PICamp Session 2 – Participatory Budgeting


PICamp Belfast

Session 2: Participatory Budgeting

This group was exploring what participatory budgeting is, what it can be used for in NI and what barriers would be anticipated.

It was identified that Participatory Budgeting (PB) was commonplace in Latin America where communities were often given control of where money was spent in their communities. It was also noted that a number of councils in England had begun to use the technique. Councils in Northern Ireland have been looking at PB as a tool for use in community planning in the post local government reform era, but discussions were now taking place as to how the technique councils to use resources more effectively given the current economic pressures.

A number of risks were identified in that there Is potential to veer towards populism away from need; and for money to go to ‘fashionable’ issues over the more mundane.

There was consensus that there is a need to give the citizen a voice in decision making, to show how and why decisions are made. To do this people need to be given the necessary information and education, and the opportunity to use their ability to inform decision making.

It was observed that most of the population is not engaged, partly due to life pressures and the need to prioritise time. It was noted, however, that if people see the benefits of engaging, then they are more likely to engage.

The view was expressed that it was difficult for people with innovative ways of thinking and ideas, to get involved in policy and decision making.

“We need to get beyond dog fouling”


It is vital to explain where the money goes, and how best to use it. A number of good projects were discussed – it is much cheaper to spend on preventative healthcare than acute hospital care. Homestart can keep 40 children out of care for the price of looking after one child in care.

The media plays a key role – need to pressure politicians on the right things.


Lack of knowledge of the workings of government

Complexity of budgetary information and government statistics

View that government is ‘spinning’ if information is simplified

People caucus – can skew result. How to engage weaker voices?

A robust process needs to be in place – has to be about local residents

The powers that be need to be receptive to innovative ideas, and to community-identified needs



When does PB work?

PB is empowering, when the public get the information they need to make informed choices.

PB works best when you start small and take people seriously.

It builds a sense of responsibility

Community buy-in ensures what it built is not wrecked

…Sometimes the best work happens in the cracks…

How do we engage the disengaged?

Are public meetings the right forum? Need to be very careful to ensure all get a say – may not be possible for some to attend.

The value of meeting people face to face cannot be overestimated. Councils can work with community groups. Community groups can train outreach workers and can work with other agencies.

Need to encourage volunteering and participation in community. NI has come a long way in last 30 years – now moving towards issues based politics.

Need to achieve a balance and a trust in the information presented by government. The raw data is often extremely complex, and if an attempt at presentation is made, there is vulnerability to accusations of spin.

Macro issues

There was a discussion on global environmental issues that our local politicians are not addressing – e.g. fish stocks, climate change. Focus on micro issues squeezes out the macro – there is a schism between global and local, with the pertinent issues kicked into the ‘too hard’ box. Some scepticism was expressed about whether democracy as a system can ever deliver on environmental concerns, and particularly in an era when the western view of democracy is diminishing.

Alternatively, behavioural change at the micro level can encourage change at macro. If we increase responsibility locally , then we can use a sustainable development approach to feed into the global. If the macro issues are scary then we need to give people practical things to do to chip away at the macro issue at a micro level. For example – working with areas impacted by flooding to look at climate change issues and their carbon footprint


We each need to take ownership of our cost

There was a level of agreement that we don’t tend to measure the right things, and that we fail to take account of opportunity cost, and our impact on society. The new approach being taken in France was outlined, where the President is looking at issues in the round, viewing their impact on society as a whole.

We need to decide what we value.



So what can we do?

Work to increase participation and volunteering

Work to create a real two way exchange

Create civic forums at ward level, with open dialogue

Look at good practice in other areas – America Speaks, Swedish model

Work to overcome segregation and our adversarial approach to society


About localisbeautiful

Head of Policy at the Northern Ireland Local Government Association. Views expressed are personal and not those of NILGA
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