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Definition and Frequently Asked Questions | Netzwerk Bürgerhaushalt |

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Definition and Frequently Asked Questions

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What is participatory budgeting?

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a tool for involving citizens in issues that concern the use of public money. The population is actively involved in the planning of public expenditure and revenues. This participatory approach differs fundamentally from the traditional ‘administrators plan, policymakers decide’ model.

More and more local authorities are introducing participatory procedures for their municipal budget. By doing so they are giving citizens an opportunity to contribute and discuss their ideas on how the municipality should spend its money. So far, there has been no PB at the federal or state level in Germany.

The core phases of any PB process are:

  1. Information | Through public information work the population are made aware of the budget and mobilised for PB.

  2. Participation | Citizens can contribute their own ideas and priorities, either as ‘advisors’ who submit their proposals to policymakers and administrators, or as ‘decision-makers’ on a specific budget. As well as citizens contributing their own ideas, the key element of this phase is public discourse, which takes place for instance at public meetings or online.

  3. Accountability | The organisers of the process provide information on the outcome of the participation phase. They communicate and explain why which particular ideas submitted by citizens were implemented, and which were not.

What does the typical participatory budgeting process in Germany look like?

In Germany, PB is typically consultative: Citizens submit proposals and make comments. They enrich the professional budget planning debate by contributing their local expertise and priorities. Administrators take these proposals and comments into account when drafting the budget. The local council decides on the proposals, and explains why which proposals can be implemented and which not.

Typically, a PB process in Germany looks like this:

In Germany, PB is indirectly a tool of democracy; citizens do not decide, they advise.

Of course, there is no such thing as the German PB process. There are many models. Most PB processes cover the entire budget, while others cover specific areas of it. Many local authorities ask themselves ‘What should we spend our money on?’, while others ask ‘How can we save money or generate new income?’.

Who is participatory budgeting designed for? Who can be involved?

PB at the local level is normally designed for the entire population of the municipality concerned. Anyone who would like to help shape things in their municipality can get involved.

Some PB processes are aimed at specific groups, such as women in the case of gender budgeting, or youth in the case of participatory budgeting for school students. While this kind of PB targets specific groups, other PB processes are designed for a highly heterogeneous target group. Some are even expressly aimed not only at the entire population of a city, but also more generally at anyone interested. The thinking behind this is that it is the idea that counts, rather than where a person comes from.

What do the proponents of participatory budgeting in Germany say?

Supporters of PB give many reasons why they believe it is a good idea to implement PB:

  1. Transparency creates trust and confidence. PB makes the use of public funds transparent. Transparency strengthens citizens’ trust and confidence in the political process.

  2. Information enables citizens to understand and assess political decision-making. Citizens become familiarised with the complexity of municipal finances. Well-informed citizens are then better able to understand and appraise political decisions.

  3. Citizens identify more strongly with their municipality. Citizens who are able to help actively shape their municipality through PB identify more strongly with it. This promotes the municipality’s positive image, also externally.

  4. Promoting civic education and political engagement By participating, citizens learn more about democratic processes and why their vote is important. The opportunity to participate fosters citizens’ interest in politics and political engagement.

  5. Valuable proposals and pointers Citizens’ knowledge and ideas are a valuable addition to the professional expertise of the administration. They also help administrators prioritise measures.

  6. A means of modernising the administration PB is a means of modernising the administration. The administration is better able to respond to citizens’ needs.

  7. Participation promotes the acceptance of decisions. Well-informed citizens who participate understand that resources are limited and that the wishes of the population are manifold.

  8. Participation promotes the legitimacy of decision-making. PB helps legitimate political decision-making. A policymaker can only fulfil his or her democratic rule as a representative of the people if he or she is familiar with citizens’ preferences. PB thus strengthens representative democracy.

What are points of criticism against participatory budgeting in Germany?

Although more and more local authorities in Germany are either introducing PB or at least discussing doing so, some municipalities have either discontinued the process or rejected the idea.

Opponents of PB see a number of problems:

  1. Participation does not go far enough. PB in Germany is pseudo-participatory. Although citizens can make proposals, they cannot take decisions.

  2. Participation means that elected political representatives abdicate responsibility. Politicians let citizens do their jobs for them. Some see this as an illegitimate rejection of responsibility, while others see it as a loss of decision-making authority that is not of the politicians’ own making.

  3. PB undermines representative democracy. Only a small minority of non-representative citizens are involved. Lobbyism is then inevitable, because the citizens who are involved pursue their own interests, not the common good.

  4. When budgets are tight, the cost-benefit ratio is questionable. PB is too time-consuming and too expensive, particularly in times of tight budgets. People can get involved and make proposals as they always have through political parties and associations, without participatory budgeting.

  5. Citizens are not well qualified enough. Citizens are not well qualified enough to make meaningful proposals. Budget planning is too complex for this. It must be performed by experts.

  6. Wish lists create false expectations. PB tends to generate wish lists and false expectations. The disappointment is then all the greater when these wishes cannot be fulfilled.

  7. Disappointed citizens become more disenchanted with politics. Disappointment causes citizens to become even more politically disillusioned. Rather than creating greater acceptance, it leads to frustration.

One interesting thing to note is that while some people think PB is not participatory enough, others think it goes too far.

What factors are especially important for successful participatory budgeting?

There are a whole range of factors that are important for PB to be a success.

Factors conducive to successful PB include:

  1. Politicians and administrators have a positive attitude toward the project, support it energetically and take citizens’ proposals seriously.

  2. Information is comprehensible and presented in a way that is responsive to citizens’ needs and interests, e.g. in the form of a ‘readable’ or ‘open’ budget. The same is also true of the accountability report.

  3. Public awareness-raising work is performed on a broad basis, reaching many different people.

  4. The results are compatible with politico-administrative processes.

  5. The dialogue is facilitated by moderators, either online or at public meetings.

  6. Work is performed transparently during all phases of the process.

  7. Citizens are also involved in designing the process.

Is participatory budgeting representative?

No, PB in Germany is not representative. Nor does it claim to be. In fact, PB offers interested citizens an opportunity to get involved in political processes in a way that goes beyond merely exercising their franchise. It is supposed to complement other democratic instruments such as elections or referenda, not replace them. Unlike elections or referenda, PB is not about choosing between a small number of predefined options. It is about developing and discussing ideas. Therefore, what counts above all else is the quality and openness of the dialogue. The number of people who get involved is secondary.

Through its open structure, PB enables a broad range of people to participate. Nevertheless – as with voter turnout – in most cases it is better-educated, middle-aged men who predominate. Systematic public awareness-raising work can aim to make processes as inclusive as possible. However, just as with elections the decision to get involved rests with the citizen him- or herself.

In Germany, the participants do not ultimately decide which proposals are actually implemented. In a representative democracy, this decision remains with the democratically elected body, which at the municipal level is the local council. The elected politicians consider the proposals, and take decisions accordingly in the interests of all citizens.


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