POWER to the people

This crossed my radar today. It seems that the POWER inquiry, with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, has convinced London Borough of Harrow to conduct a form of Participatory Budgeting. This is very exciting for those of us who are into democratic innovations.

PB has really captured the imagination of theorists and practitioners in the field of active citizenship. The idea is that the people set the budget for a given municipality. Pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, (Case Study 5.3 in the PDF) PB has spread to the state level in Brazil, and been transferred successfully to Naples, Italy, and several US municipalities, principally Chicago’s education authorities. And now it’s coming to London.

The Porto Alegre example is cited time and again as an example of the poorest, most needy, most disconnected from government turning out in droves to make change in their lives and their relationship to government.

A caveat should be made that the main reason PB worked so well in Porto Alegre was that the municipal government made very clear that there were only a few specific areas, things which could be realised within one year, where citizens could propose changes.

However, this setting of the boundaries at the beginning, coupled with a commitment to follow through what the assemblies recommended, meant that people felt the process was meaningful. This is the key to any consultative or particpatory exercise: expectations can’t be raised too high, nor can authorities choose to ignore and not follow through. Otherwise disillisionment with the initial process will make any further experimentation impossible: people must trust the process.

I know you’re already an active citizen, dear reader, so why not sign up to help out? They need guinea pigs to pretend to be citizens for a dry-run on October 8th, and then stewards for October 23rd, when the real deal will occur with 300 randomly selected and specially invited* residents of Harrow gathering at Harrow Leisure Centre. Go on, sign up You even get a free lunch.

*Those of you who read Case Study 5.7 in “Beyond the Ballot” will see why sortition and invitation are so much more effective than “open” events, overcoming apathy, making citizens feel wanted, and avoiding the self-selecting middle class “usual suspects” who dominate community life usually, as well as increasing the chances of bringing out “hard to reach” groups, such as the disabled, young and older people, as well as BMEs.

  1. If i lived in London, I’d be up for this. I hopee Sharpener writers who attend either event will do a write-up.

    On a wider note, it’ll be interesting to see how this turns out, whether it becomes a geniune exercise in popular democracy, or a whitewash where the council ignore the Assembly’s wishes.

  2. Jez Hall said:

    Yes, PB is coming to the UK . I’ve been working with a project based in Manchester on this subject. More info on our website: http://www.participatorybudgeting.org.uk.

    Though some have commented that Harrow’s experience can’t be called PB unless it can demonstrate some difference. Against a number of best practise measures it doesn’t always hold up as real PB. But a good start nonetheless.