From 2012 to 2015, as part of a larger (TravelSMART) programme to promote and build sustainable travel infrastructure and lower unemployment, Surrey County Council used Participatory Budgeting to allow citizens to decide how to spend a portion of funds on community projects that pursued those aims. 222 local projects were funded.
Problems and Purpose
Recognition of issues caused by climate change and the collective action needed to combat it has grown. Climate change has developed to be a community-recognised issue, making it ideal as a focus of Participatory Budgeting, which significantly increases community involvement in the allocation of resources by allowing citizens to argue for and vote for their preferred community projects.
Austerity measures implemented by the British government following the 2007-09 financial crisis significantly restricted council budgets. This fall in available funds was further complicated by a rise in the need for council services following the impact that the crisis had on individuals and families. The greater scarcity of council funding available for community projects has led to a surge in the value of participatory budgeting, for it attempts to ensure that all funds are spent in the most effective and efficient manner, by involving the community as much as possible in the decision-making process. The Surrey TravelSMART programme is a prime example of this; engaging citizens with how local funding should be spent minimalises the waste of funds and makes progress towards local goals.
Background History and Context
As discussed above, there has been a significant reduction in council funding since austerity measures were implemented in the UK following the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-09. For instance, council spending on local services in the UK has dropped 17% since 2010, a massive reduction, especially if inflation is accounted for on top of that figure. Extra funding available for councils to take on non-ringfenced community projects has also markedly dropped in that time, from £32.2billion to just £4.5billion. This has placed participatory budgeting closer to the forefront of council and community decision-making because it is even more critical that the available funds are used in a way that maximises their community impact whilst achieving specific goals. These goals can be widespread, but in the case of the Surrey TravelSMART programme, they were to:
- Create travel options and infrastructure which simultaneously make the county more environmentally friendly.
- Assist the creation of jobs and/or education in employment skills, such as CV writing or interview proficiency.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Surrey TravelSMART programme was funded by a nationwide project called the Local Sustainable Transport Fund between 2011 and 2015, led by the UK Department for Transport. The fund aimed to give councils across the country access to specific funding to achieve sustainable travel projects they, or their citizens, wanted to carry out. In this period, the fund allocated £18.2million specifically to Surrey County Council. £1.5million of that funding was allocated directly to decisions made through the local Participatory Budgeting exercise. The participatory budgeting exercise was organised by Surrey County Council itself and assisted by local organisations, such as the West Surrey Cycling Club, who appealed to their members to engage with the budgeting process.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The programme did not recruit specific participants, but rather allowed all citizens aged 10 and over to engage with the budgeting and vote for their favoured projects. There was no complexity to the voting; the council wanted it this way so that as many people would participate as possible, and to do that, as can be seen, they made it very open for who could participate. It was also important to include those of a lower age because hopefully they would feel the impact of the community funding too. The project also gave an opportunity to educate all population ages on the importance of environmental sustainability, something that could naturally only be achieved through inclusiveness.
Methods and Tools Used
Participatory Budgeting (PB) was utilised, which allows citizens to propose and defend their ideas for how community funds should be spent. Normally, what follows is a vote by the participating citizens on the different proposals, and those chosen are then implemented by the elected officials. However, as participatory budgeting is still a relatively new and novel method of community decision-making, especially in the UK, there are frequent adaptions and a variety of sub-methods being implemented all the time. More information on PB can be found here. The key points are that citizen engagement is at the heart of any participatory budgeting process, and the belief that the greater number of citizens that are involved with the allocation of funding and resources, the better and more impactful decisions can be. Further, citizens are more likely to engage with further budgeting exercises and even wider democratic processes if they get involved with a successful PB exercise, such as local elections and citizen assemblies.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The TravelSMART programme split its project team into five groups: Guildford, Woking, Redhill & Reigate, Guildford Park & Ride, and Woking Sheerwater Link. The foremost three focused on those three towns, whilst the latter two directly engaged with the larger projects at work. To avoid confusion, it is important to reiterate that the TravelSMART programme was not just a participatory budgeting exercise; in fact, the majority of the project was not led by participatory budgeting. However, as highlighted above, over the programme’s duration, £1.5million of funding was allocated for community projects, and participatory budgeting events decided which projects these went to.
The specific goals set by the participatory budgeting programme, discussed above, ensured that the proposals were targeted towards desired outcomes, beneficial for the whole community, and achievable. Especially as anyone could propose a project, many proposals might have been completely unachievable given funding, time and technology constraints, or even not aligned with the goals of the programme. Therefore, a ‘TravelSMART Team’ was set up by the council to evaluate all the community proposals and ensure that they truly aligned with the specific goals of the programme, were feasible, and added value to the local community that was not already there. If a proposal passed the evaluation, it was admitted to the local budgeting meetings, where it would be defended by its proposers, and voted on (in-person) by the community.
Further, community proposals requiring small (less than £3000) grants were separated from larger (greater than £3000) proposals and evaluated separately, to reflect the scale of investment required and to ensure that small projects were given a fair evaluation, even if what they wished to achieve was not as impactful or eye-catching as some of the larger projects. This was a good method utilised to ensure fairness and that the programme had a broad impact, not just in a few select (but large) cases.
The council organised specific community events to facilitate the process, beginning with the explanation and then defence of proposed projects, followed by actual voting on proposals. In this sense, it was very similar to the PB implemented in Paris, described here. These community events were held in person, not utilising virtual (online) participation or voting, and often took place twice a year, once in the Spring and once in the Autumn. An amount of funds would be allocated to the event, and proposers would debate why their proposals should get ‘x’ amount of that share. For instance, at the Autumn 2012 community budgeting event, there was £220,000 to be split between projects.
There was also a council effort to promote the budgeting exercise and spread the word that it was taking place, inviting citizens to engage. For instance, advertisements were placed on public buses, with bright colours and artwork to draw attention. Further adverts were promoted at bus stops and other focal areas associated with public transport. Associated organisations such as the West Surrey Cycling Club promoted the TravelSMART programme and encouraged members to voice their views and wishes at the events.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
From 2012 to 2015, over 1000 citizens had engaged with the budgeting process and voted for various projects, with 222 community projects receiving funding. However, the council statistics for the overall programme are not distinguished from the statistics of what specifically resulted from the participatory budgeting exercise. This makes it difficult to estimate the actual impact and influence of the PB exercise. For instance, multiple cycling routes were created by the TravelSMART programme, whilst a push for cycle training resulted in over 31,000 people receiving training in this period. Further, the council recorded a strong net increase in the number of cyclists of 52%. It is clear that there have been positive outcomes from the project, not only what has been built, but also with citizen behaviour – cycling more, walking more, generally reducing the carbon footprint of Surrey, spreading knowledge of how to go more ‘green’, and thus achieving the project’s aims. However, for this case study of participatory budgeting, it is unclear whether these outcomes resulted from decisions made by TravelSMART programme leaders, or the community through participatory budgeting events, or a combination of both.
Here are the achievements of the overall TravelSMART project, provided by Surrey County Council:
From the number of projects that received funding, it appears that the PB exercise was successful in allocating resources directly to community wishes. However, the participation levels of only 1000 citizens over a 4-year period are concerningly low at first glance. For thoughts on how to raise this level, see Analysis and Lessons Learned. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize this as the first instance of local participatory budgeting in Surrey – taking that first step is a monumental achievement of the project, and hopefully will prove to be a stepping stone to future uses of participatory budgeting. Unfortunately, there is no record of a poll gauging the local opinion of the participatory budgeting exercise and how likely citizens would be to engage/engage again with a future exercise.
In total, there is a distinct lack of information regarding the success or failure of the 222 community projects that were funded by the PB exercise. Equally, the website for the TravelSMART Surrey project has since been taken down, which is disappointing given the potential such a website has for cementing achievement and inspiring future projects. This frustrates efforts to not only distinguish between the achievements of the overall project and the PB exercise, but also to understand how successful the funded community projects turned out to be. It also constructs a major barrier in the way of understanding how the participatory budgeting exercise could be improved in the future.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The evaluation of proposals by a council team might have ‘filtered’ out proposals it did not like – so there was potentially room for bias to creep into the process. However, if such a team was not implemented, many of the proposals could have been nonsensical, unrealistic, or benefitted only a small portion of the community. This might have negatively affected the experience of those who took the time to participate, and they may not participate again. Hence, although it is preferable to avoid the potential for council bias to creep in, in this case it seems a necessary price to pay, unless a solution that satisfies both issues can be developed for future implementations of council-led participatory budgeting.
Advertisements for the budgeting exercise had a positive effect on the participation, but the council could have gone further with efforts to directly talk to people about turning up to the events. For instance, they could have gone door-to-door to discuss with people what they would like to see change in their area, or directed them to the next community budgeting event. There could also have been an effort to go around local schools and talk to youths about getting involved with the process or voicing their opinions. Further incentives, such as vouchers to local restaurants, could have been handed out as a reward for participation. Moreover, the £1.5million pool of funds, or £375,000 a year, whilst significant, is only a mere 8.2% of the total £18.2million of funding allocated to the overall TravelSMART programme. This is perhaps a reason that the participatory budgeting element was not taken that seriously by citizens (shown by participation levels). To increase participation levels, a larger share of that fund should be allocated by the community in a participatory budgeting scheme, to show to the people that their engagement is being taken seriously.
With the recent rise of working-from-home and online meetings, it is perfectly possible that if repeated, a future participatory budgeting programme could involve online engagement. Certainly, the proposers could take questions on their proposals from citizens engaging with the process online. Perhaps even online voting could be implemented, as long as steps were taken to ensure the authenticity of each vote, for example with the use of Blockchain technology. However, even in the present day, the security of such systems are questionable, and could lead to the manipulation of votes and voting processes.
On the note of a future exercise, there should in future be a poll to gauge citizen sentiment regarding the PB exercise, following its completion. This would also gather feedback on how the process could be improved in future. Also, implementing online engagement is a possibility only as long as it is effective – and understanding whether it will be effective is arguably only possible if citizens were polled about their opinions on it. There is a lot that can be learned from these polling/feedback opportunities.
Equally, there should be a larger study monitoring the impact, longevity, and success of the funded community projects so that the achievements of the PB exercise can be understood transparently. Monitoring and documenting the process would also provide this case study with much more detail to be able to analyse ways that the actual process of citizen engagement could be further incentivized or improved. Once again, this monitoring would provide essential feedback for how the PB exercise could be improved in the future. After all, participatory budgeting, especially in the UK, is in its infancy, something that seems, by the lack of documentation, to have been forgotten. Feedback loops are essential to maturing and improving its method of citizen engagement, and can potentially provide the path to rooting it within local government decision-making. For future instances, this arguably ought to be incorporated into the process.
Overall, the participatory budgeting element of the Surrey TravelSMART project seems to have been effective in engaging citizens with ideas for community projects – funding 222 projects is no small number – but less effective in engaging citizens to vote on those projects. The most significant driver of this latter failure is likely the small portion of funds relative to the overall project. If there was more faith in citizens to effectively decide on the best way to allocate those funds, then perhaps this figure would have been greater. This trust would then (hopefully) be reciprocated with greater citizen engagement. The most disappointing element of this case study is the lack of documentation, feedback gathering, and simply the absence of any attempt to uphold a lasting legacy that the project must have created, making it more difficult in the future for a suggested PB exercise to gain traction. This is certainly disheartening for any supporter of PB who would like to see more PB exercises having an influence on local council spending, especially as climate change is increasingly becoming a pressing issue, requiring further community-driven efforts, and the funding available to local councils is unlikely to increase in the upcoming years. In future, more must be done in this department.
 Oliver, T., 2019. FCC Budget Report. [pdf] Surrey County Council. Available at: <https://mycouncil.surreycc.gov.uk/documents/s54446/FCC%20Budget%20Report%202019-20%20v2.pdf> [Accessed 1 June 2021].
 Unison, 2019. Shocking picture of austerity cuts to local services is revealed by UNISON | Article, News, Press release | News | UNISON National. [online] UNISON National. Available at: <https://www.unison.org.uk/news/article/2019/12/shocking-picture-austerity-cuts-local-services-revealed-unison/> [Accessed 29 May 2021].
 Arnold, S. and Stirling, A., 2019. Councils in Crisis: Local Government Austerity 2009/10 - 2024/25. [pdf] New Economics Foundation. Available at: <https://neweconomics.org/uploads/files/NEF_Local_Government_Austerity_2019.pdf> [Accessed 1 June 2021].
 Surrey County Council, 2013. TravelSMART Community Fund Small Grant. [pdf] Surrey County Council. Available at: <https://mycouncil.surreycc.gov.uk/documents...> [Accessed 1 June 2021].
 DfT, 2012. Local Sustainable Transport Fund 2011-2015. [pdf] Department for Transport. Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/3762/lstf-all-funding-decisions-sep-2012.pdf> [Accessed 2 June 2021].
 Woodall, M., 2014. Local Sustainable Transport Fund Programme for 2015/16. [pdf] Surrey County Council. Available at: <https://mycouncil.surreycc.gov.uk/documents/s18419/Local%20Sustainable%20Transport%20Fund.pdf> [Accessed 28 May 2021].
 Gov.uk, 2019. Innovation in Democracy. [pdf] Gov.uk. Available at: <https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/762360/Innovation_in_Democracy_Programme_-_workshop_evidence_pack.pdf> [Accessed 1 June 2021].
 Daffarn, P., 2015. Cycling Infrastructure – Where do we want the money spent? - West Surrey Cycling Club. [online] West Surrey Cycling Club. Available at: <https://westsurreyctc.co.uk/blogs/cycling-infrastructure-where-do-we-want-the-money-spent/> [Accessed 4 June 2021].
 Participedia.net. 2020. Participatory Budgeting – Participedia. [online] Available at: <https://participedia.net/method/146> [Accessed 25 May 2021].
 Participedia.net. 2021. Participatory Budgeting in Paris, France – Participedia. [online] Available at: <https://participedia.net/case/5008> [Accessed 1 June 2021].
 Furrey, J., 2013. Surrey County Council's TravelSMART programme - Participatory Budgeting in Action. [online] Open Government Partnership. Available at: <https://www.opengovpartnership.org/stories/surrey-county-councils-travel-smart-programme-participatory-budgeting-in-action/> [Accessed 2 June 2021].
 Behance.net. 2014. TravelSMART in Surrey. [online] Available at: <https://www.behance.net/gallery/21094305/Travel-SMART-in-Surrey> [Accessed 1 June 2021].
 Woodall, M., 2016. TravelSMART Programme Close Overview. [pdf] Surrey County Council. Available at: <https://mycouncil.surreycc.gov.uk/documents/s30132/Item%2009%20Travel%20SMART%20Close%20of%20Programme.pdf> [Accessed 28 May 2021].
14. Park, S., Specter, M., Narula, N. and Rivest, R. (2021) ‘Going from bad to worse: from Internet voting to blockchain voting’, Journal of Cybersecurity, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2021, MIT, https://doi.org/10.1093/cybsec/tyaa025