In the hot seat: Paul Nelis of SCDC talks through the need for participatory budgeting to become the norm
I met up with Paul Nelis, Development Manager at the Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC), to get his thoughts on participatory budgeting (PB) in Scotland and what more can be done to ensure PB becomes the new norm. Should PB feature in a future open government action plan and if so, what should the focus be?
Whilst a commitment to PB features in Scotland’s current Open Government Action Plan, progress around PB in Scotland was already well underway before Scotland joined the Open Government Partnership. That progress, in particular the partnership working between government and civil society, demonstrates a way of working that shows what can be achieved when government chooses to be more open.
What would you say participatory budgeting is about?
Participatory budgeting is a way for communities to get involved and find out what is happening in their communities. Whilst it involves only a small pot of money, the actual spinoffs from that are quite incredible, such as learning about what’s happening in their community and what types of activities are taking place. Participatory budgeting for me is a way of increasing democratic participation at its lowest level, increasing infinite knowledge about what’s happening in the community, and a way of building an energy in the community that these events stimulate through allocating small pots of money based on the views of that same community.
SCDC play a pivotal role in mobilising people and communities around participatory budgeting. What sparked the organisation’s interest?
I think for us it’s about community empowerment and seeing communities having the skills, knowledge and access to decision making in their communities. For us, participatory budgeting fell straight into this because it’s a way for people to get involved at all different levels, whether you’re a community group pitching for money or a parent coming along with the kids to see what it’s all about. It’s about community empowerment and community development in the sense that these are groups that have built up their knowledge and capacity to pitch to big crowds. As I said, the spinoffs are huge.
What are the main effects of giving a community control over a budget?
What happens in the participatory budgeting process is that a community group will register their interest and perhaps ask for support to give a pitch. The immediate benefits are that these people are receiving support for this to help build their skills, knowledge and confidence to pitch for a local fund in a very public way.
Once they arrive on the day and they pitch, with all the guts that takes the individuals become more confident. They start of think ‘If we can do this, we can put in an application for X Y or Z.” We see it as a knock on effect, as not all pitches will be successful but it should build up the skills and confidence for people to think ‘We can do more of this’ and take another step on their journey.
The participatory budgeting process is competitive – what impact does this have?
I was recently at a PB event where only four of the 12 organisations pitching could receive money, but those groups that lost were still energised from the process. In fact, there was a council officer in the room who wanted to speak to them about their ideas even though they’d been unsuccessful. It can be a case of where one door closes another one opens, and a good PB process should not only provide money on the day but also provide participants with the opportunity to speak to potential funders about possible alternatives.
It is, however, a competitive process and there are winners and losers. But that’s the nature of decision making and democracy, and when you know it’s not a group of people sitting in a room making decisions but it’s an open and transparent process – which fits into the open government discussions – then it’s much better. The transparency is there for all to see, especially when technology is used such as voting pads. The transparency really lends itself to people accepting the result.
Participatory budgeting is not an entirely new thing in Scotland but it’s gone up a gear or two. What do you see as the big developments in 2017?
As you say, it’s not new in Scotland but it’s been at a very low level. Over the last three years the money that has gone to local authorities has helped, with the Scottish Government allocating around £3m through the Community Choices Fund – that’s been really important.
Obviously, this new development around the 1% of local authority budgets going towards PB has been great. So the actions of the Scottish Government have been really useful. What’s been interesting is the willingness of local authority staff to go into communities on the weekend and bring different budgets together to run these events. What’s needed is continued support from Scottish Government and the goodwill of public bodies.
Are there any drawbacks to PB and can this be changed?
One of the drawbacks is that it’s quite an intensive process for community sector voluntary organisations and public bodies – developing materials, staff time, creating awareness and so on. It takes time, energy and resources to make all of this happen. Of course, it’s great that there’s so much energy, and what keeps people coming back to such an intensive process is that they are energised by it and the positivity from the community coming together. We need to be careful not to lose that energy, but we do need to look at ways to make the process less intensive. We’re trying to do some of that at SCDC by sharing best practise.
Thinking ahead to a future Open Government Action Plan, is there a commitment or action that could support the PB community in Scotland?
From our perspective, one of the things we are keen to see more of is capacity building and support for community organisations to be involved in the PB process. If there was a commitment then it would be helpful to have one around continuing to grow capacity building in Scotland.
There needs to be experts going into communities to explain how PB works, and there needs to be a commitment to resources that are specific to Scotland that underline PB in Scotland. For example, a project that can evaluate what’s worked well, what we’ll do the next time and how we can address equalities more firmly through the PB process.
PB in Scotland is still fragile, and we need the Scottish Government’s continued commitment to core funding. For PB to work and for us to see a reduction in inequalities through the PB process, it can take over 5 years for this to happen and to build capacity year on year.
Thanks to Paul for speaking to Scotland’s Open Government Network. You too can become a member and contribute simply by clicking here — we’d love to see you join in the discussions on our forum! You can also reach me anytime at [email protected].