How to run a participatory budget successfully

A participatory budget is a method of citizen participation in which neighbors are involved in allocation decisions of various economic resources to different city improvement projects. Participatory budgets are complex processes that require great technical and communication efforts. This is why it is not advisable to implement participatory budgets in municipalities where there is not a strong culture of participation or where the city council does not have qualified public employees.

If you are a city councillor or participation technician and you’re not sure if it would be wise to try out a participatory budget in your city, you can start by answering these questions: Do you have a participation census with a sufficient number of emails? Has any online citizen participation project been developed in your city before? Are there a healthy and active associations in town? If any of your answers are “no”, then, unfortunately, it’s likely not the right time to implement a participatory budget. But, if on the contrary, you responded affirmatively to all the questions, there are some details you should be sure to understand.

The first thing you should do is reserve a part of the city budget for this purpose. If this is the first time you do this, try to make sure that the quantity does not exceed 2% of the total budget. And remember to reserve at least 0.5% of it for the broadcasting campaign.

There are several different methodologies for carrying out participatory budgets. The most common process is to ask citizens to create proposals and then to seek support for them. Next, the proposals go through a technical evaluation in which those that do not meet the process’ criteria are discarded, and the economic value of those remaining is assessed. In the end, the proposals go to a final vote. This methodology and its variants require a great deal of effort on behalf of the city council’s technicians in evaluating the proposals, so it is important to properly scale your resources and to give your public employees advance notice of the project in order for it to succeed at the highest level possible.

An alternative to this model is to accept only qualified proposals from entities that wish to carry them out – companies, associations, non-profits, etc. These same entities that design the proposals will also budget their projects, meaning that the evaluation process will be less intensive for municipalities. And as it is in the interest of the creators of the projects to end up being selected, they will in turn help create a wider diffusion of the process within the municipality. As a result, citizens will only participate in the final vote and will therefore not be active proponents of change they want to see in their city.

Finally, for less experienced municipalities, there is the option of converting a participatory budget into a simple consultation. The city council can give various options of where to invest money – in general areas or in concrete projects – and the citizens can select one or more of these choices. This option is the least flexible, but nonetheless carries the advantage of being very easy to explain and to disseminate.

All methodologies have their pros and cons. Choose the one that best suits the reality of your municipality and the resources at your disposal. Once you have chosen the methodology, you will be able to decide which technology you want to use online and can start planning the digital process. Don’t forget to make a calendar and assign your team to various tasks. At Kuorum, we have years of citizen engagement advising experience with local and regional governments; if you are looking for external support during any part of the process, please do not hesitate to contact us.