Local governance can improve their functioning greatly by including people in decision-making
itizen engagement is vital for the proper functioning of societies and democracies. It creates a feedback loop by which citizens and local authorities can identify problems and provide solutions. And thanks to the internet and social media, cities are seeing greater citizen engagement.
Over the past 30 years, participatory institutions have spread around the world. They delegate the authority to make decisions directly to the people and have attracted widespread support.
Elected officials often support people’s participation because it provides them the legitimacy necessary to alter spending patterns, develop new programmes, mobilise citizens, or open murky policymaking processes to greater public scrutiny.
But people’s participation in governance is generally limited to elections at the local level. Often people do not have a say on budget decisions, beyond holding protests, press conferences or picketing before the Assembly, or local bodies. Greater people’s participation can lead to greater perceptions of procedural fairness and support for government.
People in other countries, have more options. A practice called participatory budgeting, which allows citizens the power to determine how government funds are used, was developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in the late 1980s. Residents participated in local and citywide assemblies to help establish spending priorities for a select portion of the city’s spending budget. Larger issues such as taxation, debt service and pensions were specifically excluded.
Since its beginning, participatory budgeting has spread to hundreds of other cities around the world. In general if a local government adopts more citizen input strategies in the budget process, it achieves better outcomes.
Participatory budgeting has had a positive effect in Porto Alegre because people can see that citizen-led projects are coming to fruition. The municipal government has allocated more funds to education and sanitation, while infant mortality has decreased. Municipal facilities have improved for the people of Porto Alegre. Water and sewer connections went up from 75 per cent of households in 1988 to 98 per cent in 1997.
The focus of resources has been in areas with lower income and fewer public services. This signifies that when citizens decide, they are really committed to helping one another.
Not only does participatory budgeting give a voice to citizens, it also creates avenues to hold municipal governments accountable for public spending and to prevent corruption. It makes the government more transparent and leads to trust in elected officials. Another benefit of participatory budgeting is that citizens are educated in the process and acquire information necessary to continue engaging with government.
Although participatory budgeting is yet to gather momentum in India, a shift in spending patterns of Panchayti Raj institutions is visible through Ama Gaon Ama Bikas led by the Chief Minister. It is a good measure towards participatory budgeting in rural local governments as the conversation benefits new capital projects, such as healthcare clinics, schools and roads in poor areas. They produce not just temporary improvement but real, lasting change. The efforts of the government to promote direct participation of citizens in policymaking are justifiable. Participatory programmes will not necessarily produce fundamental change in the short term, but they are a vital part of building better institutions and improving the quality of life of citizens.
Perhaps it is time municipal bodies beginning with Bhubaneswar undertook participatory budgeting at least in a form similar to Ama Gaon Ama Bikas, involving people at the ground level. Deciding the allocation of funds can be a daunting task, especially if resources are limited. However, a citizen determining the budget of a city that is comprised of millions of people appears to be a good initiative. Unfortunately, citizens are not always considered active decision makers in public policy issues. But Bhubaneswar can leapfrog if it begins prioritising citizen participation and engagement in government programmes, including smart city activities.
The writer is an urban management practitioner. He can be reached on Twitter: @piyushrout.