Youth Participatory Budgeting in Cluj-Napoca, Romania was implemented in 2015 and this democratic exercise was the first one to be conducted online in the country's history.
Problems and Purpose
The objective of the discussed project was to improve three aspects of youth participation in the local civic life, in the city of Cluj-Napoca, Romania in 2015. The first criteria focused on the participation of young people as part of informal groups. The second aspect targeted their direct contribution to the community life. The last proposal was aimed at increasing young people’s participation in decision making by using a “direct, participatory, democratic process."
Background History and Context
Before going into more specifics of the project, a short background about the country’s political landscape is required to have a clearer picture. Geographically, Romania is located in Eastern Europe and became a democracy following the revolution of 1889. On their path of democratic transformation, the country joined NATO in 2004 and became a member of the European Union in 2007. However, despite this relative success, the country is still struggling with the issue of wide-spread corruption. The corruption problem seems to be deeply entrenched in the culture, having achieved the status of a “public symbol” and even being embedded in “social practice”. 
This specific issue is significant, considering that participatory budgeting is aiming to improve transparency and tackle corruption. Furthermore, inspired by the example of Porto Alegre in Brazil, the city of Cluj has previously tried a pilot project of participatory budgeting in 2013. The first attempt was limited to only one district of the city and it failed for several reasons: the mayor and the local bureaucrats were unwilling to transfer any real power to the citizens; from the beginning they tried to control the outcome; their perspective of the project resembled more to a consultancy exercise that could be used to gain more local support for their political party.
Two years later from the initial trial, the city of Cluj-Napoca has been successfully elected as the 2015 European Youth Capital. Encouraged by this achievement, Cluj-Napoca tried and successfully implemented the first city-scaled participatory budgeting initiative in Romania.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The project was originally proposed by the Pont Group, a local NGO which is focused on national and regional development and its founder Andras Farkas.
The total cost of the project was €73 571, and the funds came from two sources. The largest part of the subsidy approximate €65 096 came from an EEAGrant while the remaining funding has been complemented from the city’s budget.
Note that in the official document of project approval, which was signed and released by the local council of the city, a fragment of text singles out the mayor as being the initiator of the whole project. Moreover, in the same document the budget of the project is set to be €82 947 with the mention that €9447 will be covered from the city’s budget. This leads to a difference of almost €10 000 between the numbers reported by the European Economic Area Grants and the local council of Cluj-Napoca. It is worth mentioning the fact that the mayor of the city was amongst the persons signing the document.
No explanatory factors that could clarify the discrepancy between media reports and official documents have been found. It is possible that some of the previous practices which impeded the pilot project of participatory budgeting to still be in use.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The target group of the project was represented by 15000 young people, with ages between 16-35 and whom place of residence was Cluj-Napoca. The participants had to propose ideas and take part in the decision-making process.
The initiative was advertised in the regional media, such as newspapers, radio stations and the local news channel. In addition, social media platforms and websites have been used for the same purpose.
The recruitment was done on a volunteering basis and the participants could join by completing and uploading an online form. Moreover, they could join by filling in and posting a leaflet.
By the time it has ended, the project managed to recruit 248 informal groups and more than 750 young individuals. The groups succeeded in creating and proposing 437 viable initiatives.
Methods and Tools Used
This initiative is an example of participatory budgeting, an increasingly common 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.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The current study case and the architecture of decision making are particularly interesting given their simplicity of application. Prior to the proposal stage, the participants were given clear guidelines regarding the assessment criteria for any submitted initiatives.
The participants had to form groups composed of minimum three persons and each group could propose no more than five initiatives. The initiatives were limited to the territory of the city while the access to them had to be free and open to all public. The language of the idea submitted had to be Romanian but linguistic help was available to ethnic minorities. After the completion of this stage, the ideas were analysed by the local council to asses their technical suitability. Soon after the viable projects have been established, the public voted which initiatives should have priority for funding.
The entire voting process was digital and was conducted through a governmental website and a mobile phone application.
Role of stakeholders:
Both Cluj-Napoca Municipality and EEA Grants shared the risk of funding the project. Additionally, Cluj-Napoca Municipality used in-house expertise to assess the viability of the ideas proposed and to check if they meet the criteria of selection, such as open access. Even more, the municipality played an active role in increasing young citizen’s involvement in the local community. This feature has been accomplished by designing the mechanism of proposal in a manner that required the participants to interact with each other and to form groups.
Note that no data regarding the identity of the in-house specialists nor their professional expertise has been found.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The final result showed that out of 437 initiatives, 117 of them have received funding. By the end of the project, there have been recorded around 48609 votes from approximate 18 872 young individuals. These numbers proved that the level of engagement exceeded by far the expectations for youth participation. This is claim is justified by the fact that the project organizers expected to be able to engage only 15 000 persons.
In addition, an extra 25 initiatives have been externally funded through crowd sourcing and donations. None of the media outlets or the international press have reported any form of civil unrest related to the project.
The local population seemed enthusiastic and welcoming of this democratic experiment. While there is no direct proof for this claim, excluding social media activity of the private users involved with the project, another form of evidence is available as discussed in the next section. Following the first successful attempt, the city moved on to completing two more similar initiatives in recent years. In the newer versions, participatory budgeting has been extended to include all the residents. It can be argued that if the residents did not like or engage with this form of democratic participation, they would not have done it two extra times.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Considering the achieved levels of participation, the experiment was considered a success by the city of Cluj-Napoca and EEA Grants. Moreover, despite being the first attempt of its kind in a new democracy like Romania, the experiment encouraged further trials of participatory budgeting in the country. Building on their previous experience, the municipality is running at present, a bigger version of the initiative started in 2015.
Even though Romania ranks last in the European Union for levels of internet usage and penetration, the project showed that online participatory budgeting can be accomplished even in these conditions. The use of technology is not complete free of issues and technical difficulties have the potential to undermine the whole process. For example, some of the users have encountered glitches on their devices at different stages of participation.
On the other hand, even when technology is working correctly, problems with implementation of participatory budgeting might appear from unexpected angles. In the presented study case, a legislative barrier proved to be a real challenge for finishing the project. Given that the Romanian constitution does not allow public funds to be spent by unelected civilians, the city of Cluj was faced with a legal challenge about how to apply in practical terms this experiment. A previous inquiry concluded that this particular legal situation contributed to the failure of the pilot proposal. No major changes to the constitution occurred between the failed project and the successful one. The solution found by the local authorities was unusual: applying for external funding, which is legal to be spent by normal citizens.
As the reader could observe during this text, participatory budgeting can encourage civic participation in countries where citizens are disengaged due to perceived governmental corruption. While this democratic process was born on a different continent, at a time when the world wide web wasn’t yet invented, its principles and results seem to apply to a modern-day member state of EU. This doesn’t mean that participatory budgeting should be considered a panacea for democratic deficit or an instant cure for corruption. It is plausible to think that the reason it worked in these places has more to do with certain characteristics that Romania and Brazil are sharing. Both countries were under a brutal dictatorship and started their road to democratization just before 1990. Bribery is seen as common practices in both places and the image of corruption is embedded in the public’s mind. Thus, their citizens might be intrinsically motivated to participate in this exercise in the hope of a fairer distribution of resources.
Note that the Romanian experiment with this democratic innovation was not flawless. One of the biggest drawbacks was the lack of transparency in some of the key areas. The final cost of the project could not be exactly identified, given that the Romanian authorities and the European Economic Area present different numbers, despite using the same currency in their documents. Furthermore, it is not clear who decided the viability of the initiatives and if the persons in charge of this task had any competence on the matter.
Despite all the drawbacks of this democratic practice there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. As the example of Romania showed, it is possible to get the youth involved using the web even when the level of internet access is relatively modest. This lesson is important bearing in mind that the same practice of online participatory budgeting could be used in developing countries that struggle with similar issues.
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