Monthly Archives: May 2013

Generating expectations – A preview of Participatory Budgeting

Laura Sillanpää blogs about the Institute’s participatory budgeting research in the making.

The Finnish Institute commenced a research on participatory budgeting earlier this year. The purpose of the research is to examine the experiences of participatory budgeting in the United Kingdom and to contribute to the timely discussion on local democracy, public participation and service delivery in the context of Finnish society in particular. The purpose of this blog entry is to briefly explain readers what has been done until now and give a small peek on what interviewees of selected projects have revealed about participatory budgeting in the UK.

The ways in which participatory budgeting is implemented vary depending on the local context. Therefore the projects studied for this research easily fall into more than just one type of participatory budgeting.

Our initial objective was to find different implementations of participatory budgeting in as geographically representative a manner as possible. Tight schedules and changes to local government personnel, however, caused some difficulties with reaching representatives of projects. It also became evident that most of the participatory budgeting processes carried out in the UK with enough easily accessible information belonged to the community grants type. This led for the focus of the research to be on projects that are about allocating funds to local organisations and community groups.

Ultimately there were six projects under scrutiny. Three of the projects took place in the north of England, one in the Midlands and two in the south of England. As mentioned, most of the projects were community grants type processes but there were also a few that could be said to belong to the pooled budgets group. One project began as a top slicing project but was soon transformed into a community grants process. Three projects addressed a certain area of service, these being children and young people, health and community safety.

Seven representatives of the above-mentioned projects were interviewed: one from each with the exception of one project in the case of which two people were interviewed. Three interviews took place face-to-face, two over the phone and two via email. This all happened in the course of March–April.

Expectations of Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting is commonly seen to generate many positive outcomes for communities, which also give rise to specific expectations.  The most often stated objectives according to literature are as follows:

  1. enhanced democracy and participation at the local level by engaging residents and enabling them to have a say
  2. reduced neighbourhood deprivation and enhanced social cohesion
  3. better, more transparent governance
  4. improved service delivery and enhanced quality of life in the communities especially during times of public budget cuts.

The reasons behind implementing participatory budgeting given by the interviewees reflect quite well the general, above-mentioned objectives. Involving and empowering local residents and communities and enhancing local democracy were clearly the most often mentioned. Other objectives were familiarising people with authorities and their work – especially with the difficulties of decision-making – and encouraging further engagement of local residents in other areas as well.

With time, as participatory budgeting processes become well established, the objectives seem to become more refined, as authorities already know what to expect. Therefore, as one interviewee put it, participatory budgeting for them has more of a signalling function and is less about pure service delivery – it gives the authorities an idea on what issues local residents consider important and what they’re interested in doing. And, according to preliminary analysis of the interviews, this seems to be one of the most valuable outcomes of participatory budgeting in general.

The final report of our research will be published later in June/July.

Discussion event on 30 May 2013: Future of Freedom of Information? Government Transparency and its Unintended Consequences

The Finnish Institute together with Embassy of Finland and Birkbeck University will host a discussion event on freedom of information and open data on Thursday 30 May at the residence of the Finnish Ambassador, HE Pekka Huhtaniemi.

The event consists of two parts: we will start off with a talk by Dr Tero Erkkilä, assistant professor in the Department of Political and Economic studies at the University of Helsinki, followed by a comment from Dr Ben Worthy, lecturer in politics at the Birkbeck University. Dr Erkkilä’s talk will be based on his new book “Government Transparency: Impacts and Unintended Consequences” (Palgrave Macmillan 2012).

In the second part, we will have a panel discussion with plenty of time for questions from the floor. Christopher Cook from the Financial Times, Paul Gibbons (Information Compliance Manager at SOAS & creator of the FoI Man blog) and Dr Gesche Schmid (Programme Manager at Local Government Association) have kindly agreed to join the panel.

The event is open for everyone interested, so feel free to share the invitation but please do RSVP to tiina.heinila(at)formin.fi in advance if you’d like to attend.

Date and time: Thursday 30 May 2013, 2pm-6pm
Location: Finnish ambassador’s residence, 14 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QP

Programme: 
14.00-14.30    Registration
14.30-14.45     Introductions
14.45-15.15      Dr Tero Erkkilä
15.15-15.45      Dr Ben Worthy
15.45-16.00     Coffee
16.00-17.00    Panel and Q&A
17.00-18.00    Drinks and canapés

***

Transparency has recently become one of the defining concepts in public administration. Arguably transparency is now globally seen as a key part of democratic governance, and it has gained an increasingly significant status in debate over government and institutional design.

This event aims at identifying why and how transparency has become such a topical concept and how has it reacted with the rapid digital development. The main questions that will be asked are as follows:

  • What are the impacts of freedom of information and digital transparency?
  • What are the possible unintended consequences of transparency especially in performance management?
  • What is the state of government transparency in Finland and in the UK today?
  • What is the future of government transparency in an increasingly digital society?
  • How should the freedom of information law be amended in order to fully satisfy citizens’ right to information?

Post-industrialised societies have recently taken a form where many key infrastructures are increasingly based on digital data and where the friction in creating and disseminating information has rapidly vanished. The amount of information available has increased exponentially and the relationship between governments and citizens in this data society has arguably changed in terms of information creation and use.

In addition to the amount of information, also the diversity of information types has increased exponentially. In the digital age information can refer to anything from genes to geodata and from literature to source code. The questions of fair access to information and universal right to use information are topical societal challenges that remain unsolved. Moreover, research results indicate towards a vast economic potential in the free reuse of public sector information.

One of the key questions for contemporary information societies, however, is to distinguish between open data’s potential for growth and innovation in one hand, and for democracy in the other. What also needs to be addressed is the potential risk of undermining freedom of information if open data policies prematurely replace reactive freedom of information laws. We need to be aware of the potential ambiguity of government transparency: does increased “transparency” in fact increase democratic accountability or merely administrative efficiency.

The event is targeted at a high-level audience consisting of policy-makers, journalists, civil servants, academics and public policy enthusiasts.

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