The pandemic interrupted the use of participatory budgeting (PB) programmes, but we believe there is a growing appetite to restart them post-Covid, especially grant making PB programmes. While grant making PB certainly has benefits, there are pitfalls too, says Shared Future Director Jez Hall in this end of year opinion piece. The work for Shared Future, he adds, is to suggest ways to make the transition from PB grant-making to consider the larger ‘mainstream’ budgets and reach the ideal situation where we have both.
What is grant making PB and why are we so good at it?
With its focus on grant making the UK is pretty unique in the PB world. Most participatory budgets elsewhere ask residents to direct large ‘mainstream’ public sector money, for mostly capital or one off projects, delivered by the public authority or its partners to communities. A good example is participatory budgeting in Paris.
The UK has a more centralised public sector culture than most developed countries, with budget making powers reserved for senior public officials or politicians. That has meant it’s proven hard to persuade UK public bodies to share power, and the focus has naturally shifted towards grant making PB; often using regeneration or ‘levelling up’- style initiative funding, so outside of the core pressured budgets of local authorities. Arguably that focus, over many years, means too many people in the UK think PB is simply a way to distribute grants.
There have been many examples of this type of local authority PB grant making in the UK. Most commonly in Scotland, as you can read on the PB Scotland website.
A few years ago, we wrote a simple guide to this type of grant making through PB (designed for situations where a community anchor organisation has received funding to run a local PB grant making process).
More than a grant funding beauty contest?
Whilst there are many benefits of PB grant making, from building social capital to enabling civic activism, not everyone feels comfortable with taking this approach.
PB sometimes gets pushback from local voluntary, community or faith groups, who may be used to applying for grants in a more traditional manner (that is, through paper applications scored by a panel of experts). There is sometimes a justifiable concern that ‘unpopular’, complex, or misunderstood causes (on topics like domestic violence, transgender rights, drugs, sex work, probation or mental health for example) could lose out, within some sort of funding beauty contest.
Some financially vulnerable organisations might not like making their funding call an open secret. Some feel uncomfortable with what might be seen as a competitive process, or being asked to mobilise their ‘clients’ to become their supporters. It goes against the grain of normal practice. As one social housing tenant representative once said to me, “I’m not going to have my tenants becoming their performing monkeys to get what should be given by right”. Ouch!
Conversely, there can also be pushback from elected politicians, who enjoy making grants to community groups, not least because it enhances their profile and fulfils their local leadership role in a visible way. As a local councilor once put it to me, “my voters elected me to make these decisions.” Despite a growing interest in coproduction, long serving public employees can also be wedded to ‘doing to, not with’. However, for those willing to let go a bit, the truth is often exactly the opposite. PB directs funds to where it is most needed, and does it in an open and transparent way that builds trust.
Closing the ‘we know best’ gap
We’re passionate to say grant making PB works. Its tried, tested and proven to engage people who have never previous got involved in their community.
But perhaps the biggest danger from only doing grant making PB is that it distances the public from considering the core budget of the public authority, making PB a marginal activity in the eyes of busy paid officials. We’ve also heard activist groups say it becomes a distraction from effectively challenging their council; that while small funds are being spent ‘in communities’ and everyone is focused on that, the big money is being spent, badly, behind closed doors. PB has its greatest, most beneficial impact when three factors exist: strong government support, available resources for project implementation, and a well organised civil society.
“We’re passionate to say grant making PB works. But perhaps the biggest danger from only doing grant making PB is that it distances the public from considering the core budget of the public authority, making PB a marginal activity in the eyes of busy paid officials.”Jez Hall
Given that PB is most impactful when done at scale, the work in 2022 for Shared Future in promoting PB, and also what they are trying to do in Scotland by re-launching PB post-COVID, is to suggest ways to make the transition from PB grant-making to consider those larger ‘mainstream’ budgets. We think the ideal situation is having both. But to do so requires careful planning of how and why they interact, as well as communicating what is the responsibility of the council, and what communities could better do themselves!
And perhaps PB practitioners such as ourselves can guide authorities on how best to sequence public engagement across the budget-setting year, so that citizens can flow naturally between ‘mainstream’ and ‘grant making’ PB. Without overloading them, we can unleash the energy and positivity which comes with PB grant making and influence those larger budgets, closing a yawning gap between conversations in the community and in the town hall.
Doing with, not to
Working out how the community is going to become involved in designing the PB process (and especially members of the community one or more steps away from organised groups) is probably the most crucial way that PB can become really empowering. In the mantra of the ‘social model’ of coproduction — we need to ‘do with, not to’.
We know that our democracy is not working as most of us would like. There is plenty of evidence that PB can be impactful. The trick is persuading the reasonable doubters to compare PB against reality, and not perfection. Because in reality, we need more clarity on exactly what influence communities and citizens have to shape public services and even to allocate COVID recovery or levelling-up funds.
Will 2022 become the year PB re-emerges?
From the number of inquiries we have recently received from across the UK we believe so. And of course PB processes are still taking place. The recently updated World Atlas of PB shows how common it has become across the globe. There is long experience of doing it here too. But letting go is hard to do.
Jez Hall is Shared Future’s lead on business development and partnerships, and leads our participatory budgeting services. He also coordinates PB Partners, a team of participatory budgeting experts, and is on the steering group for the UK PB Network and the advisory board of the North American PB Project.