Reportback: International PB Conference in Berlin

On January 21st and 22nd, Berlin hosted a coming-out party for participatory budgeting in Germany. After years of smaller seminars and local experiments in PB, around 200 politicians, public employees, practitioners, and scholars gathered for an International Conference on Participatory Budgeting Models. They discussed experiences from diverse cities in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and North America, bringing to light many differences in how PB is practiced and understood. Four particularly interesting debates and questions emerged from these discussions, revolving around the roles of vision, deliberation, decision-making, and change.
First, the different experiences had very different visions of the purpose of PB. What kind of world should it help bring about? Most of the Germany experiences were seen as tools for modernization, while the African experiences were more about good governance and the Spanish and UK ones more oriented towards social justice and empowerment. The vision behind the respective PBs has in turn shaped their practice, as described below. Do these diverse visions just represent the rainbow of different approaches PB, or do some of them arc off in fundamentally different directions? PB gained fame around the world largely because of its ability to redistribute resources towards populations with the greatest needs. If social justice is not part of the vision, could this sap the energy and popular support from PB?
Second, the PB processes included very different roles for deliberation. In Germany, there are relatively few face-to-face forums for deliberation, with many PBs allowing citizens to vote online without any deliberation. In Spain, deliberation is often about not only budget projects, but also about the criteria for evaluating these projects. These deeper deliberations aim to steer discussion towards the public interest, by asking people to evaluate projects through the lens of broad public priorities. In Africa, many deliberations consider not only allocations, but also budget revenues, searching for new ways to raise public funds. The processes that emphasize deliberation benefit not only from better spending decisions, but also from citizen learning and capacity-building, and from community-building.
Third, decision-making took many different forms, depending on who decided, about what, and whether these decisions were binding. Many experiences allowed ordinary citizens to decide on allocations, but most of the German ones deferred decision-making to city staff and politicians. In many Spanish cities, citizens could decide not only on budget spending, but also on the rules of the process, criteria for evaluating projects, and grading of projects according to these criteria. These decisions were generally binding, while in Germany the decisions were more often presented as recommendations to the city.
Finally, there were many concerns about change. Some German cities were wary of launching PB before they had found the perfect process, but as several of the international guests advised, the only way to move towards perfection is to start experimenting. PB processes are constantly changing, and many of the most durable ones have incorporated change as a regular part of the process. Every year or every other year, participants evaluate the process and make changes. Change is inherently part of PB and a result of PB – each year it inspires new and better ways of organizing the process. Hopefully the rich discussions in Berlin will encourage more cities to adopt PB, and to continue making the process more democratic, participatory, and empowering.