Money, bees and Poles – the pros and cons of participatory budgets

Participatory budgets seem to offer only benefits: citizens gain actual influence on their towns or districts, local authorities get to cooperate with them closer and many interesting civil projects have a chance to become real. No wonder such budgets have gained popularity all over the world – and recently also in Poland. But already, at the very beginning, the Polish civic budgets need some treatment. It is high time we considered where exactly we are going with this.

Photo: Porozumienie Ruchów Miejskich (ruchymiejskie.pl)


It would seem that 2014 is a good year for civil participation in Poland. The topic has never been so widely discussed; in the autumn local elections will be held, and next year presidential and parliamentary elections. In such circumstances the authorities, especially local ones, often remind themselves of closer cooperation with citizens and not coincidentally become much more open to dialogue. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the most direct manifestation of such participation – i.e. civil budgets – is taking more and more cities by storm. The question is how effective this tool is and whether it makes sense to reach for it.

Officially it is a success; local governments are willing to share some of their power, while citizens declare that they want the power. However, they do it with little enthusiasm and their actual ability to change things is quite limited. Participation, as it is carried out currently in Poland, still needs a lot of work.

Participatory budgets all over the world

According the Polish Ministry of Administration and Digitisation, participatory budgets have been implemented in more than 1200 places in the world. The forerunner was the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, which introduced the instrument in 1989. In Europe, similar budgets were introduced at the turn of the century. Although the details of the system differ from place to place, it always boils down to giving the people the right to decide how public money (i.e. their taxes) is spent.  They are given some part of the local budget and decide which projects/needs will be financed with that money.

In Seville (participatory budgeting since 2004) the necessary mechanism was based on the work of volunteers. First, resident representatives collected suggestions from their neighbours, and on this basis volunteers developed proposals. Then a series of public meetings took place, during which various ideas were discussed and representatives were elected to represent the given district in the assembly of the city’s authorities. The final decision on the amount of money earmarked for implementation of the citizens’ proposals was taken by the municipal councillors.

In the Swedish city of Uddevala, some projects to be implemented were proposed by residents aged 13-19 years; young citizens organised a one-day festival of cabaret performances during which public discussions were held on how to improve the appearance and safety of schools and neighbourhoods.

In Poland, the idea of participatory budgets is still young, though it is evolving at an impressive rate. When in October last year I asked the Ministry of Administration and Digitisation about the number of such initiatives in the whole country, the Ministry mentioned about forty of them. Today we know that by February 2014, eighty citizens’ budgets were being implemented in Polish cities. The current statistics present about ninety initiatives of that type. “Poland is a rarity when it comes to the introduction of citizens’ budgets. It’s come to local authorities who reject the idea of participatory budget facing political embarrassment”, Jarosław Makowski, head of the think tank Civic Institute, says.

How it works (or does not)

A participatory budget is a part of the budget of a municipality or a city offered to local residents to decide how to spend it. Citizens can prepare investment projects, and later – when the town officials present to them a list of chosen submitted projects – they vote to select the ones that will actually be implemented. In this way they gain direct influence on part of the public spending in their town. What is interesting is that the projects can be submitted by a small group of people, and sometimes – like in Wrocław – even by one person. The ideas may concern all kinds of issues connected with modernisation or development of urban areas, but only on the municipal grounds. However, if there are almost no limits to citizens’ imaginations, the financial means are rather limited – so popular civic budgets are symbolic as far as the amount of money goes.

For example, in Warsaw, where this instrument was introduced for the first time this year, only 0.5 to 1.1 percent of the district budgets were allocated to participatory budgeting (a total of over 26 million PLN). The city of Toruń allocated 6.5 million PLN (6 percent of property taxes collected two years ago), and Poznań 10 million PLN (0.3 percent of total expenditure). Łódź has one of the biggest participatory budgets in Poland – 40 million PLN (more than 1 percent of total city budget, which is going to be the main rule for city’s participatory budgets in the future), of which 6 million PLN are available for each district, and 10 million PLN for projects implemented citywide.

The main reason is probably the fact that Polish local governments suffer from harsh budgetary limits, imposed on them since the beginning of 2014. Now it is much harder for them to incur a debt for investments. Many cities strive to keep their budgets balanced, and this is often achieved by severe cuts, which also affects new ideas such as participatory budgets. Regardless of the reasoning, the fact is that the money allocated to civic budgets is rather marginal.

What about the projects? Usually citizens propose ideas that are aimed at increasing the quality of everyday life, but not necessarily of much priority for city planners. Thus, for example, this year Łódz launched a free municipal WiFi network. In Sopot one of the winning initiatives this year was the building of a large playground on the beach. In Warsaw the most frequently chosen projects turned out to be construction of bicycle paths as well as huts for bees and other insects. But again, though the citizens propose, it is the city officials who decide what the final list of projects submitted to voting will look like.

Cardinal sins of Polish civic participation

Limited financial means is not the only problem of participatory budgets in Poland. The latest Civic Institute report shows that in Poland only every tenth “citizens’ budget” fulfils the criteria (by definition it should include: meetings and consultations of citizens, clearly defined financial means, the whole area of the town included, a legally binding and cyclical character). “Most budgets were poorly prepared. There were no public consultations held to explain the idea of participation to residents”, Jarosław Makowski points out. When there are no or not enough consultations, the gap between the local authorities and the residents is even more obvious as it is the town hall that decides particular rules (such as the amount of money available, how many people are needed to submit a project, etc.); residents have to adjust themselves and take part in the procedure… or not. It also happens that consultations with citizens, and even meetings if they are held, rarely have any decisive power (rather informational).

Still, due to growing citizen enthusiasm, participatory budgets are being used in more and more towns and cities. The most successful have proved to be the budgets of Dąbrowa Górnicza, Kołobrzeg, Krobia, Międzychód, Puławy, Wałbrzych, Wrocław and – this year – Warsaw. “The remaining 90.7 percent of analysed cases are in fact pseudo-citizen budgets, which, though they imitate participatory budgeting, in fact have little to do with it”, the Civic Institute report says.

According to Jarosław Makowski, the cardinal sin of our politicians is that the budgets are being used as a tool to gain popularity. “One of the mayors posted a list of proposals to be implemented on his private Facebook profile, stating that the project with the highest number of ‘likes’ would win. It is a pure caricature of a citizens’ budget”, Makowski says.

In addition, the budgets are not always adapted to local conditions and needs. “There are no better experts on the city needs than the city’s inhabitants. Because they know the city best. And they are well aware that residents of, for instance, Katowice have different needs from the inhabitants of Sopot. Unfortunately, many local governments order so-called strategies from external companies, which base their work on previously prepared patterns”, the Civic Institute expert indicates.

Most local government officials praise citizens’ budgets, but there are also those who are ambivalent about them. “For a number of years we have operated the so-called village heads’ fund, which supports various villages. But we do not have a citizens’ budget”, Marek Miros, mayor of Gołdap and vice-president of the Union of Polish Cities, says. “I think we should give people real tools, not a dummy. On the one hand, public participation should be expanded. On the other, the municipal councils allocate so little means to participatory activities that you have to wonder what motivations drive them in determining the citizens’ budget”, the local government official adds.

Power for the young

Participatory budgets – despite unfulfilled criteria, mistakes caused by lack of experience and humble funds – are a sign of civil reawakening. It is true that citizens themselves are usually not very keen for power. Some urgent problem may mobilise them to act, but more often they rely on the authorities to do the job and run the town. Yet something is changing – especially as far as aspirations for power among the new generation are concerned. Young people, social workers and activists have begun to consolidate. They have already come to the conclusion that together they can do more. The Urban Movements Agreement was created before the autumn local elections, bringing together organisations and associations from six cities: Warsaw, Poznań, Płock, Gdańsk, Kraków and Toruń. “We are residents of Polish cities. Our only interest is the public interest. We are going to the local elections”, the representatives of the Agreement declare. In this year’s election, however, they are not being given great odds by the experts. “The current generations of young people are not well prepared for such roles, because their way of life from the very beginning was set on a career in the private sector. They do well on the Internet, but lack the competence to take up real social activities”, Rafał Chwedoruk, a political scientist at the University of Warsaw, says.

But it should be noted that at least the young activists have managed to make their presence known, and in a few years’ time they may become a viable competitor for the politicians.

Civic budgets for them may be a good tool to practice democracy.

Tomasz Żółciak

Tomasz Żółciak

is a journalist of the daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna. Specializes in the issues of local authorities, transport and EU funds.