Participatory budgeting, introduced at first in Porto Alegre, is a popular concept among Polish local governments and the Tricity, consisting of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia, is Poland’s leader in it. It was the city of Sopot that introduced the idea to Poland in 2011 and Gdansk followed two years later. Now about 100 local governments in Poland engage in projects like this. The main idea behind our participatory budget: city residents vote and decide directly how to spend a part of a city’s budget. They get to do it, because they are the people who know best what investments or improvements are most needed in their neighborhood. Participatory budgeting is an excellent tool for inciting social engagement and mutual trust.
A brand new bike park next to a school, a drainage for another park, a shortcut between districts, a sports field, a new sidewalk or sheltering for stray cats — these projects were among the winners of the participatory budgeting 2017 in Gdansk. It has been our 4th edition since 2013.
Gdansk is divided into 34 districts, where people 16+ years old vote for projects in their neighbourhood. Additionally, they vote for city-wide projects. Voting is conducted on the internet; people with no access to it at home, may vote, for example, in city libraries. In total, there is a budget of 12, 5 million PLN (3 million EUR) allocated for projects. Every year the whole process, from the kick-off to announcing results, takes 7 months:
What projects can be submitted to our participatory budget? There are a few criteria:
- Only projects that require less than a year to bring them into life;
- It has to be compliant with Polish law, regulating local government’s authority;
- It should be placed on a plot that belongs to a local government;
- It should not exceed allocated budget;
- A few categories of projects are excluded: improvements of school buildings, city buildings rented for commercial activity, and ordering only construction designs without “real” investments.
What are the benefits?
There are numerous benefits of the participatory budget and new investments are not the only ones. First of all, it increases the levels of trust and engagement: residents feel that they get a real influence over investment process in the city. Small scale projects, fast decision-making and almost immediate implementation makes the process clearly visible (with “big” investments, like a new tramline, it may take years from an idea to implementation).
People find out how a local government works. They sketch a project and then, accompanied by the city hall’s experts, they go through a typical investment process: feasibility studies, legal check, accordance with city strategy etc. Since it is an ordinary voting, they need to build support for the project. After such an experience the residents understand better what a complicated mechanism a city is. The challenge for us is to increase the level of residents’ engagement in sketching new projects. We feel it could be higher, as we consider it an important lesson of democracy. People find out, how complicated investment process can be, and how financial decisions affect the city.
Getting feedback from residents is another crucial feature of the participatory budget. The mayor and his staff may find out, what people need most in the city, what they care about. It shortens the distance between the government and the residents; it helps manage a city basing on real needs, not intuition. A space for a dialog between the government, residents and city activists is created.
Last but not least, it becomes a good practice for other local governments. The city with such a budget gets positive publicity, attracts interest of activists and researchers. Participatory budgeting can’t be overestimated when it comes to building a friendly environment in a city.
What would be Gdansk’s piece of advice for other cities considering establishing such a budget? Identifying internal and external stakeholders should be your first step. It may be politicians, councilors, NGOs, activists, informal groups in districts, media. To put it simple — opinion leaders in your city.
The second step can be establishing the stakeholders’ team, which drafts your city’s model for participatory budgeting. Things to consider:
- Who can vote (Adults only? Kids? Registered voters only?)?
- Voting districts — should the city be divided into a few districts or should it be one project list for the whole city?
- The scope of “allowed” projects. Should submitted projects be reviewed for compliance with city policies? Should there be any category of projects excluded from voting?
- Who in the city hall should be responsible for executing actions regarding the budget (promoting voting, a hotline, and district meetings)?
- Education and promotion may be really tough. The initial awareness of participatory budgeting is usually low and people may see no benefit in engaging in it. You should consider how to engage not only city activists but also people who don’t usually take part in local government matters daily. We get voting rates of about 10% of eligible residents (approx. 40 000 people). It is a challenge and a task for us to increase the rate every year.
- And a very important one — how much money for it? Regarding a very high level of fixed spending in Polish local governments, the amount of money for participatory budget tends to be around 0, 5% of the whole city budget.
- How to reach residents living in the outskirts of the city? It is worth considering joining promotional efforts with neighboring cities and set one date and even the same rules for your participatory budgeting. We did such coordination this year with Gdansk’s neighbors. This is, we aligned the promotion and deadlines with Sopot and Gdynia.
As you saw above, a lot of important, political decisions are to be made. Therefore, it is of great importance that a city leader understands and engages fully in the process and promoting it. It should be considered a long term project and the city should be ready for many iterations. It may happen that initially proposed ideas don’t work well in real life and should be changed. There is nothing wrong in it, but prepare the right communication strategy first. Be ready for a lot of explaining, campaigning, gaining supporters. In other words, for an ordinary job of every city employee.
Written by: Krzysztof Garski