PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING Nelson Dias Explains Why Citizens Need to Decide on Dubrovnik’s Budget

Author(s): Olja Ljubišić
Nelson Dias is one of the world’s most respected experts in participatory budgeting currently working for the The World Bank. He advised implementation of PB in South America, Africa and Europe and works on promotion of transparent and engaging budgeting. 

Mr Dias, you are one of the world's most respected experts in participatory budgeting. In Croatia the term is still quite unknown. Could you explain to our readers, in plain words, what participatory budgeting is?

Participatory budgeting is a process through which citizens can decide where to spend a part of their municipality, region or country public budget. In this context, citizens are invited to submit proposals, that later will be technically analyzed by the competent public services, based on previously established criteria of public knowledge. The proposals considered viable will be transformed into projects, which in turn will be placed in public voting for all citizens. The most voted, until exhausting the part of the budget allocated to the process, will be executed by the public body.

For example, the City of Dubrovnik did invite citizens to propose projects important to the community. How is that different from PB?

In the context of the participatory budget, people make proposals that they consider important for the community, but they also have the power to decide, through public voting, those that will be implemented. To this end, the elected executive authority allocates part of its public budget annually and commits to implement the decisions of the citizens. This means that participatory budgeting is not just a question of citizens' ideas. They will have the power to decide annually on the projects they consider to be the most important for the community.

It is a question of believing that it is necessary to democratize democracy itself, reinforcing the mechanisms for citizen participation and rebuilding confidence in the system.

Who can implement PB? City, county, municipality, state or local authority-owned companies, schools?

Today there are about three thousand participatory budgets in the World. They are present on all continents, with a particular focus on Latin America, Europe, North America and Africa. The vast majority are promoted by municipalities but there are also initiatives promoted by regions and states in federal countries, as is the case in Brazil. This year, for the first time in the world, the first experiences of participatory budgeting at national level arose, in which citizens will be able to decide a part of the State Budget. These initiatives have all been launched in Portugal, my country, and they are Participatory Budgeting Portugal, Youth Participatory Budgeting Portugal and Scholar Participatory Budgeting. There are also some experiences of participatory budgets, although few, promoted by private entities, as is the case of Student Associations.

How is PB enhancing transparency in financial management of public budget?

Increasing transparency in the management of the public budget is intrinsic to participatory budgeting. This happens with total clarity as regards the part of the public budget that is allocated to the participatory process. It is the citizens who decide the projects to be carried out, having the opportunity to follow all the phases of the execution, namely: the technical feasibility evaluation, the analysis of the conditions and obstacles to implementation, the technical design of the investment, the public contracting for its execution and actual execution. These gains in transparency are not, however, generalizable to the public budget as a whole, although there are very interesting initiatives aimed at combining the participatory budget process with transparency initiatives on the whole public budget.

What preconditions are needed for PB to be implemented?

I consider that there are essentially five conditions for the implementation and consolidation of a participatory budgeting process. These are ideological, political, financial, methodological and societal. The ideological dimension has to do with the conviction that participation is not an obstacle, but rather a support for the action of those who have been elected to govern. It is a question of believing that it is necessary to democratize democracy itself, reinforcing the mechanisms for citizen participation and rebuilding confidence in the system. The political condition, closely related to the previous one, is essential, since it is only with the will and the availability of the elected that a participatory budget can be implemented, except for the few places in the world where it is required by law. This condition is also essential for the creation of a dedicated technical team dedicated to implementing the different stages of the process. The financial dimension is a basic condition as it is necessary to make available a part of the public budget, usually from the investment component, so that the citizens can decide according to their priorities for the community. The methodological condition is also very relevant because it is not enough to want to promote participation; it is necessary to know how to design a process like this, its rules, instruments of work, communication and evaluation. An incorrect methodology may dictate undesired results. The last condition is societal. Only a strong and mobilized civil society to discuss public investment priorities for the community will be able to appropriate the process and demand its continuation whenever there are elections for the executive body. If the political will is unquestionable in order to launch the PB, a strong civil society is a necessity for this type of process to be appropriated by the population and to stop being so vulnerable whenever there are elections. The presence of all these conditions is quite variable among existing participatory budget experiences. These are obviously ideal conditions which aim not only at the creation of these initiatives but at their own sustainability.

The citizens of Lisbon decide 2.5 million euros per year, and almost double in Cascais. 

How does the implementation work? Who participates and how long it takes from the beginning till the first projects are finished?

A participatory budget is a two-cycles process. The first concerns: i) the submission of proposals by citizens; ii) the technical feasibility analysis of these proposals, to be carried out by the services; iii) public voting of citizens for the decision on the winning investments. This first cycle normally corresponds to a calendar year and should culminate with the budgeting of the projects to be carried out with public budget of the following calendar year. The second cycle is precisely referring to the execution of the projects most voted by the citizens.

In what stage citizens participate? When are they engaged and how?

Citizens should be involved in all stages of the process, with particular emphasis on i) the submission of proposals following criteria that should be publicly available; ii) in the technical analysis, debating with the services whenever there are doubts about the viability of the proposals; iii) in the public vote that will allow to define the winning projects; iv) in execution, following the design of the projects and their implementation. It will be a mistake if the participation of citizens is limited to the presentation of proposals and their voting.

What are the best examples of PB?

Today there are many good examples. My country, Portugal, is currently a living laboratory of innovation in participatory budgeting. At the end of last year, 118 such initiatives were in operation. Among the most emblematic are, for example, Lisbon, Cascais, Águeda and Valongo. Lisbon celebrates this year the 10th anniversary of its participatory budgeting, having registered throughout the different editions over 5700 proposals submitted, 105 winning projects and about 230 thousand votes. The citizens of Lisbon decide 2.5 million euros per year. Cascais is currently celebrating seven years of its participatory budgeting, having registered in 2016 the most voted edition ever in Portugal, with 58,567 votes. In just six years, more than 219 thousand people voted in the participatory budgeting of Cascais. In the edition of last year, the residents of Cascais decided more than 4 million euros. Águeda, a municipality located in the central region of Portugal, is now carrying out the third edition of the participatory budget and has achieved one of the best results in terms of execution of the winning projects of the first two editions, without registering any significant delays. Valongo, in addition to the youth participatory budgeting, dedicated to younger citizens, decided this year to implement a participatory budgeting dedicated exclusively to the employees of the Municipality, so that they can propose and decide projects that help to improve the quality of life in the workplace. It is also relevant to refer the importance of other successful experiences of PB in European cities of great importance such as Paris, Madrid and Milan. These examples help to understand that participatory budgeting is a very flexible participation tool that can be adjusted to small cities, such as Águeda (47,000 inhabitants), average size cities such as Cascais (206,000 inhabitants), or even to large metropolises. The important thing is to meet the necessary conditions, among which the methodological one.

What City of Dubrovnik needs to do right now in order to start the process?

It would be very important for Croatia to become a more active country in participatory budgeting. Before starting a participatory budgeting process, it is very important to bring together the political will of the elected, to create a technical team dedicated to the process, to ensure its training, to define the methodology and to create the instruments of work, monitoring and evaluation, as well as to launch a communication campaign which is capable of mobilizing citizens for a new experience, such as participatory budgeting. There are many initiatives in the world today, so it might be useful for Dubrovnik to devote some time and resources to getting to know the best experiences and getting the best political and methodological advice.

 Olja Ljubisic