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Participatory Budgeting Steps Up

15th November 2017

The announcement from COSLA that 1% of local authority spending is to be allocated through some kind of Participatory Budgeting process heralds a step change in terms of the scale of ambition for this method of allocating public funds - 1% equates to roughly £100m. To date, it's probably fair to say that most activity has centred on the allocation of relatively small pots of funding to local projects. This 1% commitment takes it to another level. What's not yet clear is what that level might look like. There should be some pointers in the mid-term evaluation of recent PB experience.

So far in the Highland Council are Participatory Budgeting has been brought forward by putting relatively small amounts transferred from the local Discretionary Budget towards local votes to give money to local causes. Effectively allowing the public to choose rather than local councillors which groups should receive funds.

By Scottish Government
Copy of the Evaluation Report download at http://www.gov.scot/Publications/2017/11/8658/3

This interim report provides the initial findings and identifies any impact on local communities, local services, and local democracy from local authorities engaged in the process. The extent to which approaches to PB have been formulated and aim to address enduring and underlying inequalities has also been a key focus of the evaluation process.

The original evaluation project was to run from October 2015 to October 2017. In May 2017, a third year was agreed to allow for closer analysis of the implications of lessons to date to inform the proposed expansion of participatory and community budgeting to 1% of local government budgets as set out in the 2016-2017 Scottish Government Programme for Government.

Data is still being generated and analysed, the findings presented here are based on first round interviews with 20 local authorities and more detailed engagement with the six case study authorities. It is not intended to be a definitive analysis as the study is ongoing, but rather offers indicative implications for policy for both the Scottish Government and local authorities, and some considerations for practice development as PB expands in Scotland.

A multi-disciplinary team comprising researchers from the WiSE Research Centre, Glasgow School for Business and Society (Social Sciences, and Risk subject groups); the School for Engineering and Built Environment; and the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health has engaged in a multi-method approach to the evaluation. This has included a series of structured interviews with local authority elected members and officials; members of local communities; and engaged third party organisations. A first round of interviews with local authorities was followed by a second phase of in-depth observation at PB events; and observation (and some participation) in development groups at local and national level. A series of interviews with officers and elected members from 6 case study authorities was conducted up to June 2017.

The team has also attended and observed a range of activities across Scotland. An action research set of community, public bodies and local authority officers has also been established and provides an opportunity for ongoing data collection, reflection and analysis of the implementation and impact of introducing PB. Focus group discussions and the development of an action research set are ongoing activities.

Between October 2015 and June 2017 the team has conducted:

5 interviews with community reps

20 interviews with elected members

2 focus groups

11 participatory budgeting events across 4 local authority areas.

The cases were selected on a range of criteria to ensure a spread of experience in PB, urban and rural mix, varied funding allocations and policy framing. The six selected local authority cases are Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife, Pan Ayrshire (North, South, and East), Western Isles Council, and Aberdeenshire Council.

The ongoing evaluation study reveals a range of approaches in use to date by local authorities and variations in community engagement these activities are producing. Given the activity on the current scale is new and emerging, expectations of the impacts on communities, services, local democracy and pre-existing inequalities have to be realistic. The findings from this evaluation of current activity in Scotland reinforce previous conclusions from comparative European research and studies on Scotland in affirming that there is no one model and that significant variations in format and procedure, as well as in strategic intent are common (Sintomer et al. 2008; Escobar and Harkins, 2015).

After almost three years of investment from the Scottish Government and significant levels of activity by the majority of Scotland's local authorities and a wider range of community based and third sector organisations, efforts to promote and implement PB in Scotland have been vibrant. The extent to which some of this activity is having a transformative impact and is sustainable for local authorities, at least in the way the approaches are currently managed, is however questionable. The extent to which communities, politicians and council officers are engaged and convinced of the purpose and benefits of PB is also mixed.

While evidence of positive impact on the core variables in focus in the evaluation is still limited, other variables are of equal importance at this stage in the development of PB in Scotland. These include the extent to which there is clear and consistent understanding of what is meant and understood by PB; what the strategic objectives and indicators are for local and national government; and what local communities understand and stand to gain by engaging in decision-making on the allocation of resources. To date, the introduction of PB signifies a commitment and investment of time and resource from community applicants and participants as well as on the part of local authorities. Changing the relationship between communities and government at the local and national level means establishing a different contract between citizens and the state. The extent to which this leads to a shift from a transactional relationship (whereby councils provide services or resources in response to expressed needs or direct requests) to a transformational shift in power is a question at the core of developments in PB.

This item is drawn from the Scottish Community Alliance - http://www.scottishcommunityalliance.net

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