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Participatory budget process would bridge expectation gap

Politics | Published:

THERE is £1m. of our money sitting in the States’ pots of cash waiting for us all to say how it should be spent.

Except you wouldn’t know it, because Policy & Resources has gone sadly quiet on its participatory budget proposal approved as part of last year’s offerings.

It is a chance for the States to engage the community in how public money is allocated, a chance to reconnect and really engage.

Yet it does not even merit a sentence in the 2020 Budget.

It needs to be resuscitated and our cash released.

There are many things on this government’s plate, not least its sometimes-rampant spending desires and poor control of staffing costs combining as it looks set to come asking for more and more money from us all. To help counter that, an opportunity for some positive working with the public should not be taking so long to come to fruition.

P&R say that progress on establishing how the community can best benefit from the participatory budgeting fund has been slower than initially expected.

‘Work has been undertaken through research, workshops, designing an outline of a programme and conversations with third-sector partners who may be able to run such a scheme,’ a spokesman said.

‘This initial work has in itself highlighted issues that merited further work in order to ensure the fund is used for the best possible benefit of the community and has enabled us to learn lessons from similar programmes run elsewhere.

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‘It is expected that a report containing proposals on participatory budgeting will be ready to present to the Policy & Resources Committee before the end of the year.’

The gap between a report being presented and action happening as a result will be telling.

Participatory budgeting is growing in popularity around the world.

The concept has its roots in a programme in the city of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil, which began in 1989 and which distributes around $160m. of public money. People gathered at district meetings in churches, gyms and clubs to discuss public services and how the budget should be spent.

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The practice has since been adopted by more than 2,700 governments throughout the world, although it has been suspended in its birthplace for the last two years after political support fell away.

For it to work there needs to be widespread participation from all sections of society, sizeable and sustained funding, and a political commitment to implement the outcome.

The £1m. pot in Guernsey is just a tiny fraction of the annual budget, but it would be a start, and perhaps signal a way to preventing committees wasting money on projects they perceive to be in the public interest that turn out to be more in their own – just imagine if the toucan crossing had been on a participatory budget shortlist.

In Paris, residents vote on what 5% of the city’s budget, some £89m., will be spent on every year.

They get to submit proposals – this year 430 went to the public vote in which 140,000 people cast a ballot.

This whittled things down to 11 major projects and 183 smaller ones, including upgrades to recycling facilities, cycling infrastructure and programmes to help the homeless.

It all showed that there should not be fear in government giving away control.

There have been, naturally, some more outlandish ideas, including a proposal in 2017 to bulldoze Sacre-Coeur, which was disqualified because the church was not controlled by the city.

Each proposal goes through a feasibility study, which should rule out Boaty McBoatface sucking up too much of a budget every year.

It is a common complaint in Guernsey that the States indulges in too many consultation exercises where they do not listen to the outcome.

Those running them counter that they should not be viewed as a referendum on every idea that is being worked up.

There is an expectation gap every time and sometimes that is very dangerous in terms of policy making and public trust in government.

A robust participatory budget process would bridge that gap but also go much further.

The States does not have a monopoly on ideas and it needs to move even further away from the dictatorial approach that still pervades much of its decision-making processes.

If anything, recent experience suggests that there is an inherent inability within government to prioritise spending and hit the right targets.

But it should not launch this scheme seeing nothing but obstacles because it is a new way of working and get cold feet.

There is a strong argument that the funding needs to be larger, and guarantees need to be made about ongoing commitments too, but get this right and it could pave the way to a much closer and symbiotic relationship between the States and those whose money the members traditionally thought was theirs alone to spend.

Nick Mann

By Nick Mann

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