Participatory budgeting and local open data: the Finnish Institute looks into ways of enhancing local democracy

Laura Sillanpää from the Finnish Institute in London blogs about the Institute’s newest project on participatory budgeting as a way to enhance local democracy.

Local authorities have traditionally played an essential role in local democracy. However, societal and structural changes and degenerating dependency ratio are creating new and challenging circumstances for local government in Finland and the UK alike. Therefore, new ideas and innovations are needed in order to safeguard the production of local public services and to enhance democratic citizen participation.

Recent British local democracy initiatives that have utilised digital city services, communal open data and participatory budgeting have been recognised by the Finnish Institute as useful examples when discussing the future of Finnish society and societal discourse.

Participatory budgeting (PB) is not particularly new initiative: it was established as a method of communal decision making in Brazil already in the late 1980s. It was first implemented in Porto Alegre from where it has since spread all over the world. The rapidly diminishing friction in creating and sharing information further increases its potential. Nowadays there are several models and ways to utilise PB at the local government level.

Participatory budgeting is generally seen as a way to enhance civic participation by including local people in the decision making of a defined public budget. It is especially topical today as governments face serious problems with rising expenditures and declining public funding as well as ever decreasing voting activity of citizens which is symptomatic of a broader development of citizens alienating from societal decision-making and participation. In other words, new and innovative measures are needed to ensure the democratic participation of all members of society.

The Finnish Institute will conduct a research on participatory budgeting in spring 2013. The purpose of the report is to evaluate the experiences of PB as a way to enhance local democracy and the service delivery in the United Kingdom. The ultimate goal is to evaluate how this information could be further exploited in the context of Finnish society and local government.

The research involves an investigation on PB projects carried out in the UK focusing especially on the required resources, experiences of participants, possible challenges and both positive and negative outcomes of the projects. The purpose is to explore critically the actual outcomes of PB projects by evaluating the input-output relationships. In other words, to examine and compare the resources invested and the experiences and gains that local governments and citizens were ultimately left with.

An important element of the enquiry is to find out what information citizens need in order to make informed decisions about local budgets. Open data in particular is believed to increase the transparency of government and decision-making as well as hoped to be one answer for the requirements of increased efficiency of service production.

With this report the Institute wishes to contribute to the increasingly important discussion on local democracy, public participation and service delivery. However, our primary goal is to be a catalyst for further, more concise discussion within the Finnish society. In the end of the day it is up to the Finnish society with its decision makers, civil servants, researchers, journalists, third sector actors and citizens themselves to carry it on.

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