Guest blog: making the most of limited resources

Ruth_Jackson_2011_50pxThis is a guest post by Ruth Jackson. Ruth is the Information and Research Officer for the Participatory Budgeting, a project of the charity Church Action on Poverty. The unit promotes and supports the implementation of Participatory Budgeting in the UK.  You can find out more by following Participatory Budgeting on twitter.

There actually is some money, if you know where to look

There’s no money.  The message is everywhere.  And we seem to accept that there isn’t any.  But whilst the public sector is facing some very difficult decisions over spending, there you just have to know where to look.

There are pots of money – and the great thing about most of them, is they’re actually more sustainable and around to stay for longer than some money has been in the past.  Which enables longer term planning and more sustainable processes.  These pots include the Community Infrastructure Levy and New Homes Bonus for starters. Then there’s the re-organising of money that’s going on in community and neighbourhood budgeting.

Involving people in making spending decisions is crucial

Still, there isn’t as much money as there may have been in the past, so involving people in making decisions on how that money is spent is even more crucial.  Tapping into the knowledge and experience in communities is key to delivering the most needed and effective services.

Plus, people are less likely to be very upset if they’re involved in a meaningful way.  It’s not about shirking responsibility, but sharing it: co-production essentially.

So here at the PB Unit, we are arguing the case for communities to be more involved in how that money is spent.  In fact, the Government encourages the involvement of communities in this way and communities will know best the impact and needs of new local developments. If the Government is serious about devolving power to communities – power is money.  And that’s where participatory budgeting is most relevant.

What is participatory budgeting (PB)?

Participatory budgeting (PB) started in the 1980s in Brazil following the reinstatement of democracy.  Local authorities said there wasn’t any money for the poorest areas, to build roads, provide sanitation and housing.  Bit by bit, civil society chipped away at that assumption. Starting with quite small amounts of money for people in communities to decide on how it was spent, the process eventually proved itself and they gained more – up to 18% of the municipal budget.

In the UK, PB has mostly been initiated by councils deciding to implement it.  But we have a new campaign to turn that on its head and really push power to communities called The People’s Budget .

It’s about community groups coming together in an area to lobby their local public sector for meaningful involvement in how budgets are spent and how the community, civil society and public sector can all work together to create strong communities. It’s about working together.  And at the core of that is a need to understand how money is spent, where the gaps are, and to have a say in how it could be spent and where other resources could be obtained from.

How has it worked in the UK?

large_PBphoto_0In Eastfield, Scarborough, the police and council identified some money for a PB process and set up a steering group with a mix ofresidents, councillors and officers.  However, the residents were fed up of previous ‘consultations’ and ‘engagements’ that were seemingly used to legitimise decisions, that were really made by officers and councillors.

Through a process of mediation, the entire process was turned on its head and the steering group became resident-focused and resident-led, with only technical support from officers.  The residents worked with local community groups to design the process and come up with issues and projects to put forward for funding.

Being resident led meant that the process was highly successful and had far more buy-in than it would have originally. Because of its success the council then rolled it out to other areas in the borough.  Community groups were at the heart of this process as many of the resident representatives were from active community groups. By working together they got the process they wanted, and created far greater community ownership and support.

Join the campaign

So here at the PB Unit, we say, if you want to be a part of what’s happening in communities, if you want to build sustainability and capacity, then join us.  Join the campaign, get involved, and lobby for more openness, more transparency, more working together and more say over how money is spent.

Short film explaining the outcomes from a participatory budgeting project in Scunthorpe:

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