Topic: Article
Posted on 24th Aug 2022

Democratising Social Value: The Social Value Case for Participatory Budgeting

In the midst of all of the crisis-filled headlines competing for our attention, many might have missed the story about the London Borough of Brent giving residents the power to spend a £2.25m budget on local projects under a programme called "You Decide".

The funds were distributed by inviting groups or individuals to pitch their ideas to fellow residents. After a vote, the winners were given up to £50,000 to spend on their initiative. Two pots of money were allocated to the programme. The first focused on social and physical improvements, while the second aimed to support health and wellbeing in the area. The money for the programme was taken from the Council’s neighbourhood community infrastructure levy or CIL, a charge placed on planning applicants which should be spent on ‘the provision, improvement, replacement, operation or maintenance of infrastructure. Brent creatively interpreted this vague definition to fund the You Decide Programme.

Brent’s effort to involve residents in the economic decisions of the local authority has a name; participatory budgeting.’ In the past, other authorities including Newcastle, Bradford, and Tower Hamlets in London, have run pilots based on this approach in the past, but it has never become widespread practice in the UK. That is not the case in other places. Participatory budgeting can be seen in its most extensive form in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Practised in a city of over 1.5 million inhabitants since 1989, the initiative involves local people in the allocation of the spending programme. In 2004 over 50,000 people were actively involved in the process. There is evidence to show that the participation process has resulted in the redistribution of resources away from high-profile or vanity projects, and towards investment in under-invested neighbourhoods that may have been neglected under another system.

I was there in May 2013 and saw that the process was still in place and extremely popular. What struck me when I spoke to some of the representatives of the District that I was working in, was how much emphasis they placed on putting together the arguments for their ideas. The system requires each District to present its ideas to all the other Districts to see if it is possible to rationalise or composite the demands into a smaller number that might gain greater consensus across the city. This is a year-long process, and as soon as one budget round ends, a new set of demands begin to be generated. The advantage is that, unlike intermittent annual or four-year term hustings, the issues are kept fresh in a perpetual conversation between citizens.

While there are sound political and governance reasons for supporting more participative budgeting in democratic systems, there are some excellent social value reasons to promote the approach too. Calculating the quantity of social value as a result of an intervention (a social programme or a built environment project for example) is often based on two components. One is the cost-benefit value of the avoidance of harm or increasing benefit. The other is the wellbeing value that comes from the way people feel before and after they are affected by the project. The cost-benefit considerations might include smoother implementation of policies because of the consensus built by the process. It may also include the societal gains from implementing an effective health, education, or employment programme.

However, there are also significant wellbeing benefits that stem from a process that depends on cooperation and goodwill. This could include social value from better social connections such as working with others, increasing self-esteem, and minimising loneliness. It also has the potential to increase wellbeing through better civic engagement leading to the gaining of new life skills, helping those in need, and leading a worthwhile life. These outcomes should be revealed in thoughtful surveys and group discussions which can be folded into the participation process. These positive unintended consequences of political participation present co-beneficial justification for trying out innovative democracy ideas. This is particularly true for areas that are underinvested and unlikely to see more tangible influences on their social value such as better quality jobs or improved social infrastructure. Offering the opportunity for people to make their own decisions is, by comparison, relatively cheap. Participative budging offers the promise of yielding significantly more social value than current and more expensive capital spending routes that represent the more conventional methods for civic improvement programmes and should be trialled by more authorities in anticipation of a more uncertain economic future.

– Erik Bichard,

Crafted in Liverpool by Kaleidoscope