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Problems and Purpose
Solingen (160.000 inhabitants) was faced with an inescapable need to cut its public budget by €45,000,000. Without any changes the city would have used up its equity in 2013 and would be threatened by insolvency. Massive interventions by the municipal supervisory would follow. The cuts will have deep effects on city life. In this situation the public administration intitiated a new approach: Citizens were invited to help the administration in the cutting process.
Background History and Context
The local government of the City of Solingen (160.000 inhabitants, locted in Nordrhein-Westphalia) is facing massive budget problems. Those were caused by decreasing revenues since the 1990s and increased spending on social purposes. Without any budget changes the city was facing a complete loss of equity by 2013. Bankruptcy would entail severe interventions by federal authorities and this would be the end of self determined local administration.
The city administration was keen to preserve local self-determination and, therefore, developed a catalogue of 248 ideas to cut the budget. The cuts were project to have deep effects on city life. Public offers such as public pools, libraries, public sports and and social institutions would be without or significantly reduced public funding. 78 of the cutting proposals were therefore classified as "directly affecting the citizens" thereby creating the idea of the "Bürgerbeteiligte Haushaltssicherung" to let the affected individuals weigh in before the final decisions were made.
The aim was to give as many people as possible the chance for a feedback on those proposals.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The procedure of the participatory budget saving was incorporated into the political decisions on budget consolidation. On August 24, 2009, the city council voted to initiate the participatory budget saving process using an internet platform with conceptual and technical assistance provided by Zebralog LLC.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Being primarily online, this initiative was open to all interested inviduals. In addition, an extensive effort was made to address disadvantaged groups. In cooperation with the city's administration the local newspaper edited a supplement in the daily edition. This supplement contained the 78 budget cutting proposols which were discussed in the internet platform. The readers could vote and comment each proposal in this supplement. About 350 feedback sheets were collected by the local newspaper and sent to the city's administration. Here those votes were added to the results of the internet platform. Besides that the city adminstration offered free internet access and practical support for citizens that did not have internet access at several locations (public library, retirement clubs, youth clubs).
Methods and Tools Used
This initiative is an example of participatory budgeting, a 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. This initiative was novel in two ways: 1) it focussed on budget cutting rather than pure allocation and 2) participation was mostly online although mail-in submissions were also encouraged.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The administration initially developed a list of 248 saving proposals, included the cutting of spendings as well as the increase of fees and local taxes. Besides that the administration proposed several ideas to optimize the internal organization and in the sequence the reduction of staff. 78 of the proposals were classified as having the potential to 'directly impact citizens' and were therefore put up for public discussion. All citizens were called to vote on the proposals and give their ideas. Overall there were 3595 users which gave a total of 4752 comments. In this process the citizens commented, asked about the backround, rated the proposals, added own ideas and submitted alternative proposals. The local press added the process by providing the list of proposals in a Saturday edition.
The proposals for savings were decribed in detail on the platform and were categorized into the following fields: education, sport und leisure, fire brigade, traffic, nature and environment, finances, organization and building, culture and events.
The following options were available to the users:
- Options to filter, sort and search
- Option to approve, decline and comment proposals
- Option to ask questions (the answer was provided within 24hours)
- Option for new proposals
- Options to be informed and look through various topics.
- "Zebralog" controled the rules and the editorial team (city administration) answered the questions
- 04.03.2010 Information event for citizens
- 04.03.2010 to 25.03.2010: Internet platform online and open for discussion
- the internet participation was additonally supported by the local press; the Solinger Tageblatt provided a list of the 78 proposals in a supplement and asked subcribers to vote and comment on those proposals. There was a feedback of about 350 citizens, most of them in higher age.
- April / May 2010: Analysis of the participation process
- May 2010: Information of the political acteurs about the citizens ́ comments and the results of the votes
- June 2010: Political consulting process
- 08.07. 2010: Decision of the City Council on the Budget (including the list for savings)
- September 2010: Summary and report of the outcomes on the internet platform
Influence, Outcomes and Effects
This thrifty fiscal program has brought a new change for the city and its citizens as it involved the affected groups and provided transparency and acceptance for public participation. The outcome of this open discussion showed a wide acceptance for unpopular proposals (closing the sports stadium, school sites, the closure of event halls). Taking into account the citizens votings the city council met their budget decision in July with a shortening volume of around €43.7 million. In total, there were 3950 participants (3600 Internet, 350 Newspaper), 26.519 visits, 152.347 votes, 667.352 page impressions.
Through the participiatory budget saving process:
- the citizens were informed about the city ́s financial situation in detail
- the citizens could take an active roll in the decision process
- The problem-solving capacities of both the citizens and the political acteurs have been improved.
- Non-organized citizens also used their chance for participation.
- The citizens used the chance to set priorities and this had for example different consequences. On one hand the closure of a public pools was repulsed by the city council due to the overwhelming vote of the citizens.
- On the other hand there had been a severe restraint by the city council to close the main sports stadium. With a citizens' pro vote of more than 80% the city council hat no problems with taking this decision.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
With this participatory budget saving process the citizens got the chance for a wide participation. This kind of public participation is a modern instrument for communication with the citizens and has provided the city council with the chance to take the citizens‘recommendations into consideration and set new priorities from the public point of view. Hereby it was possible to reconstruct the concept for saving the budget by accepting the prevalent public opinions and recommendations.
Due to its success, the internet-platform will be used for further participation projects.
External Links [German]
The original version of this case study first appeared on Vitalizing Democracy in 2010 and was a contestant for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize. It was originally submitted by Christina Rucker.