What is Participatory Budgeting?

Through Participatory Budgeting(PB) citizens make decisions over how public budgets are spent. PB has been rapidly growing worldwide and operates at many different scales, from very small budgets within towns or neighbourhoods, to multi-million pound citywide processes.

Participatory Budgeting enables local people to deliberate, propose projects and make decisions that affect their lives in a democratic way. These decisions can be within local neighbourhoods and communities, or across a whole Local Authority area.

PB to be recognised as an effective way to:

  • Address inequalities in service provision and resource allocation
  • Engage and empower citizens through deliberation on public investment
  • Stimulate co-production, trust and responsibility between citizens and government

It is a flexible, values led method for elevating your community engagement. There is no one-size fits all approach. At the local level it can operate as a form of participatory grant making, where local people decide which projects receive funding. Or it can be used to address specific topics, such as community safety, health and well-being or climate change. The real power of PB is when it’s scaled up to consider a whole local budget, with significant resources devolved to citizens. 

How has it been used?

There are two main ways that people experience PB:

Firstly, as a mechanism for deciding on where grant funding goes in their community. This happens at events where everyone who wants to can vote for projects they want to see funded. PB at this scale can range from budgets of £1,000 to £50,000.

More usually, and especially internationally, PB considers what might be called ‘mainstream’ core funding or investments made by public bodies. The money generally stays within the body holding the funds, but it is spent on things local people want through a public vote. That could be investment in parks, housing or other capital projects. Or it could be on new services, or extended existing services. PB at this scale might be anywhere from £250,000 to £5 million pounds. 

Where does it take place?

Participation could be at face to face events or it could be partly or wholly online. With over 30,000 experiences across the world there are many different approaches used by public bodies.

PB can also operate on themes or within a specific community. For example, schools can use PB as part of their citizenship education programmes. Police forces can use PB to redistribute money seized from criminals. Health authorities have used PB to promote preventative health initiatives. Arts companies can commission the work their audiences want to see using PB. Every budget can be more participatory.

A values led approach to budget engagement

As there is no one model of PB it can be hard to know that the participants’ opinions and votes have been heard or acted upon. This means many places have approved specific rules, guidelines and charters, or other accountability mechanisms to ensure PB is done properly. Examples include the Scottish PB Charter, or the Values, Principles and Standards for PB developed in England some year ago.

It is important to involve citizens at many points in the process. Not just at the stage of voting. We generally think about PB as a repeating cycle, with each stage involving citizens, though perhaps in different ways.

How can you tell it is Participatory Budgeting?

“If it feels like we’ve decided, it’s PB. If it feels like someone else has decided, it’s not.”

What are its successes?

PB has been shown to build trust between citizens and lead to more effective public services. In order to do this it must continue, and work at scale. Small scale PB is valuable for giving citizens a taste of democratic decision making. 

Grant making PB can be fun, engaging and the results are immediate. People see their participation leads to change, and that is valuable in encouraging them to participate in other ways in their community. Projects bidding for funding meet others who are seeking to make positive things happen and can use it to promote their ideas beyond the PB event.

At a larger scale PB has been shown to encourage people to pay more taxes, trust political leaders, or turn out to vote. It has led to reduced inequalities between communities, and brought transparency and accountability over public expenditure. It is promoted by international bodies as a meaningful democratic innovation that gets to the heart of the social contract between citizens and their governments

The Participatory Budgeting Youth Accelerator Project. More information here.

Does PB always work?

If well designed and there is strong political commitment behind it the results can be impressive. However there are always risks involved. Most of these can be designed out, and it’s important to ask how well you already engage citizens, or how well they understand how their taxes are being used. Comparing PB against reality, rather than an ideal is fairer.

The main reasons PB might not achieve its potential include:

  • Insufficient preparation, planning and publicity
  • Those holding power being unwilling to let it go
  • Unclear rules, a misunderstanding of what is possible
  • Lack of transparency about the final decision making
  • Not continuing PB for long enough
  • Not at sufficient scale to make a lasting impact

How can Shared Future help?

We have unrivalled expertise within England in designing and supporting PB programmes. Find out more about the services we can offer.

Find out more


Catch up on our latest stories, resources and events

News & Stories

Read our Latest Stories


Read our resources

Events & Workshops

Find out more

Subscribe to our Mailing List

Join the Shared Future community and keep updated on the latest news, activities and our work