Participatory Budgeting

Every few years, we vote at an election and cross our fingers that the elected representative will keep their promises. In between elections, we have very little control over the people who run our government.

In most representative democracies, big decisions about policies and budget priorities are made by a small group of elected representatives from whichever political party is in the majority. The decision to fund one project and not another is often influenced by political power-games, corporate lobbyists, and the desire for media headlines, rather than community needs and preferences.

But there is another way.

To see the 2016 list of funded projects

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Around the world, new initiatives are showing how the public can participate more actively in all types of policy development, including budget planning. For example, in 2014, Noosa Shire Council established a citizen’s jury to make recommendations about management of the Noosa River. Also in 2014, the City of Melbourne—a local government with an annual budget close to $400 million— implemented a citizen’s jury to make recommendations about their 10 Year Financial Plan. This type of public participation has been trialled in many Australian local governments, including Darebin City Council (VIC), Penrith City Council (NSW) and City of Greater Bendigo (VIC), and much more widely overseas.

We want to see Brisbane City Council adopt participatory budgeting strategies to give ordinary residents a direct say in how its $3 billion budget is spent. Unfortunately, as a single Greens councillor, I don’t have much direct influence over council’s annual budget. However, I do have control over a $400 000 discretionary budget for footpaths, park benches and minor landscaping here in the Gabba Ward. We would like to use this budget to trial participatory budgeting here in Brisbane.

Normally, city councillors allocate their discretionary budget however they see fit. They take suggestions from residents but then make up their own mind about what projects to prioritise. I would prefer to democratise this process.

Would you prefer more public seating? Or a basketball court in the local park? The funds available are small – but this represents a great opportunity to test new ways of involving the community in council decision-making. Finding out what works, and what you value about these processes, will help us refine the system and will serve as a useful example to show the other city councillors what’s possible.

Here’s how our trial system is going to work…

Over the next few weeks, residents of the Gabba Ward will suggest project ideas via public meetings and/or our website. (People who don’t live inside the ward but who have a strong interest in the area can also opt in) As these suggestions flow in, we will ask Brisbane City Council to provide approximate costs for each Eligible project. Some Suggested Projects won’t be feasible (either because they’re far too expensive, or because we’re not allowed to spend this budget on that kind of infrastructure).

Residents will be able to debate and discuss spending priorities, and present arguments for and against each project idea.

We’ll stop accepting new Suggested Projects in early August, and will then run a two-week voting process where every resident of the Gabba Ward has a direct vote on which projects are prioritised. The final results will be announced in late August or early September.

The participatory budgeting website will go live in a couple of weeks and I’ll be sure to post up about it and email everyone on my mailing list. The total discretionary budget is a little over $400 000 per year, but for this first trial year, we’ll allocate $350 000 through the participatory budgeting process and keep a bit in reserve just in case something important gets overlooked.

This budget is strictly for footpaths and equipment in public parks. It’s not enough money to spend on road infrastructure or pedestrian crossings (apparently a single set of traffic lights can cost council as much as half a million dollars) – any project that requires road closures or resurfacing bitumen becomes significantly more expensive.

It’s important to emphasise that this participatory budgeting process won’t be perfect. We won’t be able to reach all 30 000 Gabba Ward residents, and some people will miss out on having their voices heard. But it’s still a more democratic process than a city councillor simply making up their own mind based on conversations with the comparatively small number of constituents who proactively contact them. We will learn from this trial and use it to fine-tune a system that gives all residents more of a say in the future of their city.

If you don’t live in the Gabba Ward and you’re disappointed that you won’t get a vote, contact your own local councillor’s office and ask them to trial participatory budgeting. Or write to the Lord Mayor and ask him to use participatory budgeting to allocate part of Brisbane City Council’s $3 billion annual budget.

$350 000 sounds like a lot of money, but it doesn’t go as far as you might expect. Below are some very rough costs of basic infrastructure that this budget can be spent on. The challenge is to identify locations that yield maximum value for money. We can’t put a bench on every street corner, but if we pick key intersections we can create pocket parks and meeting places that will materially improve people’s lives.

Please note, these costs are very rough, and assume flat terrain/minimal interference from underwater pipes/cables.

 

  • Footpath (on level ground) – $180 per square metre
  • Standard Park Shelter (4m x 4m shelter, 5m x 5m slab) – $12500
  • Picnic Table – $4500
  • Basic Park Bench – $2000
  • Electric Barbeques (including plumbing and power) – $30 000
  • Drinking Fountain (if mains water connection is close by) $5000
  • Basic Swing Set – $1500 – $6000
  • Very Basic Playground (including under-surfacing) – $50 000
  • Full-sized Basketball Court – $130 000
  • Basketball Half Court – $45 000
  • Toilet Block $125 000 – $250 000
  • Dog Off-Leash Fence (on level ground) – $100 per lineal metre
  • Outdoor ping pong table $5000 to $10 000
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The participatory budgeting process will take place online and at a series of community forums over the next month. The first part of the process is generating and collecting ideas from residents about what they would like to see the budget spent on. The best way to either find out more information or get involved is to attend a community forum in your area.