Budget talks was aimed to serve as a means of exchanging and discussing ideas and giving a voice to those affected by the budget. Pre-budget consultations have since evolved to include more ways of participating through social media.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project was funded and organised by the Liberal Ontario government.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
There is no selection process, participation is voluntary. Individuals and organisations are motivated to participate on the government's promise to put final budgetary proposals to a public vote in January. The top 3 ideas are guaranteed a portion of $5 million. (Ministry of Finance 2017).
Participation in Budget Talks is advertised through various media outlets and and publications in the province. During the 2017 budget talks 1,732 ideas were shared, 53,402 votes were cast and 4,340 comments were written, (Ministry of finance, 2016). The age of participants ranged from:
- 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, (Ministry of finance, Budget, 2016).
Methods and Tools Used
The pre-budget consultation for the 2017 budget were similar in process to the year before. Budget Talks begin during the pre-budget consultation phase in the fall (in this case, September-November 2016) beginning with idea submissions. Submissions are then reviewed and in-person consultations are held. The Budget Talks for the 2017 budget were the first to include in-person workshops. Participants in the workshops collaboratively developed an set of evaluation criteria on which to select the projects for shortlisting. Dotmocracy was used to select the top proposals to be put to a public vote in January 2017. The finalists were announced at the end of the month and implementation began around March.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Phase 1: Idea submission
787 ideas and 697 comments were submitted before proposals closed on November 3rd, 2017. Participants were asked to forward proposals on five focus areas, (1) Help parents find childcare information in their community, (2) Encourage and promote healthy living, (3) Help reduce social isolation for seniors, (4) Help support and grow small businesses in Ontario and (5) Help students succeed. The incentive for participation is that final ideas will be put to a public vote in January following which $5 million will be towards making the 5 winning ideas a reality. (Ministry of Finance 2017)
Deliberation in the pre-budget consultation is as follows;
When you enter the budget talks website you are met with an explanation of the five phases, their first page encourages citizens to submit an idea. One you have clicked on idea submission; the viewer is taken to a page with the five-focus area. In the 2018 budget talks 78 ideas and 42 comments were submitted to Childcare (Ministry of Finance 2016). If one was to choose childcare as a focus area, they would be taken to a page with a short summary detailing the current problems and policies associated with the issue. The short brief consists of four simple headings, (1) The problem (2) Who we’re trying to help (3) What we’re doing/have done (4) Learn more. In the case of child care the Ontarian government is trying to make it easier for families to find reliable information regarding childcare. They are trying to help parents and families and they have invested more money in the child care system, in addition they have added two help desks for parents and child care operators. Finally, citizens can opt to learn more by visiting the Ministry of Education website.
All ideas which have been submitted can then be viewed and challenged by other citizens. Citizens have the opportunity to deliberate by commenting on each idea. These comments can fall under four categories; I agree with this, I have a question, I have something to add to this or I have a different opinion. Citizens deliberate by adding to existing ideas, asking for clarification or challenging certain ideas, each comment can then be replied to by anyone which leads to a deliberation which will be reviewed in phase 2 of the process.
Phase 2: Submission review
In this phase ideas are reviewed by the policymakers to make sure they are in line with the submission criteria and are within the scope of the Ontario Government. Ideas which do not make the cut are not considered by the public in the vote. This process also sees similar ideas consolidated.
Phase 3: In-person consultations
In-person consultation workshops take place in November and December as part of the traditional budgeting process in Ontario. The submissions which have made it past the review stage are considered and refined by attendees through a comprehensive process including the development of evaluation criteria and the use of dotmocracy to narrow the list of top proposals.
Phase 4: Public voting
Submissions from phase 1 which have made it through phase 2 and 3 are then posted go back to the Budget Talks online forum for a final round of public voting. Voting lasted from January 10, 2018 to January 26, 2018 with the winning projects being announced shortly thereafter.
Phase 5: Implementation
At this stage citizens can track the progress of winning project throughout the year with the governments online Budget Talks tracker.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The 2017 Budget Talks process resulted in 3 winning ideas recieving funding:
- Reducing and Preventing Food Waste - received $600,000 with 3,269 votes
- Improving Digital Services for Libraries - received $1million with 2,764 votes
- Accessing digitised health data - received $1million with 2,127 votes
Reducing food waste was the idea with the most votes; this involves creating supermarket recovery program which supplies surplus perishables to local charities to be given to those in need, this idea is in the development stage with the target completion date of March 2018. All the projects and their current statuses are available to citizens online via the budget talks tracker (Ministry of Finance 2017)
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Participatory budgeting (PB) is a means where by citizens can be involve in the decision-making process, voicing their priorities in order to create a fairer more inclusive budget. PB has been shown to lead to more government spending on social and improve the wellbeing of citizens (Touchton and Wampler, 2013). The Ontario budget talks as an example of PB allow citizens to propose ideas which could potentially be funded and implemented. The Ontario budget talks raises two important questions (1) who is participating and (2) who has the decision-making power.
Who is participating?
An open forum in theory should allow for every member of the community to participate, making the talks representative of the citizenry. In practice, however the 2016 budget talks saw a preference for the middle class; critics of PB, often suggest that it actually undermines representative democracy. Only a small minority of non-representative citizens were involved, this unequal participation is “systematically biased against the less well to-do-citizens” (Lijphart, 1997) and translates into unequal political influence. It is likely that those who participated are more civic minded than the general population. Democratic innovations increase citizen participation in decision making; mobilising disenfranchised members of the community and increasing the legitimacy of the democratic system (Ryan and Smith, 2012), Ontario needs to redistribute power in order to enable the poor and disenfranchised by deliberately including them in future political and economic processes, (Arnstein, 1969), more work needs to be done to attract young people, as this is a platform easily accessible to them.
Who has the power?
Despite being involved in the agenda setting process, citizens are kept out of the decision-making process this opens the process up to several key criticisms. The first being that participation does not go far enough; citizens have a say in $5 million of a $1 billion budget and their submission are then evaluated by the government who can remove any ideas they wish. Citizens can make proposals but they cannot take decisions, the lack of transparency creates a black box in which it is difficult to determine where the power lies (Ganuza and Baiocchi 2012). One could argue that the budget talks are simply a window dressing ritual as powerholders limit the input of citizens. Arnstein (1969) argues consultation without decision making power is simply going through the motions, all that is achieved is participating in participation. The budget talks are too limited, the government co-opt civil society activism but only give citizens five focus areas citizens are only allowed to deliberate about issues that correspond with the government’s agenda (Wampler, B. 2012), this supports the idea that these budget talks are an illusion of democracy.
Online pre-budget consolations, overcome several barriers to participation such as transport, work and time constraints, citizens can access the budget talks anywhere and on any of their devices, making it easily accessible to users. Democratic governance has been significantly improved by the development of information and communication technologies, which allows for unbiased and open deliberation (Loader and Mercea, 2011). These advances in democratic initiative are not their drawbacks. It is the popular view that public policy should be grounded in intelligent collective decision making, e democracy is often criticized for the lack quality deliberation. Ontario however has successfully overcome key problems often associated with electronic democratic initiatives, the information page provided for each focus area allows for ideas to be well informed and researched, the way in which people can comment to refine ideas allows for effective deliberation as ideas can be improved through deliberation. This initiative has been running for almost 4 years, in this time the budget talks has evolved and expanded, the longer a PB operate the more robust the results as it is associates with new patterns of governance and structural changes (Touchton and Wampler, 2013).
Budget Talks: Citizen Participation in Ontario, Canada
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Lead image: Government of Ontario https://goo.gl/NoJ9VZ