In October 2017, 21 communities in the Xihu District, in Nanchang city implemented "Small action of happiness"—which is the local name of Participatory Budgeting—in order to enable residents to participate in budget decision-making processes and have their voices be heard.
Problems and Purpose
Due to the long history of the Xihu district in Nanchang City, social problems and social contradictions are more concentrated. In recent years, with the migration of indigenous people, the migrant population has continued to increase, and the needs of the people have become more diversified. It is more difficult to make decisions in daily life that meet the needs of the people. Based on this situation, in October 2017, the government of Xihu District of Nanchang carried out a pilot project of "Small action of happiness"—which is the name of participatory budgeting—in a total of 21 communities in Nanpu Street and Guanghunmen Street. This program involves residents independently choosing between community projects, being encouraged to give their opinions according to their own needs, which can better improve the effectiveness of community grassroots management, so as to solve the outstanding problems and contradictions existing in the Xihu District.
Background History and Context
An innovative attempt has been made to develop participatory budgeting in China, and there is no very complete system yet. Various districts have tried to use the participatory budget to decide some community activities, rules, and so on. Participatory budgeting in China began in Wenling, Zhejiang Province, where Zhongxinhe Town launched the first pilot project to make local government budgets fully public in 2015. In Zeguo Town, the decision-making power of many government projects was put to the vote of residents' representatives, which promoted the participatory budgeting innovation process. After that, the participatory budgeting was extended to a series of other provinces in China. In Yanjin County, Yunnan Province, the innovation went a step further, allowing both citizens and the government to propose projects and to make suggestions for them. Meilan District of Haikou City, Hainan Province, included participatory budgeting innovations in a series of urban construction activities in 2016 by learning from the experience of other parts of the country. The problem of participatory budgeting in China is that the type of participants is relatively unique, and the collective decision-making based on free and equal discussion is lacking, thus affecting its impact. This is why Xihu district attempted participatory budgeting based on past experiences in China.
Xihu District is an old district of Nanchang, with an area of 34.8 square kilometers and a permanent population of 530,000. Because it is an old city, so the urban planning is still stuck in the 1980s, infrastructure is outdated, causing great inconvenience to the residents' normal life. With the development of Nanchang's economy, people's living standards have gradually improved. To improve the living quality, wealthier families have already moved out of the streets and rented their houses out. In addition to the young tenants who work and rent nearby, the elderly make up the majority of the community.
The "Small Action of Happiness" project is to achieve communication and exchange between different interest groups through the "roundtable” and embed the elements of deliberative democracy in the whole process of participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting embedded with deliberative democratic elements breaks the inherent communication mode in the traditional participatory budgeting, puts aside the hierarchical relationship between the upper and lower levels in the traditional participatory budgeting process, and enables the residents to participate in the budget decision-making in the form of discussion, consultation and dialogue, thereby making the people become the masters of decision-making.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
142 students from the School of Public Administration of Nanchang University worked as volunteers for this pilot project, helping 21 pilot communities in the Guangrunmen and Nanpu streets of Xihu District, jointly participate. In the 2018 fiscal budget, the Xihu District government allocated 8.3 million yuan to the participatory budgeting, including 1 million yuan for two streets to implement street projects and 300,000 yuan for each community (a total of 21 communities) to implement community projects.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Residents over the age of 15 in Xihu district could make suggestions and participate in the participatory budgeting. About the recruitment and selection, the main publicity methods included pasting posters, posting news on WeChat and other social media, setting up street stalls to spread information, and so on. In addition, the Nanchang university students and volunteers’ suggestions from the residents were surveyed via Wechat, special pilots were set, and seminars were organized during the phase of collecting projects.
Methods and Tools Used
The process of participatory budgeting was divided into three stages:
- Preparatory phase. The Xihu District government allocated budget funds; relevant rules and procedures of participatory budgeting were formulated; and a participatory budgeting committee was established to take charge of project implementation.
- Implementation phase. Residents over the age of 15 in the community put forward suggestions and proposals, and the government conducted extensive solicitation of residents' opinions. Communities, residents, and social organizations (alumni association, university volunteers) came together for classifying the proposals, screening, and ranking. Then residents voted on the selected projects.
- Execution phase. The government was to incorporate the winning projects into the budget plan and be responsible for the implementation. The residents have the right to supervise the progress of the projects and evaluate the quality of the completion of the projects.
The pilot widely adopted the form of roundtables to be the platform for deliberation and consultation. Each roundtable was staffed by a recorder, a technical adviser, and a table leader, with about 10 residents attending each table. During the deliberation process, the recorder was mainly responsible for recording the residents' suggestions and did not make a statement. The responsibility of the technical adviser was to guide and help the residents refine suggestions and assist the desk leader to mobilize the residents to speak actively. The table leader was mainly responsible for maintaining the consultation order, so that the team members could speak freely and equally. The main participants of the roundtable were the residents, who were the main body of the discussion and the main spokespersons for the proposed project.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Taking Xiangshan Community, which is one of the 21 communities, as an example, this community set up a "roundtable" as a consultation platform for various groups to participate on an equal basis, discuss freely and fully, and reach consensus. A total of six roundtables were set up in the venue, each of which discussed ten projects, and finally recommended three items to enter the voting stage. At the back of the venue were posters depicting the 60 projects to be discussed. At the same time, each roundtable also had the information about each rule and project, including the conference organization plan, the summary of the collection of projects, the participatory budgeting work method, the community connection table, the alumni association into the community proposal, and so on. Community residents could express their opinions and suggestions on the project at the roundtable and explain the projects they supported and why. During the period of roundtable deliberation, in the first phase, an officer provided a brief introduction about the conference. In the second phase, the staff of the street office team gave a working report and answered residents' questions. In the third phase, each roundtable engaged in discussing the project and deciding the final three recommended projects. They sent representatives to report to the moderator for voting. In the last phrase, government posted the voting information and summarized the results.
Among the core elements of deliberative democracy, a free and rational deliberative discussion not only affects the quality of the participatory budget, but also the degree of democracy. This is because only through the process of free and rational consultation and discussion can there be an opportunity for all participants to pursue their own interests and fully express their ideas. Free and rational consultation was promoted through the roundtable meetings, which, compared with previous Chinese participatory budgeting events, reduced the role of the government in the participatory process. The people became the main body of the discussion. For example, in this process, Xihu District adopted the methods of "speaking in turn", "raising one's hand to speak" or "voluntary speech". For example, the Roundtable No. 1 used "speaking in turn", Roundtable No. 3 used "raising hands to speak", and most of the rest used "volunteer speech" to introduce and promote projects. This deliberation was free, as the process of participatory was one of full discussion, compromise, and adherence to rules and procedures, which allowed everyone to express their views fully as long as the rules were obeyed and respected. This deliberation could also be seen as rational. In the process of discussion, the voting choice was not a simple random choice. Instead, the team members of each round table needed to be fully informed about the implementation location, content, scope, and even expected return of the project proposal. They would then discuss before making a reasonable choice.
In Xihu District, the negotiation group in the participatory budgeting process included not only the local ordinary residents, but also the government and social organizations. In order to mobilize the residents to participate in the deliberative event and fully express the functions of social organizations, the organizers have done a lot of work in engaging residents’ participation. Firstly, in the phase of preparation, the Xihu District government organized experts to train local residents, explaining rules of participatory budgeting and deliberation, thereby improving awareness among the community. Secondly, local social organizations were invited to attend, and their neutrality and professionalism was used for the deliberation. The social organizations participating in this participatory budgeting process included alumni associations, Nanchang university student volunteers and so on. Thirdly, social organizations have their own needs, which were included here into the scope of the deliberation and discussion. Members of social organizations could present their own needs at the roundtable, thereby increasing the diversity of participation and expanding the coverage of participatory budgeting. Lastly, the role of government changed in Xihu’s participatory budgeting project. For the last few participatory budgeting initiatives in China, governments participated and even dominated the participatory budgeting deliberations, but this time, Xihu was innovative in creating space for residents to deliberate. The government was responsible for setting the rules and procedures but not involved in the deliberative process, leaving the project proposal, negotiation, and the final decision-making completely to the community residents while social organizations played the roles of guidance and mobilization.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
1. Reducing government intervention and participation costs
A "roundtable" provides a new way for residents to participate in participatory budgeting and reduces the cost of public participation by facilitating public understanding in the budgeting information, supervising their decision-making behaviour, and forming a large public support group for the government. This helps government to promote the effective implementation of the final budget decision. Thus, this participatory budgeting project overcame limitations of previous democratic events in China where the public could not directly participate in social affairs, and reduced the administrative cost caused by the transmission of information and decision-making. Xihu District made the roundtable conference of participatory budgeting directly available to the community citizens who qualified for participation and were willing to present their own opinions, so that feedback and deliberation could be conducted directly with the community. Further, open and free discussion is an effective way to dispel residents' doubts about the government and facilitate the final implementation of decisions. All the final budget decisions were discussed and voted on by residents without the government's involvement. This method enables residents to recognize policies more in the implementation process, and is more conducive to the implementation of budget decisions.
2. Free and equal discussion leads to rational and reasonable decisions.
The roundtable conference raised the level of negotiation by enabling free and equal discussion on the use of the budget. During the meeting, not only did the representatives of community residents put forward their opinions and suggestions on the government budget, but the government could also put information to the public. The lack of a deliberation platform is a significant reason for the information blockage between the government and the public in China. The dissemination of official government information is very low, and the public's trust in official platforms is insufficient, which leads to the popularity of some negative false information among the people and the reduction of the public's trust in the government. The participatory budgeting of Xihu District took the form of the roundtable conference, which presented the government's budget information to the public for free discussion. Participatory budgeting promoted discussion and the exchange of opinions among residents. During the process of public discussion, the government can understand public opinions through in-depth observation, which not only provides a reference for budget decision-making, but also provides an opportunity for other policy-making.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
In the process of participatory budgeting practice, when the consultation consciousness of participating residents is weak, it can lead to insufficient consultation. The weakness of consultation consciousness comes from the three sources of government, citizens, and social organizations.
1. Lack of public awareness of democracy
First of all, many residents subjectively lack general awareness of democracy and participation. The resident population of Xihu District is diverse, but mainly composed of the elderly and people with a low level of education. The education level of residents is concentrated at the primary and junior high school levels. Participatory budgeting requires residents to have a certain level of knowledge and cognitive skills. Although the government has defined the budget scope, it may still be difficult for residents to put forward high-value suggestions due to their limited knowledge level or rational judgment and thinking ability. In addition, many residents lack confidence in deliberative democracy. Many of them believe that the right to make a final decision is still in the government, and that deliberative participation cannot produce substantive effect, which leads to a decrease in enthusiasm when they are participating in consultation and discussion. Last but not least, due to the lack of individual awareness on consultation, residents may be afraid of difficulties in consultative democracy and believe that the result of consultation cannot realize their own ideas, so they are not active in participation.
2. The government's neglect of citizen participation
The Xihu district government lacks confidence in its ability to engage the residents in consultation. It has not taken the initiative to accept the concept of equal participation of citizens, believing that ordinary people lack professional knowledge. Hence the residents were not previously able to participate in consultation or make decisions on public policies. The government previously lacked faith in participatory budgeting, believing that deliberation leads to administrative inefficiency, and this is why the government sometimes ignores the participation of the residents.
3. Social organizations have limited involvement
On the one hand, social organizations and other social powers are not professional engaged enough in participatory budgeting. In this case, the government tried to improve the consultation ability of residents by introducing social organizations, which was influenced by their own qualities. However, the limited experience of social organizations in participatory budgeting failed to fully mobilize the enthusiasm of the public to participate in the consultation, and failed to have a positive impact on the deliberation. Furthermore, under the background of the traditional administrative system and system, the development of social organizations has encountered many obstacles, including lack of experience and knowledge, and little government support. This has led to the unclear role of social organizations in China and their role of participatory budgeting in the process of participatory budgeting is similarly unclear.
4. Lack of effective public participation mechanism
Firstly, the government lacks effective training for participatory budget staff, and street staff themselves lack the professional experience for participatory budgeting. Secondly, there are very few channels for the residents to participate in the deliberation. A simple questionnaire survey was adopted for the collection of opinions, and a simple democratic chat was held when a project was determined. Lastly, the Xihu district government could have provided an effective feedback system for the residents’ suggestions, as they could not get feedback in time.
Suggestions for Strengthening Residents' Participation
Improving residents' interest in participating in politics and establish participation awareness. In this case, residents often participated passively rather than actively, which reflects the lack of awareness of public participation. In the process of public governance, the government should understand the boundary between the state and society, create opportunities for citizens to participate in politics, and encourage citizens to participate in the budget on an equal and voluntary basis.
Strengthen the popularization of knowledge about participatory budgeting for the residents. Quality participatory budgeting information should be made public. The premise of public participation and supervision of government budgets is the disclosure of budget information. In 2013, Premier Li Keqiang pointed out in the ‘Report on the Work of the Government’ that government information disclosure should be further strengthened, people's right to know and supervision should be guaranteed, and power should be exercised in a transparent manner. In addition, in order to ensure that the government budget information can be known by all the residents, the budget information should be disseminated widely and written accessibly for local people.
Enriching different types of ways for residents' participation in the budgeting and establishing an information feedback system for them. The participatory budgeting in Xihu District only adopted a simple questionnaire and democratic talk, which is insufficient. It is difficult to truly mobilize the majority of residents to invest in the participatory budgeting innovation, and form a good atmosphere of community participation. The government should actively use modern information technology for participation to occur both online and offline. They could collect public suggestions and proposals on government websites, and publicize government budget information, so as to foster widespread public opinion. The government can implement a public feedback system, public opinion survey system, public petition system, and an official Weibo interaction to achieve the extensive participation of the public. Improving the government's attention to the public's suggestions and proposals, no matter whether the proposal is adopted or rejected, necessarily provide the effective feedback for the public.
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