In 2018, the City of Helsinki began a participatory budgeting process known as OmaStadi with the objective to facilitate urban development project proposal and design, primarily through the use of an online platform and workshops.
Problems and Purpose
As a democracy, all levels of the government of Finland are under pressure to maintain a high level of citizen engagement and satisfaction. One common way to achieve such a goal is through the use of new forms of democratic innovations resulting in increased citizen participation in development and governance. Furthermore, a legislative precedent (supported by the 1995 Local Government Act) had been established in the country and particularly within the City of Helsinki, leading them to employ the participatory budgeting (PB) model, engaging citizens in a portion of the urban development and budgeting process. As well as the more general goals of democratic innovations in legitimising governments and increasing levels of participation, the OmaStadi project’s specific goals were to “1) strengthen the residents’ ability to influence, 2) promote equity and 3) increase residents’ understanding of the municipality’s activities” [2, p. 18]. Beyond these, the project also aimed to increase transparency and the inclusion of marginalised groups within the political process, and to support the city’s development goals.
Background History and Context
Participatory budgeting was first implemented in the Brazilian municipality of Porto Alegre in 1989, and has since been adopted worldwide. It generally serves to facilitate the allocation of a portion of a city’s development budget, with a focus on citizen participation alongside local authorities in the proposal and design, both to increase citizen involvement within decision-making and to increase the overall efficiency of the design process.
Although PB projects have recently become increasingly popular in the country, Finland and the City of Helsinki had set the precedent for a focus on citizen engagement and transparency with the 1995 Local Government Act (LGA) protecting the right of Finnish citizens to self-govern within their municipalities. Following the introduction of the LGA, the City of Helsinki has developed a number of other citizen engagement projects, including the Ahjo Explorer open decision-making interface and Kuntalaisaloite.fi, an online citizens’ initiative platform.
As the nation's capital, Helsinki is the most heavily populated city in Finland (population of ~650,000 as of 2020 ), situated on the country’s south coast. While PB initiatives are often introduced or developed further in areas in need of new methods of governance due to democratic failings or significant infrastructural challenges, Helsinki has had a consistently exemplary quality of life for residents . The City Council has been under the primary control of the centre-right National Coalition Party for several decades, with their primary opposition being the Green League and the centre-left Social Democrats. Although PB projects tend to be favoured by more left-leaning governments and citizens, the National Coalition Party stresses its liberal values and is under pressure from its left-wing opposition. The 2017-2021 Mayor of Helsinki, Jan Vapaavuori, had also expressed aims to focus on creative problem solving and digitisation within the city, further supporting the development of the OmaStadi platform .
Participatory budgeting was first introduced to Helsinki in the allocation of funds for the Oodi Central Library in 2012, although the concept was brought to Finland during the 2011 Sitra New Democracy Forum, a brainstorming event for new methods of democratic innovation and cooperation . The use of PB initiatives continued in Helsinki past 2012 with the Maunulatalo community centre and the Ruuti budget, although principles were not established for PB’s use as a city-wide innovation until 2017 [2, p. 8].
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
While the OmaStadi project itself is managed entirely by the City of Helsinki, the online service is built upon Decidim, an open source platform, developed primarily by the City of Barcelona . Unlike many other PB processes, OmaStadi does not stress the inclusion of NGOs or other entities outside of the City of Helsinki itself in its management and design, although there has been some cooperation with NGOs specifically in the recruitment of target groups that may otherwise have relatively low rates of participation . As well as employing logistical and administrative staff, the project also makes use of a number of borough and business liaisons under the City of Helsinki, aiding in both promotion and cooperation for citizen participants and businesses.
OmaStadi projects were granted a total budget of EUR 4.4 million (0.1% of the total city budget) by the City of Helsinki for its 2018-2020 pilot, and a further EUR 8.8 million for the 2020-2022 period currently ongoing at the time of writing . These budgets are divided into eight smaller pools, with one for projects affecting the entire city and seven district-specific budgets allocated dependent on district population .
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The ability to make proposals on the OmaStadi platform is open to all, with the creation and verification of an account as the only prerequisite. Voting, however, is restricted to Helsinki residents aged 12 and above . Although the City of Helsinki encouraged all residents to engage with the project, special attention was given to the inclusion of marginalised groups, with over 250 events across the 2018-2020 pilot period aimed at increasing participation among these populations. A number of these events were run in cooperation with multicultural organisations, and the eventual turnout for the PB’s voting phase was 49,705, a voter turnout of 8.6% [2, p. 12].
Methods and Tools Used
The majority of the City of Helsinki’s participatory budgeting project is managed through the use of the online platform OmaStadi. This grants participants the ability to propose and develop projects, view the progress of pre-existing proposals, and vote for proposals to receive a portion of the allocated budget.
Alongside the use of the OmaStadi platform, the City of Helsinki also arranged a variety of co-creation events to help with ideation and discussion, as well as both online and in-person workshops. These not only aided in raising awareness for the project, with events like the OmaStadi Expo presenting proposals to a wider audience within Helsinki, but also facilitated discussion between City of Helsinki officials, design experts and citizen participants for the purpose of refining and combining proposals . The process also employed gamification in the form of a card game designed to encourage project ideation and brainstorming , a method often used to increase interest and participation.
While other PB projects may take greater inspiration from the more decentralised and citizen-managed nature of the Porto Alegre case, the City of Helsinki does ensure multiple avenues of communication between participants and organisers during the OmaStadi process, with a Council-employed Liaison acting as a point of communication for each borough, communicating with participants both online and offline. Due to the high levels of government oversight throughout the process and the lack of emphasis on projects focused on resource distribution, the process represents a form of new school PB, stressing participation and citizen education over larger legislative and social changes .
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Although the 2020-2022 OmaStadi cycle is currently underway and may involve some changes, the 2018-2020 pilot was arranged into a number of phases, as detailed below.
- Proposal development
- Cost estimation
1. Ideas: The ideation period began in November 2018, with Borough Liaisons holding a wide range of online and in-person events throughout the period to both aid with the ideation process and to provide IT support to participants. The offline portion of these events involved the use of an ideation game, supported by Borough Liaisons further working to facilitate these sessions. By the end of the stage in December 2018, participants had submitted 1274 ideas to the online platform, with 840 being approved for the proposal stage .
2. Proposal development: The proposal development phase spanned from February-April 2019, and involved a range of workshops and co-creation events with participation from both Borough Liaisons and other public officials selected for their relevance to the proposals being discussed. Proposals were organised into a number of themes such as sports and outdoor recreation, art, etc. and the OmaStadi Raksa workshops often involved the synthesis of similar proposals, converting the 840 approved ideas down to 352 plans made available on the OmaStadi website.
3. Cost estimation: Cost estimation for the project took place during April and June 2019, with the mayor approving 296 final plans in August. This phase did not involve significant participation from citizens, with some workshops to investigate the efficacy of the OmaStadi project itself but the majority of the cost estimation work conducted by the City of Helsinki and related experts. Due in part to miscommunication in previous phases and the complications involved with combining proposals, many participants expressed doubt at the higher cost of many proposals than previously anticipated [2, p.10].
4. Voting: The voting period lasted the month of October 2019, with participants being allowed to vote on proposals within a specific borough of their choice and on city-wide proposals. Each participant was able to vote for a number of proposals, up to the maximum budget allocated for their area and for projects affecting the entire city. Residents were also allowed to change their votes, with real-time feedback showing votes per project [2, p. 12], although the ability to change votes has since been removed in the more recent cycle . This process was supported by a number of Liaison-supported events to raise awareness and provide assistance, as well as promotion by city officials and significant media coverage.
5. Implementation: 44 plans were selected during the voting process, and implementation began in early 2020. The project proposers were involved in implementation through the Starttiraksa workshops, with Borough Liaisons once again working alongside citizens and experts. The City of Helsinki also introduced a real-time implementation tracking service to the OmaStadi platform, providing completion percentages and updates for every project.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The OmaStadi project has provided results from the 44 plans produced by the citizens and the city's experts (25 of the total 44 projects have been fully completed and none have been cancelled as of January 2022 ), with examples from the 2018-2020 round include making the city greener and encouraging environmental education with the planting of fruit trees and berry bushes in playgrounds, the construction of an astroturf football pitch outside of a school, and the addition of piers along the city’s rivers for fishing, watersports and general leisure . The OmaStadi project led to an increase in the openness of the local government, through transparency of practices and collaborative management of the city. Through the use of cooperation between city experts and residents, for example in the Raska workshops, and with trust built between these groups, efficient co-creation was achieved. Participation by residents who wouldn't normally get involved with city design and development was made possible by the project as it removed the previous requirement for expertise that excluded citizen engagement, so city experts were able to interact with citizens whose voices were rarely heard. The majority of local projects focused on themes of sports and outdoor recreation, with an enthusiasm for environmentally-themed proposals in the city-wide category.
The city saw the highest voting turnout occurring among 11-15-year-olds, likely as a result of schools/colleges encouraging students to participate in the voting stage of the PB through the pre-existing Wilma student web interface system [2, pp. 43-44]. Although the OmaStadi project has increased collaboration between city residents and experts, as was one of its stated goals, many of the residents who led participation were already among the more politically aware, and therefore the extent to which the project has truly increased knowledge and consideration among citizens may be limited. Furthermore, a number of Borough Liaisons have subsequently written research papers regarding the project and there has been an increase in cooperation between divisions of the City Council in the implementation of proposals, suggesting a positive institutional impact for Helsinki [2, p. 34].
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The Helsinki participatory budgeting process is a new school example of the system, as defined by Ganuza and Baiocchi . While some effort was made to increase the inclusion of marginalised groups, the extent of social justice provisions within the OmaStadi project is limited. Old-school PB processes can be identified primarily by their ability to cause power and resource redistribution outside the scope of standard legislative processes, and while OmaStadi did involve citizen participation and influence, it was ultimately heavily controlled and overseen by the City of Helsinki. This represents a wider shift within the development of PB processes into a model used by city legislators to increase participation, rather than the left-wing redistributive model originally founded in Porto Alegre. While this stems partially from necessity, as the need for widespread redistribution is lower in Helsinki than in the often resource-scarce cities which originally adopted the old school model, the OmaStadi project does not seem to emphasise the social justice and oversight principles of PB as described by Wampler , with significant levels of government authority exercised throughout the process and a lack of projects based on providing resources to low-income areas.
As a relatively new PB project, the OmaStadi process suffered a number of challenges in design and execution, primarily detailed in the final evaluation report conducted by the University of Helsinki . This led to the creation of a number of recommendations and criticisms, as detailed below.
1. The lack of engagement with residents in terms of the price estimation and implementation suggests that although the project did achieve some of its democratic aims, more development is needed to ensure both the project’s efficiency in using local residents’ knowledge, and its democratic credentials/citizen satisfaction. To achieve this, citizen forums and links between OmaStadi and other existing city development projects could be introduced, bringing the project more in line with the more citizen-led, left-wing roots of Participatory Budgeting as it began in Porto Alegre [2, pp. 56-57].
2. While some effort was made to increase participation from marginalised groups, they still appeared underrepresented in the final outcome. In future cycles of the project, effort must be made to include more multilingual accessibility within the process, and to increase engagement with NGOs and other organisations involved with such marginalised populations [2, p. 57].
3. The competitive nature of the process led to tactical voting and a lack of effective deliberation, with the forums designed for the project being underutilised. Some effort has been made to reduce this in the 2020-2022 cycle with the removal of the ability for individuals to change their votes, however more effort must be made to increase the quality of deliberation and co-creation [2, p. 57].
4. The objectives of the OmaStadi project were relatively vague and unclear, with some objectives such as increased citizen awareness and more effective decision-making, however very little specific information regarding the exact kinds of projects expected or the scale of its outcomes. This significantly hampers the project’s ability to grow in influence, scale and budget, and must be addressed with a clearer set of specific goals for later cycles [2, p. 57-58].
5. The City of Helsinki’s apparent lack of attention to and budget for further, unbiased research of the project may further slow its development. To more efficiently refine the OmaStadi project, more consideration must be given to in-depth evaluation of the project’s outcomes and room for experimentation with improvement [2, p. 58].
6. Many participants felt the City of Helsinki’s reporting on the project’s outcomes to be insufficient, with a lack of communication on both the goals of the project, as mentioned above, and on the specific details of individual proposals’ implementation. More intelligent communication is therefore needed, in terms of both the project’s expected outcomes and its real-time impact [2, p. 58].
7. Relatively little effort was made by the City of Helsinki to increase involvement with other organisations, such as NGOs and local businesses. The integration of such organisations into the project in later cycles could greatly increase the efficiency of co-creation and expand the body and range of knowledge involved in deliberation, as long as care is taken to ensure equality of views across organisations, City officials, experts and residents [2, p. 58].
In the next section, we will evaluate the effectiveness of the OmaStadi project using the democratic goods framework introduced by Smith .
- Inclusion: In Helsinki, the level of participation was ultimately lower than expected. Essentially, inclusion was not as high as what would have originally been expected to ensure maximum effectiveness of the PB process. Furthermore, although the project didn’t appear to have issues of ineffective or individual-dominated discussion within the individual workshops, it did suffer from a lack of participation specifically from marginalised demographics, speaking to a need for increased publicity and recruitment efforts. From a different perspective, having the voting age boundary at 12 years old and a number of schools having students register could increase young adult participation in further voting and policy that affects their neighborhood [2, p. 22].
- Popular Control: The popular control aspect of the PB was undermined in a sense by tactical voting on certain matters, due in part to the live online updates on voting and subsequent willingness to abandon “preferred” projects for the sake of voting for a project perceived as more likely to win [2, p. 32]. This led to a consolidation of votes around projects which had already gained a lead, reducing the unbiased and democratic nature of the process, especially considering the ability to change votes was restricted to only those who voted online rather than in-person. However, the final proposals voted on in the 2018-2020 have been mostly implemented successfully and with collaboration with the original citizen designers, suggesting a reasonable level of popular control in the outcomes of the project.
- Considered Judgement: Due to the open participation model used for the PB and the relative lack of involvement by external organisations, capacity building was somewhat limited, resulting in a need for significant expert involvement in later stages. This is often an issue in multi-channel open participation projects such as participatory budgeting, although some effort was made to combat this through the use of both online and in-person workshops throughout the process. There was some level of empathy building and exposure to alternative views through the co-creation workshops, although this was once again sometimes affected negatively by limitations placed on residents’ proposals due to planning constraints [2, p. 20].
- Transparency: The unclear nature of the PB project’s specific goals limited the level of optimal transparency, and thus those participating and those who were interested in the occurings struggled to understand and conform to OmaStadi’s objectives [2, pp. 57-58]. Furthermore, a lack of citizen participation in the cost analysis phase led to some feeling of alienation among participants, although overall the communication regarding proposal development and implementation was relatively robust due to the addition of the regularly updating online implementation tracker [2, p. 53].
- Efficiency: As a new project, the efficiency of the PB was not what was originally desired, with a lower-than-expected turnout and high costs throughout the process. Borough Liaisons were significantly overworked [2, pp. 34-35], and a relatively small portion of the city’s budget was allocated to the final proposals during the pilot period. However, these issues may be rectified in later cycles, due to an increase in pre-existing infrastructure and a larger budget allocated, as well as the implementation of the proposals for improvement detailed above.
- Transferability: The relatively politically neutral design of the project and the use of the open source Decidim platform for its design would allow cheaper implementation if the project was transferred, and its division across city-wide and borough-specific projects would aid in issues of varying scale across geographical regions. However, the 2018-2020 period of the process suffered from a lack of notable cooperation with local NGOs, businesses and other organisations, which may limit its transferability if conflicts of interest arose [2, p. 51].
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Official website (English): https://omastadi.hel.fi/?locale=en
Official website (Finnish): https://omastadi.hel.fi/?locale=fi
Official website (Swedish): https://omastadi.hel.fi/?locale=sv
University of Helsinki 2018-2020 final evaluation: https://helda.helsinki.fi//bitstream/handle/10138/330271/Bibu_Oma_Stadi_English.pdf?sequence=1