Giving people the purse strings will require a leap of faith

20161020_094807_resizedWHEN John Lennon sang Power to the People he was a little short on detail. Yes, it’s a stirring, sing-along number, but what kind of power? Which people? And did he have any sort of evaluation framework in mind?

Pre- and post-indyref1 there has been much talk of community empowerment, and of building a new Scotland from the grassroots up. The aim of many independence advocates is not simply to shift power from Westminster to Holyrood, but to take things further and devolve local decision-making to local people.

So how exactly might this work? Some potential answers are being provided this week at a two-day conference on participatory budgeting (PB) taking place in Edinburgh. The basic principles of PB are simple: give a community some cash and let those who live there decide how it should be spent. After all, the theory goes, local people know best what their areas need – so why not give them control of the purse strings?

The basic principles of PB are simple: give a community some cash and let those who live there decide how it should be spent

This isn’t a new idea – they’ve been at it since the 1980s in Brazil, they’ve gone wild for it in Paris in the last couple of years, and already in Scotland there have been more than 50 PB exercises, according to a new review by researchers from What Works Scotland and Glasgow Centre for Population Health. Glasgow alone has staged 21, dishing out more than £200,000 to nearly 120 projects in the space of a month.

So have these “first generation” forays into PB been a success? Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say. Part of the problem with trying to review grassroots activities is the very fact that no central co-ordinator is involved from the start. If no-one sets out what data should be gathered and no-one determines how and when impact should be measured, evaluation will prove difficult.

Some might wonder why this matters – surely if people have turned up and voted then the empowerment aim of PB has been achieved? Well, that depends. It depends on factors like how many people turned up, what options they had to choose from, how they came to their decisions and whether they did, in fact, feel empowered by the process. It also depends on your aims – do you want to generate “quick wins” or long-term improvements? Is it about improving communities, empowering citizens, or both?

The headline findings look great … dig a little deeper and the picture isn’t quite so impressive

We do have some useful numbers from Glasgow Community Planning Partnership, which carried out an evaluation of those 21 forays into PB. The headline findings look great: more than 1000 people attended the events, and double that number viewed information online. However, dig a little deeper and the picture isn’t quite so impressive. Of those 1000 attendees only about 600 were voters, and eight council wards attracted fewer than 20. A cynical person might wonder how many of those voters had a direct connection to one of the projects competing for funding.

These low turnouts might suggest there’s a lack of appetite for PB, but we should be cautious about reading too much into them. The events in Glasgow were hastily arranged and not widely advertised, and public awareness of PB in Scotland remains low. The real test will come when these exercises are repeated – if those who came first time around found the experience worthwhile, they’ll not only come back but bring along their friends and neighbours. Low attendance at planning consultations and community council meetings may suggest people can’t be bothered, but could equally indicate they are savvy enough to know the difference between lip service and empowerment. Oliver Escobar of the University of Edinburgh rejects what he calls the “myth of apathy”, pointing out that people have little incentive to participate when they know the real power remains in the hands of elites.

The events in Glasgow were hastily arranged and not widely advertised, and public awareness of PB in Scotland remains low

With the notable exception of the Western Isles, which dedicated half a million pounds to a PB exercise that designed a new public transport system, the sums allocated to date have been small. If the pots were bigger, more people might feel that getting involved was a worthwhile investment of their time. There’s a leap of faith required here – if you build it, will they come?

It may be that the Scottish Government needs to go hard or go home when it comes to PB. The only way to truly test how committed ordinary Scots are to direct democracy is to give them charge of significant budgets, widely publicise the corresponding decision-making exercises and, crucially, accept the outcomes without qualification. This will cost money – it’s not just a matter of slicing chunks off council budgets and hoping for the best. Doing PB properly means supporting groups to make applications and to publicise their bids, as well as facilitating the voting itself. Ideally PB events should be scheduled to suit the community, not the 9-to-5 of local government officials, and should offer time and space for dialogue and deliberation – something the review identifies as lacking in the first-generation events.

It may be that the Scottish Government needs to go hard or go home when it comes to PB

At a time when politicians, bureaucrats and experts are under siege from Brexiteers and Trumpers alike, elected members and civil servants could be forgiven for digging in their heels and defending their role as knowledgeable, experienced and competent decision-makers. But they should see PB as an opportunity, not a threat; as complementing their work, not undermining it. Above all it’s a question of trust – do the people really know best?

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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