Northern Ireland 23rd March 2016

Participatory Budgeting

by Ann Allan

Open Government NI’s second event as part of Imagine! Belfast’s festival of politics and ideas took place in the Mac. Such a pity to see the condition of the building as it is now, covered in scaffolding and looking quite sad but it didn’t deter from our morning, hearing about and practising the concept of Participatory Budgeting (PB).

PB is a process of democratic decision making. This involves ordinary people  getting together and deciding how to allocate part of a public budget. PB has been used in parts of the U.K., particularly in Scotland and other parts of the world but hasn’t reached NI as yet. Jez Hall of UKPB network was our host.

To begin the session we were divided into pairs and into givers and takers. The givers then had to hand over something to the takers. I gave Paul Braithwaite my mobile phone. Felt the panic set in immediately. The givers left the room and on our return we had to ask the right questions to get the phone back from the taker. I failed. The question that was needed was “What will it take to get my phone back”? Lesson? We need to know the questions to ask in order to get what we want. I have tried to precis the main points from Jez’s talk but I would advise that you have a look at the website to get more information.

His main points were:

1.The poor are the best budgeters.

2.We need to get to the bottom of how our ( public ) money is spent.

3.We have a power structure with all the money at the top.

4.We have lost our respect for politicians. We feel disconnected from them.

5. Human beings know if they cooperate and volunteer they can create a good future.

6.To be a good citizen is to stop playing the negative game.

7.If we start working towards the same goals we can get there faster.

8. Real leadership means giving away power ( to citizens).

9.We need to know what questions to ask to get what we want.

10.Democracy is a bit like parenting.

11.There is a lack of clear and simple council budget information available to citizens of NI.

His final point was that PB is a powerful tool for building social capital and community cohesion. It empowers citizens to decide how local money is spent. There followed an enjoyable exercise where we were assigned imaginary areas of Belfast and each person at each table took on the role of a citizen. My area was Low Hill which was very close to the


demographics of Ballyhackamore. We then had to make a case for spending some of the council’s budget on projects that would improve the area and would be agreed by the citizens in that area. We did come to a consensus but I’m not sure how this would work in the more divided areas of the city.

Another successful event.