The Robin Hood Project is a Participatory Budgeting project in Melville, Australia to allocate a fund of $100,000 between different community projects.
Problems and Purpose
The City of Melville in Western Australia has implemented a process of Participatory Budgeting known as The Robin Hood Project to help the council choose between different proposed community development projects. This follows a general increase in the use of participatory budgeting to decide the use of state funds and decide which areas they are best spent. Prior to the introduction of the Robin Hood Project, funding was allocated by locally elected representatives who chose to fund projects in areas they felt were most deserving. The policy was facilitated by the Melville Youth Advisory Council who had the aim of 'encouraging community ownership of the decision making process'. The policy was created as elected officials do not always make the decisions that accurately represent the views of the citizens and citizens wanted to help improve the poorer areas of Melville hence the name of the policy being The Robin Hood project. It is highly likely that were it not for the Robin Hood project, many of the same project would have been allocated funds under the old system as elected representatives act rationally in the interests of their citizens. The use of participatory democracy allows more involvement from citizens in the process of democracy.
Background History and Context
All participatory budgeting project stem from models used in Brazil in the 1980's. One city in Brazil which is known for its use of participatory budgeting is Porto Alegre where dozens of regular forums and councils discuss nearly every area of decision making. In the city, seminars, conferences and community meetings in which state officials and citizens discuss and decide together on issues ranging from street lighting to economic development policy are an everyday occurrence (Rebbeca Abers). The main aim of Participatory budgeting is the redistribution of wealth towards poorer neighbourhoods. Participatory Budgeting is not widely used in Australia but inequality between the rich and poor in Australian cities has been increasing and this was seen as the best way of tackling this issue. The policy has become a bi-yearly process with participants given 24 months to create their community project. Currently applications for The Robin Hood Project IV have just finished, with votes for the allocation of the funds to take place in 2019.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Robin Hood Project allocates $100,000 between different community ideas, projects and events with a maximum allocation of $20,000 per project. However, projects generally receive less than this, with the amount received being decided using a public vote software Budget Allocator. Typically projects receive between $1,000 to $10,000 for their completion.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Anyone can vote on the allocation of funds for Melville with no age requirements or requirement of living in the area and additionally there is no age requirements to submit an application for a project to be included in the vote. Voting for the Participatory budget is done through an online software known as Budget Allocator which provides the results of the public vote. All that is required to vote is a working e-mail address and it is one vote per e-mail address. This engages the younger age groups who are more technologically savvy while it has the potential to marginalise older voter who are not as competent on the internet, while there are no paper votes, those who are struggling to vote can go to the library where officials can help them vote. Participation in the scheme has been strong with 2500 of Melville's 5695 strong population voting in The Robin Hood Project III.
Methods and Tools Used
Participatory Budgeting allows citizens to become policy makers and become more involved in governance of their own community, in order to produce the most democratic outcomes in local governance. In the case of Melville, the method was suitable as it allowed a direct relationship between the local government and the community's citizens, in order to allocate a fund that would have been spent on the community regardless, with rising inequality it was seen as vital that the poorer areas of the city were targeted by the fund and the best way for this was seen as being a community vote.
Another significant tool used in this case was the introduction of online voting, allowing participation from the home and in schools while removing the inconvenience of the polling booth, additionally the use of Melville's community talk website MelvilleTalks to create an online discussion between residents has allowed greater community discourse on what is best for the city. The process to register to vote is incredibly simple with an e-mail address being all that’s required before making your selection of what project should be backed by the funding. Additionally, on the MelvilleTalks website there is an interactive map of the city which shows residents what project people have created for their area. Australia in general has come onto the Participatory Budgeting scene late compared to Western Democracies; there has been some limited use of PB including in Geraldton deciding the services and operating budgets in 2014 via a deliberative community panel. However, the success of PB in Melville has not been replicated across Australia with the Robin Hood Project the only policy currently continuing beyond a singular use of PB .
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The nature of the Robin Hood Project allows participants to debate and discuss how and where they feel money needs to be spent within the city and helps the community further learn about budget allocation and the community projects which they may have otherwise have been unaware were under consideration. Additionally, the use of news publications and online social media to advertise the project helped bring in further voters and to help those who found it difficult to vote such as older residents, it was made clear that if you went to vote at the libraries, library staff would assist you with voting. Due to the ability of anyone to vote, people across the city have become more interested in the running of Melville and have become more informed as to where their cities money is being spent. With it being such a local scale project, each vote was important giving each citizen a substantial say in the running of their city.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Robin Hood Project initially first tried in 2013 has since been repeated in 2015, 2017 and will be repeated in 2019 due to its success. The programme will have seen $400,000 allocated through participatory budgeting by the end of 2019. If you take the 2017 iteration of the project, 8 community project received funding including the building of a new habitat for bats in the area and an upgrade to netball courts within the city. While the citizens having full control of their own projects is beneficial as it completely removes the local government from interfering with the project, the lack of expertise and management could lead to wasted funds if projects are not finished within the allotted time as limited government advice is given. The high turnout of 2500 for the 2017 project shows that the public is keen to be involved with where the money is allocated and to continue the project. the influence of the Robin Hood Project has therefore been clear and obvious.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The use of Participatory Budgeting has long been debated amongst scholars since its inception in Brazil in the 1980s. Some such as Wampler argue that the policy allows citizens to become more involved in democracy and have the ability to govern themselves in a way that they previously couldn't. However, while the project in Melville was meant to help reduce inequality between the rich and the poor in the city, some scholars such as Friendly argue that some voices can be heard louder than others in the debating process and that larger numbers of wealthier residents vote than poorer residents as they tend to have more time to research and vote on the issues. Additionally, minority groups tend to have their feelings outweighed by the majority. Wampler goes on to suggest that Participatory Budgeting tricks citizens into believing that their views are being heard and that they have a say in what happens within the community when in reality government agenda has changed little. This is shown in Melville as the scheme only allocates $100,000 of the $168,945,747 the city spend in a year, comparatively a drop in the ocean showing that the citizens of Melville hold an illusion of control over their city's finances. Despite this the government's lack of control over anything within the project including selection of the projects and the running of the projects shows that the community does have control over all of the funds allocated.
One way of measuring the success of Participatory budgeting in Melville is to look at it through the framework provided by Smith. He provided 4 main aspects of a successful system, the first of which asking how inclusive it is. The Robin Hood Project is largely inclusive as everyone is allowed to vote and everyone is allowed to present ideas of community projects to be voted upon. However, some poorer communities who are less able to vote or are apathetic to the vote will not have their opinions heard. Additionally, those without an internet connection ill be unable to vote without going to a library, many of those will be elderly leading to a lack of input from older generations. The second aspect through which it can be judged is how much control the citizens have. The citizens have full control over how the budget is allocated and there are no rules barring anyone from entering their idea for a project and all entries are shown on the ballot. However, the lack of money in the fund compared to the total expenditure of the local government of Melville shows that in reality the public have very little control of how their finances are spent across the city except for the small area of community projects. The third aspect highlighted by Smith is whether the project is transparent. While the number of votes each project receives is not revealed as it is counted by an online resource Budget Allocator is independent of the government and therefore not interfered with. As all projects are allowed on the ballot it is a transparent system and the official number of participants is revealed at the end of process. The final barometer of success is whether or not the system is efficient. The main stumbling block of the Robin Hood Project is efficiency as many of the projects are community led meaning that there is a lack of expertise behind the project and the lack of government support given to the project other than funding means that there is still a lot of work to be done for the project to take off the ground. If it were in the old system then it is likely that less risky options were chosen and less projects would fail.
With this year ushering in the 4th iteration of the project it has been shown to be popular amongst the population of Melville. Overall, it is hard to argue that the Robin Hood Project is anything other than a success as it has helped people connect further with democracy and choose which community projects they deem the best for their community.
Wampler, Brian 2012. Participatory Budgeting: Core principles and Key Impacts Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 8: Iss. 2, Article 12
Friendly, A, 2016. Participatory budgeting: The practice and the potential. In IMFG Forum (Vol. 6). The Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG).
Smith, G., 2009. Democratic innovations: Designing institutions for citizen participation. Cambridge University Press.