A participatory budgeting initiative implemented following other citizen engagement projects both in the city of Agueda and in other cities across the country. The scheme was introduced in 2015 and has been running ever since. Participation is both in-person and online.
Problems and Purpose
Through the introduction of the Participatory Budget, The Municipality of Águeda aimed to give its people a meaningful way to change their local areas, and improve their quality of life. Recognising that all have potential are well placed to advocate for the improvement of their local areas, and that in doing so individuals would become more engaged in civil society and their political environment. Having introduced an electric bike scheme to the city in 2011, the city was already on its way to increasing engagement with its people, and creating effective change to improve their lives.
This is part of a larger trend across Portugal, where ‘73 municipalities are signatories of the Covenant of Mayors.’ (Monteiro, 2012) This is a forum for European Mayors who’ve committed their cities to becoming more sustainable and environmentally friendly. A number of other cities across Portugal have also embarked on similar experiments in participatory democracy, under the socialist government.
Challenges include the difficulty of enabling effective communication between local government and local people, and ensuring the will of the people translates into real change. Selecting projects that will improve quality of life will be another challenge, as there will be a range of proposals and not all can be funded. The municipality government must also make sure to maintain a budget, so that only feasible projects are funded, and costs don’t spiral out of control.
Background History and Context
Águeda became a municipal seat in 1834, following the reforms of the Liberal Revolution. It grew in importance politically and militarily due to its use as a key staging area and military hospital during the 2nd French Invasion. (Águeda City Council, 2015) The city has grown since then, with a current population of around 47,000. There is a marked difference between the population in the largest parish of the municipality, Águeda and Borralha, with a population of 13,500, and the smallest; Loan and apple of Alcob, with 408 residents. This presents a problem, as surely a parish of 408 can’t receive the same project funding as one of 13,500.
Gil Nadais, Municipality executive, was an important figure in spurring change in Águeda. In 2009, he signed the Covenant of Mayors, a group of European mayors aiming to reduce carbon emissions and improve local energy efficiency. To this end, he built partnerships between the local government and a number of local lighting businesses to create a lab in which to test energy efficient lighting (Smartravel, 2016), which has been rolled out across Águeda. ‘The city has.. installed energy-saving lighting in houses, public buildings and public spaces, and developed successful partnerships with the private sector’ (Anon., 2012) This provides something of a model for the participatory budget, as it demonstrates the local government was more than willing to work with local people and businesses.
In 2010, Águeda tried another experiment, introducing a small number of electric bikes to be used free in the city, and building 29km of cycle paths. After six months of the trial around 150 users had made more than 20,000km worth of trips, reducing emissions by an estimated 3 tonnes of CO2. Following this success, Águeda extended the scheme, supplying more bikes, and building more charge points and parking. (Anderton , et al., 2013) The Municipal Regulation of the Participative Budget of Águeda was approved by the Municipal Assembly of Águeda in the ordinary session of February 27, 2015. This led to the first cycle of budget definition. The Participatory Budget could be seen as an extension of the earlier projects, with a renewed focus on citizen involvement. Whilst across Portugal many have seen politics as endemically corrupt, the people of Águeda have reason for optimism. The process itself is part of a wider trend of democratic experiments across Portugal, with other municipalities having tried similar models of participatory democracy.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Participatory Budget of Águeda was set up by the Águeda City Council, who govern the municipality. They organised meetings across the parishes, and agreed that all of the resulting projects would be funded by the Council, ‘For the first edition of OP-Águeda a budget allocation of 500,000 Euros was defined.’ (OP - Águeda, 2015). The individual projects were to be capped at €50,000 each. The Municipality Executive oversees the programme, and has the power to make final decisions on proposals that have gone to appeal. However, the Participatory Budget was set up as an organisation in its own right, so it has employees and its own administrative structure. Municipality Executive Gil Nadais was instrumental in lobbying for the change, his vision of Águeda held its people at the centre, and believed they were best placed to assess the needs of the local area.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
All residents of the Municipality of Águeda over 16 are eligible to take part in the process. This means they can make proposals for their parish or the municipality, and vote on them too. Efforts were made to publicise the process when it first began, however this wasn’t wholly successful, and only 5.1% of participants were aged 16-24, representing a significant imbalance. Academics believe that there is a self selection bias, especially when in person meetings are involved, that wealthier, resource rich individuals are more likely to take part than those on lower incomes, due to the implicit costs of involvement - ‘Though complete openness has an obvious appeal, those who choose to participate are frequently quite unrepresentative of any larger public. Individuals who are wealthier and better educated tend to participate more than those who lack these advantages, as do those who have special interests or stronger views.’ (Fung, 2006) Therefore it’s difficult to say whether those taking part in the budget process are truly representing the wants and needs of the wider population.
However, one way to counter this is by lowering the costs of involvement. A key development is the expanding use of online participation, allowing people to take part without any real costs. In the 2015 Participatory Budget there were a total of 2,707 voters, 68% of which submitted votes electronically, and 32% in person. This demonstrates the popularity of online participation, and suggests that building ways for users to discuss local issues online could greatly benefit the process.
It is key, despite the temptation to scrap physical meetings altogether, to maintain this opportunity for discussion too. ‘The variety of participation options for engagement is important because some people are more comfortable with some forms of engagement such as a public meeting, while others would prefer, for example, to engage through on-line discussions.’ (Lowndes, et al., 2006, p. 288) For example, older members of the community tend to prefer meetings in person, due to the complexity of modern technology. This is an incentive to simplify the website so that those with basic computing skills can still take part.
Methods and Tools Used
The process is ‘Based on a model of deliberative participation, according to which participant can present proposals and vote on the projects they consider to be priorities, up to the budgetary limit established for the process and provided they meet the standards defined in this document.’ (Águeda, 2015)
There are two cycles of participation, the budget definition cycle and the budget execution cycle. The definition cycle refers to the submitting of proposals, the analysis of them, and voting on projects by citizens. The execution cycle is when the approved projects are delivered on. A series of meetings, held across the parishes making up (OP - Águeda, 2015) from 18th May to 5th June 2015 (Águeda, 2015), were organised so that proposals could be given in person, whilst it was also possible to submit them online. At the meetings, ideas were discussed in tables, before proposals were submitted.
One example of a similar case is that of a scheme of Participatory City Budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In each of the 16 regions of the city, meetings are held to elect delegates, who then take part in discussions over the following three months to decide on the budgetary priorities, projects that might be funded in the region, on issues such as healthcare, transportation and environment. (Fung & Wright, 2001, p. 14) However, this model differs from that at use in Águeda because it lets citizens decide the overall budget priorities, where the Águeda model promises a limited fund for projects in the region.
Another example is Kerala, India, where 40% of the State budget was redirected to district planning councils established in villages, where each village would create a local development plan, addressing their needs, logistics and financing requirements, in order to introduce local projects. (Fischer, 2012). There have been other models of participatory budgeting at use in the UK too; ‘Referendums have...been used to advice local authorities on the setting of their budgets (Milton Keynes, Bristol and Croydon).’ (Lowndes, et al., 2006, pp. 284-5)
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Proposals can be submitted at participatory meetings, or through the Participative Budget website during the Budget Definition Cycle. During the participatory meetings a moderated discussion takes place after proposals have been made in individual tables, with a vote taken on them. Proposals meeting the conditions laid down by the City Council - including that they pass a technical assessment of feasibility and cost - are made into projects to be voted on. Where this happens depends on the scope of the project (Parish and Municipality). After technical analysis, the City Council publishes the approved projects, and the excluded proposals with the grounds for exclusion, allowing 10 days for complaints to be made. These complaints, having been analysed, are decided on by the Municipal Executive. Following this, the final list of projects to be voted on is published.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
There were 17 projects that passed technical assessment, won the public vote and were put into action, totalling €470,500.00 of municipal funds. (OP - Águeda, 2015) These projects have been delivered on, and a subsequent edition of the scheme was agreed to in 2016/17. The two distinct cycles of that edition have come to a close, and another 13 projects were agreed to and have been put into action (OP - Águeda, 2016). Subsequently, the 2017/18 edition of the scheme is now in the budget definition cycle. The fact that the City Council has funded the scheme for three years running demonstrates the popularity and perceived effectiveness of the scheme. The city has become something of a model across Europe, for the combination of environmental considerations and democratic innovations.
It was hoped that introducing participatory local democracy would raise political engagement and would form part of a learning process for the local authority and local people. However, 80% of participants voted in local and national elections. (OP - Águeda, 2015) This demonstrates that those taking part are largely already aware of and involved in politics, even if only to the degree that they cast a vote. This is perhaps another result of the self-selection bias; those interested in politics and their local area are more likely to be involved in the scheme. Therefore, the scheme cannot be wholly representative.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
One issues with the scheme is that despite being given two votes to cast in the first edition of the programme, very few voters using the online platform only cast one vote. (Nadais, 2015) This is potentially simply due to the fact they weren’t aware they could do so. In the 2016/17 cycle, more of an effort was made to publicise the two vote system. The 2016/17 cycle also saw a longer open period for the submission of proposals. A key part of the scheme is the monitoring and evaluation of the results. All participants were quizzed on their involvement, and the majority were largely satisfied with the process (OP - Águeda, 2015). 89% of participants said they were in agreement with the methodology used, and recognized not all proposals can pass technical analysis. (OP - Águeda, 2015) The biggest issue with the scheme is the self selection bias. Women and young people are under represented, and it is likely that those with a prior interest in local or national politics are overrepresented. As a democratic process it is right that it should be open to all, however special effort must be made to promote the scheme to young people, and to women. If this doesn’t take place, the results of the scheme won’t represent the whole community.
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Available at: https://www.cm-agueda.pt/pages/204#.WgXiyYXXLui
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Available at: http://www.eumayors.eu/news_en.html?id_news=388
Fischer, F., 2012. Participatory Governance: From Theory To Practice. In: D. Levi-Faur, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Governance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 12.
Fung, A., 2006. Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance`. Public Administration Review, p. 67.
Fung, A. & Wright, E. O., 2001. Deepening Democracy: Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance. Politics and Society, 29(1), p. 14.
Lowndes, V., Pratchett, L. & Stoker, G., 2006. Diagnosing and Remedying the Failings of Official Participation Schemes: The CLEAR Framework. Social Policy & Society , 5(2), pp. 284-5.
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OP - Águeda, 2015. Participative Budget of Águeda - Interim Report on the 2015/2016 Edition. [Online]
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OP - Águeda, 2015. Commission Regulation - Participative Budget of Águeda. [Online]
OP - Águeda, 2015. Commission Regulation - Participative Budget of Águeda - Article 4. [Online]
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Smartravel, 2016. Gil Nadais - Smartravel. [Online]
Overview by the International Observatory on Participatory Democracy: https://oidp.net/en/experience.php?id=1147
Official Website [PORTUGUESE]: http://orcamentoparticipativo.cm-agueda.pt/
Lead image: Águeda City Council https://goo.gl/FGwxQC