The possibility of financing local projects within the framework of participatory budgets, which was introduced in Ukraine several years ago, is becoming increasingly popular.
The Ukrainians are modelling their policies in this area on solutions already existing in Poland. They are also introducing their own innovations. The experimental introduction of the citizens’ participatory budget in Ukraine began in 2015 in the city of Lutsk. The local authorities introduced a proprietary program entitled “Citizens’ Initiatives Competition.” Meanwhile, three other cities serving as regional capitals — Cherkasy, Poltava and Chernihiv — launched pilot programs based on solutions used in other countries. The new idea soon started to gain popularity. Today, participatory budgets are already used in all the 24 cities serving as the regional capitals (except for Simferopol and Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea).
The popularity of this solution is best demonstrated by the data from online platforms that enable citizens to vote on the selected budget projects. There are now more than 50 local government units on the web portal launched by the Ukrainian non-governmental organization SocialBoost. A similar platform, built with the funds provided by the Swiss government, hosts further 30 local government units. However, many Ukrainian local government units organize the process of voting on the participatory budget projects on their own. As a result, they are not included in any official or unofficial statistics.
Participatory budgets are being introduced by big cities and small towns. Last year such a program was launched, among others, in the port city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea, which has half a million residents. This year, the group of local government units with a participatory budget was joined, among others, by the Krasnosilka municipality in the Odessa Oblast, which has 12,000 residents living in seven villages.
The Polish model
The authorities of the city of Vinnytsia in the historical region of Podolia have stated that their study visits to Poland were a source of inspiration for the introduction of a participatory budget. As a result, the dominant model of participatory budgets in Ukraine is known as the “Polish model”, as it is similar to the system used in Poland. Its key assumptions are the following:
- the local authorities are obliged to implement all the projects selected by the residents during the voting process;
- the procedures related to the adoption and implementation of the participatory budget are fully transparent;
- the projects must correspond to the strategic development plan of a given territorial unit and must fall within its authority;
- the project implementation cost may not exceed the amount originally allocated to it;
- the implementation of the project is tied to the territory of a given territorial unit;
- the process of selection and implementation of projects is cyclical and takes place every year;
- the municipal utility companies are the contractor for all the works associated with the implementation of the project.
In this way, the participants in the project, including both local authorities and residents, learn how to be responsible with public money.
The Ukrainian law specifies in detail what types of projects can be financed under a citizens’ participatory budget. According to the national budget code, these are mainly socio-economic, cultural and transportation projects. Meanwhile, projects in the field of health care cannot be financed in this way, because the state budget is responsible for them. The authors of the projects sometimes manage to circumvent this prohibition, as evidenced by the project for the replacement of windows in a local clinic, submitted in the town of Pokrov in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast which only has several thousand inhabitants.
How does it work?
In January 2018, the “Committee of Voters of Ukraine” published a report on the functioning of the participatory budgets in the cities serving as regional capitals. The conducted analyses indicate that the minimum amount of the participatory budget is no less than 1 per cent of the given city’s general budget. Most of the studied cities apply a division into small and large projects. On average, small projects receive amounts between UAH200,000 and UAH250,000 (USD7,926-9,907), while amounts from UAH250,000 to UAH1m (USD9,907-39,628) are allocated for large projects. The largest Ukrainian cities, Kiev and Dnipro, allowed the financing of projects whose cost estimates exceed the size of the participatory budget set by the city and are subsidized from the city’s general budget, provided that the author of the project separately indicates these “surplus” elements.
In the majority of cases, the funds for the implementation of the participatory budget are allocated in the city budget annually, but there are examples of programs that were only adopted for a specified period of time. According to the authors of the report, this creates a risk that the participatory budgets in those places will disappear once the duration of the programs runs out. Programs adopted for a specified period of time are being implemented in Dnipro, Kharkiv, Poltava, Sievierodonetsk and Cherkasy.
In most of the Ukrainian cities, the authors of the projects and the voters have to be at least 16 years old, but in Nikolaev this limit is only 14 years of age, while in Odessa, Cherkasy, Dnipro, Zhytomyr, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lutsk, Khmelnytsky and Kharkiv it is 18 years old. In Odessa and Kharkiv projects can be submitted not only by residents, but also by civic organizations and companies. In Kharkiv, 40 per cent of the funds in the participatory budget were allocated for civic organizations. The Committee of Voters of Ukraine stated that this leads to an absurd situation in which projects are being submitted by political parties and even municipal companies. As a result, the idea behind the citizens’ participatory budget is lost.
In 2017, a total of 2,479 projects were submitted in the capital cities of the Ukrainian regions, and 401 projects, which received a total 513,000 votes, were selected for implementation.
The benefits and challenges of participatory budgets
Irina Sotnik from the Sumy State University in north-eastern Ukraine examined the effectiveness of participatory budgets in Ukraine. In the case of Sumy, such a budget was introduced in 2016. A project proposal can be submitted by any resident who is at least 16 years old. However, a given author can only submit one project, which should include the main idea and a detailed breakdown of the expenditures associated with its implementation. The author also has to collect the appropriate number of signatures in support of their idea and then obtain a positive opinion from representatives of the city council or an expert panel appointed by the council. The residents then participate in the final vote and the selected projects are implemented.
The largest group among the submitted projects are those from the categories of “healthy way of living” and “city aesthetics”. According to the author of the study, these issues matter the most to the general population, but it could also be assumed that people interested in these issues are generally more active as residents. This is especially the case if we consider that one year after the introduction of the participatory budget, as part of a cost reduction effort, the authorities in Sumy reduced the number of points where people can vote using traditional paper cards from 41 to just 9. They decided to rely more heavily on online voting, which excluded an entire group of elderly people. The scientist noted that due to specific Ukrainian social conditions, on the one hand, paper voting discourages many people, and on the other hand, electronic voting excludes elderly people and people with low incomes.
Sotnik also analyzed the benefits and the challenges associated with the introduction of a participatory budget. In her opinion, the benefits include the increase in the level of residents’ social involvement, the transparency of the financial decision-making process, the higher levels of residents’ confidence in local authorities, the reduction of corruption at the local level, the rational use of public funds allocated for project implementation, the increased civic awareness, the development of partner relations between local authorities and inhabitants and, consequently, the possibility of avoiding social conflicts at local level.
The main challenges include the technical problems related to voting, the necessity of finding additional funds for the financing of the participatory budget and employing new officials to handle it, the risk that groups of people associated with applicants will dominate the project selection process, the need to match the projects with the investments implemented by the local government, the lack of experience in the conduct of such projects both on the side of the authorities and the residents, and the additional work required on the part of the officials.
One novelty is the idea of a nationwide participatory budget, which was introduced this year in Ukraine. As part of the funds for regional development from the 2019 central budget, an amount of UAH 500 million was allocated for the financing of projects that will be selected in a vote by residents from the entire country.
According to Oleksiy Kovalenko from the Civil Society Development Forum, this is a good solution, because it enables the implementation of projects chosen by the citizens, whose scope reaches beyond the boundaries of local government units, and which could not be implemented within the framework of traditional participatory budgets. It also provides an opportunity for the implementation of projects whose cost exceeds the capacity of the local authorities. “This will strengthen the horizontal relationships between the local communities,” believes Kovalenko. However, for the time being, this innovation remains in the sphere of plans, as no regulations have been issued concerning the submission of projects and the voting procedure.