Does Participatory Budgeting always require a vote?

Voting at a PB event

There is a very real desire to make Participatory Budgeting more deliberative and thoughtful. One of the concerns about voting is that it doesn’t force people to think through the options. That PB needs more deliberation.

Nevertheless Jez Hall of PB Partners/Shared Future CIC argues that the vote is crucial for legitimacy and trust within a PB processes.

At the recent Going Global Participatory Budgeting Conference in Scotland I attended a workshop on whether a participatory budgeting process (PB) requires there to be a vote. The workshop emerged from a discussion that has been going on in the background in Scotland around how to increase deliberation and widen access to PB processes.

Given the flexibility of PB, with local co-design essential, if participants in a PB process decide to use consensus, or deliberation, or another form of prioritisation… wouldn’t that be enough?

Is a vote even required for it to be called PB?

It is true that some people have expressed they don’t like the competitiveness that a vote might bring. Or concerns that marginalised groups may not be able to mobilise in the face of more popular causes. As quoted in the Evaluation of PB in Scotland:

“I don’t agree with bringing in large audiences for school performers which in turn then become voters – we didn’t have supporters there and didn’t realise it is a popularity contest. Pretty unfair unless you had a large load of supporters with you.” Local resident / community participant[1]

To mitigate this risk there are many strategies you can use, such as spread or multi-preference voting. And, on the other hand, another participant in PB felt that we should compare PB against other ways to give grants:

“I found the process to be fairer than conventional funding applications – even though the application had to be just as precise and well thought out.” Community organisation representative / PB participant[2]

Voting in PB for me highlights crucial issues around power, voice and equity.

PB is never ‘power neutral’. Real money is at stake, and the quality of the process is crucial if PB is to create trust. Yet it also points to another uncomfortable truth. How well, fairly or transparently do existing grant making processes work? Are we measuring PB against perfection rather than reality?

PB, in its grant making form, questions traditional mechanisms for grant giving. Which have been criticised for being top down and favouring those that can write good applications. Hence a growing interest amongst grant funders in more participatory forms of grant making.

We want our say

As we move to what is sometimes call mainstreaming, the numbers add up. If citizens are going to direct millions of pounds, rather than thousands, as implied by mainstreaming (where the delivery is done by the public authority, not granted to citizens or the voluntary sector) I would argue voting is even more important. To validate the decision we must be able to show widespread participation. We need ways to count how many people participated and approved of the selected investment for the decision to have legitimacy.

There is a very real desire to make PB more deliberative and thoughtful.

One of the concerns about voting is that it doesn’t force people to think through the options. That PB needs more deliberation. Perhaps in line with the model of the Antwerp PB, where consensus during offline deliberative meetings was given priority over the number of online votes cast. This is especially important when marginalised communities or unpopular causes are the target audience. Interestingly Antwerp’s PB started out with seeking consensus and only later added an online voting element. Read more about this innovative consensus based approach to PB here.

Nevertheless a good blog should take a position, and I definitely feel that voting in PB should be the default. Consensus works best in small groups, when it can be very valuable. Yet in a personal capacity, I have seen how consensus can become a ‘dictatorship of the persistent’. That is perhaps a bit challenging, but I’ve seen it happen, especially if there is poor facilitation or inadequate time. People give up their position and accept consensus when actually they don’t agree. And that just stores up dissent that can emerge later on.

To scale PB up, can you use consensus, when people don’t share common goals, may never have met or there is a history of mistrust or unequal power?

PB is a process that seeks to widen participation. Is it possible to build consensus in a democracy operating at city level or larger? It’s probably worth looking at consensus decision-making on Wikipedia to answer that debate. Consensus politics has a long and detailed history, and perhaps the nuances are best suited to political scientists. But it often comes down to an argument about how dissent is allowed for (or not). That is, an individual’s ability to block a consensus in the face of a social pressure to conform.

That doesn’t mean that deliberation is not important. There should in any good quality PB be a chance for people to exchange their viewpoints with others, debate different ideas and come up with new perspectives. This doesn’t have to be on voting day. PB is a process and the scope for creating spaces for deliberation is wide; before, during and after the vote. What is probably true that deliberation online is harder to achieve, so its also important to not only rely on an online-only PB process.

Why I favour including a vote within PB

I’ll begin by focussing on the threats to PB. In particular ‘decaffeination’ or dilution of PB.  Where PB is no longer seen as a radical democratic process. Becoming another engagement method, that might occur as PB moves away from the dynamic immediacy of mass voting in public forums, perhaps towards a ‘safer’ consensus based process, where everyone appears to agree, or alternatively, online-only PB where people participate remotely. They may vote online, and read about a project on a computer or smartphone, but its a solitary act.

Udecide voting handset

This links to a second threat to PB, one of institutionalisation. It’s my belief that many public officials just don’t like sparking challenge or contestation. They run from dissent. They are happier with the more transactional nature of PB (such as communities making decisions over a very small pot of money) and can shy away from the more transformational aspect of sharing real power with citizens.

In particular public servants don’t like contestation, or creating winners and losers, and thereby risking a potential criticism from the politicians who they serve, or may serve sometime in the future. Politicians will almost inevitably jump on anything that might be used to critique their opponents. Or conversely, anything that undermines the trust and status of an existing elected politician. Dissent is dangerous.

PB is inherently, even intentionally disruptive. Challenging perceptions of power. Offering new solutions. Or seeking fresh ways to advance grass-roots democracy.

The direct participation and decision making PB implies democracy flowing upwards from citizens, not dripping down from above. PB should support representative democracy, but not be cowed by it. PB is fundamentally about the power of the ordinary citizen to decide how their tax money is spent. Money is power, so PB is inevitably about power too.

Those were my opening lines in the voting debate. But I would like to nuance my position with positive and the pragmatic reasons why PB voting is helpful.

Voting in PB is helpful for public servants and officials

Voting provides essential accountability. You can count up the votes, and follow the decision to take action. Consensus on the other hand can always be critiqued. Is it a true consensus? Has every point of view been considered? If we talked longer, or with different people might a different consensus emerge? Are public officials cherry-picking what they like? I would argue that PB voting allows us to come to a conclusion and move forward. PB is not just another consultation without an end.

PB Scoring sheet

Further, by having counted the votes we can quantify that our PB has had real reach into communities. In every PB process I have seen the organisers pay keen interest in how many people participated, where they came from, and how many votes were gathered. Voting can be used to prove you have reached the places other processes don’t. PB processes often use the levels of voting to measure, or benchmark their impact. And then build on that in their future processes, aiming higher next time. It’s commonly reported that PB does indeed engage more people than other types of engagement work, and often for the very first time.

Voting in PB is helpful for politicians

Voting uses the ‘language of democracy’ with which politicians are familiar.  And similarly it allows the debate to be concluded. To reach an end point from which politicians and public officials can take the next step and be seen to live up to the mantra of ‘you said, we did’.

The vote can also reduce a very long list of demands to a defined list of pre-budgeted actions. Prove that a particular policy or spend was indeed popular with citizens and not just the ambition of officers. And whilst there may always be the perception of winners and losers, that is real life. Citizens on the whole see PB as fair and transparent, and want more of it.

Acorns PB voting

PB also allows politicians to play a new leadership role within their community. Potentially mediating conflicting interests that might have been surfaced by the PB process, without haven taken the decision themselves.

In the words of the Scottish Improvement Service PB guidance for elected officials“The role of an elected member to provide leadership and opportunity for all those living within their wards and constituencies to have their say and express their needs, is enhanced through PB… ensure the process is inclusive and local people can participate in all stages… support them to participate in the process”.

Politicians must always have a role in overseeing that any vote was conducted fairly, and that participation was inclusive and widespread. Political involvement builds mutual trust with citizens, and for politicians voting offers a guarantee that the process is fair and transparent. Hopefully somewhat more than a consultation or a consensus based deliberation might do.

Most importantly, voting is helpful to citizens.

Voting is a clear and unambiguous expression of the reality that ‘we decided’. Something that defines this is a democratic process, yet one different to normal top down representative democracy or open ended community engagement.

It offers the opportunity for equal access, and a time efficient way to come to a decision in a simple and understandable way. More particularly, and especially when done face to face, within an offline space, it allows citizens to build social capital, see the scale of their community and become a community that can express its own wants in a very real sense.

Voting offers a tangible expression of a real participatory democracy, where people in community present their ideas, consider the ideas of others and then decide which to support. It most importantly shows citizens have real leverage and influence over budgets. That citizens have the right and the means to decide within this process.

This does not mean that voting is the be all and end all of PB. Deliberation, consultation and other techniques are valuable community engagement tools, and should certainly play a part in a fully fledged PB process.

Nor should a traditional ‘winner takes all’ or first past the post type of vote be used in PB processes. That would indeed be divisive, and not identify or express the true ‘will of the people’, as previously discussed in a blog by Peter Emerson of the De Borda Institute. PB voting should always be about preferences… with each participant having a number of votes that can express their priorities chosen from a wide number of projects.

It is possible to organise voting poorly. And it is possible to create more spaces for deliberation before the vote.

But in the end, in Participatory Budgets, we, the citizens decide.


Blog By Jez Hall, Shared Future CIC director and coordinator of PB Partners, November 2019

Text References:

[1] See quote from: https://www.gov.scot/publications/evaluation-participatory-budgeting-activity-scotland-2016-2018-2/pages/3/, section 2.3.6 accessed 18th November 2019

[2] See quote from: https://www.gov.scot/publications/evaluation-participatory-budgeting-activity-scotland-2016-2018-2/pages/3/, section 2.3.6 accessed 18th November 2019