Important projects still beyond participatory budgets

At least 70 cities and municipalities have already launched their participatory budgets. Their number will grow since they are drivers of popularity and the local elections are scheduled as early as this autumn. Therefore, once again - after a year - we are watching the implementation of the idea of the participatory budget. A review of Internet reports shows that the process of creating participatory budgets has been professionalised by city authorities.

It is worth mentioning that since the last big publication on participatory budgets websites dedicated to such budgets have emerged, where basic information and schedules can be found. I have reviewed a few. While they are quite informative, sometimes it is necessary to search for answers to rather simple questions, such as whether the submission of the project means that it will be voted and whether the results of the voting determine the selection.

Participatory officials

However, while reviewing the participatory budget websites I have not come across any information on how the amount allocated for the PB is related to capital expenditure or the total expenditure in a given city or municipality. Then it would turn out that such an amount constitutes only a single percentage or fraction of the city budget, not very spectacular from the perspective of officials, heads of municipalities, city mayors or councillors. At the same time, one gets the impression that information on the PBs, procedures, projects etc. prevails over information on the “real” city budgets and investments, although they involve much more funds. The latter are usually presented by means of resolutions of the councils, namely, multi-paged documents with attachments.

The new institution of direct democracy is unquestionably administered by municipality and city officials. They prepare the websites, regulations, meetings and voting. They act as organisers and coordinators. Therefore, they tend to write as officials: “The form of the project (task) proposal submitted, following the formal verification by the City Development Department, will be subject to the opinion of the Technical Project (Task) Evaluation Team. The Team will consist of representatives of the relevant departments of the City Hall as well as representatives of the Municipal Board of Roads and the Housing Management Board. The opinion of the Team will include, among others, verification of cost estimates and scope of works, determining the compliance with the local spatial management plans, land ownership as well as feasibility of project (task) implementation in the given budgetary year”.

And, further on: “until 29 August the list of projects will be announced for each Area, to be defined by the Project (Task) Qualification Team, which will consist of representatives of the City Council, housing cooperatives, the Mayor of the City, the Sport Council, the Public Benefit Council, the District Social Council for the Disabled, the Senior Council, and the City Council of the Youth.”

This is not too encouraging.

Nevertheless, the idea of the participatory budget is gaining in popularity, although the Civic Institute which promoted it intensively two years ago has apparently abandoned this issue (the last posts on the Institute website date back to half a year ago). On the other hand, a valuable report of the Stefan Batory Foundation appeared, written by Dariusz Kraszewski and Karol Mojkowski, describing the status of participatory budgets at the end of 2013.

Status at the end of 2013

The basic findings of the report in terms of the size of participatory budgets are derived from 72 identified cases where city authorities (councillors, city mayors or presidents) made a decision on the establishment of participatory budgets and 52 cases where inhabitants have already decided on the expenditure.

infographics Dariusz Gąszczyk
infographics Dariusz Gąszczyk

In 2013 the highest amount for the participatory budget was allocated in Łódź – PLN 20 million. It follows from the authors’ data that in 62 cities the participatory budgets reached a value exceeding PLN 150 million. For the sake of comparison, we have checked that only the expenditure of cities with district rights, according to the data provided by the Ministry of Finance, amounted to PLN 65.0 billion, including PLN 12.4 billion for capital expenditure. The expenses of all local governments, on the other hand, reached PLN 183.8 billion, while capital expenditure amounted to PLN 35 billion. Therefore, it is easy to calculate that the share of participatory budgets is at the level of tenths of a percent.

In the Batory Foundation report the authors compare the amounts of individual participatory budgets to the total expenses and capital expenditure in these cities and municipalities in 2012, since the data for 2013 was not yet available. The highest ratio in relation to the total expenses was found in Kęty – 3.96 per cent and Kraśnik – 2.51 per cent, i.e. in relatively small towns. In big cities this indicator was reduced to the level of about 1 per cent, or even lower. In this group of cities, the highest ratio was recorded in Zielona Góra – 1.17 per cent, whereas in Białystok, Łódź, Toruń and Rzeszów it slightly exceeded 0.5 per cent, while it amounted to only 0.08 per cent in Wrocław.

On the other hand, the highest ratio in relation to capital expenditure was recorded in Kraśnik, where the participatory budget of PLN 2 million constituted almost a half of the capital expenditure, and in Kęty (over 25 per cent). In big cities the indicator obviously decreased dramatically, and only in four cities did it exceed 2 per cent (the highest ratio of 3.74 per cent was recorded in Łódź), whereas in Wrocław it reached only 0.33 per cent. The authors have also discovered a ridiculous situation in Bydgoszcz where, through classification of certain groups of funds to the participatory budget, it has been turned into a “financing instrument already existing in the municipal policy with its name only changed to the more popular one”.

Share-of-Participatory-
Infographics DG

Cases of 2014

What is going on this year? I have checked several cities. The case of Kraków seems instructive. Namely, the amount of PLN 4.5 million has been allocated for the participatory budget in Kraków this year, including PLN 1.8 million for districts (PLN 100 thousand each) and PLN 2.7 million for the general city tasks. At the same time, for the Olympic Games whim in Kraków, an amount reaching PLN 3.6 million was spent in 2013-2014, until the referendum. However, these costs will still grow due to the early termination of contracts with foreign partners. The minister of sport has also mentioned recovering the money he has allocated to the city from the central budget for the Olympic Games preparations. For the sake of clarification, it should be added that the amount of PLN 4.5 million constitutes only slightly more than 0.1 per cent of the total expenses and 0.6 per cent of the foreseen capital expenditure of the city.

Łódź has increased its participatory budget to PLN 40 million. Each of the five districts received 6 million, whereas 10 million was allocated for municipal projects. Considering the expenditure of PLN 4.1 billion, including PLN 1.3 billion for investments, it is still a very limited budget; however, it is also several times more than in Kraków. However, a certain problem has also emerged. First of all, while allocating 40 million for the PB, the city is simultaneously contributing additional hundreds million zloty to the construction of an extremely expensive railway station (the project envisages, among others, the construction of a tunnel below Łódź and a high speed rail link). Secondly, the debt of Łódź is growing rapidly. The local press has calculated that in 2014 the city’s debt will reach almost PLN 4000 per inhabitant, although in 2009 it amounted to PLN 1400. The costs of servicing the public debt in Łódź will amount to PLN 136.5 million this year, exceeding the participatory budget more than three-fold.

These are weaknesses which occur not only in Łódź. First of all, in many cities inhabitants create participatory budgets based on loans. Secondly, citizens are, in practice, asked about pitches, pavements or parks – such are the majority of proposals – whereas nobody asks them whether they want to have airports that no one wants to fly from (as in the recent case of Radom), which will generate a deficit in the foreseeable future, an opera for several hundred million Polish zlotys or thermal baths with no hot water. Finally, I cannot recall even a single case of a referendum where the authorities asked inhabitants whether they approved the large-scale indebtedness of the city.

A browse through successive participatory budgets also suggests other associations. In Wrocław, PLN 20 million has been allocated for the participatory budget this year. However, a glance at the expenditure which is not subject to the participatory budget and the opinion of the citizens is very revealing. The fact is that in Wrocław a part of the media and inhabitants have for a long time been critical about the city subsidising the Śląsk football club to the amount ranging from several million to tens of millions of Polish zlotys per year. Thus, to mitigate the situation, the authorities have come up with a solution according to which the subsidy will now be provided in return for advertising on football shirts by a municipal company dealing with preparations for the World  Games (finswimming, ultimate frisbee, tug of war or pétanque), to be held in Wrocław in 2017. The cost of the World Games amounts to PLN 130-150 million, to be paid for by the inhabitants of Wrocław, who obviously have not been asked by anyone whether they are willing to incur such expenses.

In Warsaw voting on over 2200 projects submitted will soon start. The total amount of funds to be allocated by inhabitants ranges from 0.5 to 1.1 per cent of the budget depending on the district. This amounts to PLN 26 million, ranging from PLN 271 000 in Rembertów district to PLN 3 million in Ursynów. A good idea is to show on the PB website what the costs are of 100 metres of cycle lane, the planting of a tree, the installation of street lighting, the installation of a waste bin, the purchase of a WC, the outdoor screening of a film, a meeting with an author, and many other such projects. This will, however, not change the fact that the participatory budget is a minor detail compared to the expenditure on the chronically delayed large municipal investments (which I wrote about a year ago).

In Gdańsk, 27 projects for the total amount of approximately PLN 10 million have been selected for implementation in 2014 (the voting took place in February). The announcement on the outcome of the voting informs us that the value of the selected projects usually ranges from PLN 200 to 500 thousand and that they generally include quite standard items – something for schools, the renovation of streets and pavements, new pitches, recreation and area management. Gdańsk inhabitants selected, among others, an “outdoor gym”, street and school renovation, a sports park, recreation and leisure, the construction of a sports pitch, the preparation of documentation for the construction of a jogging and recreational path, the revitalisation of a ravine, parking places for cars and a pedestrian crossing, the preparation of documentation for the reconstruction of a street in order to “make it suit the needs of the 21st century – safe and friendly to pedestrians and drivers”, area management in the vicinity of a pond, the modernisation of a sports pitch and a gym, the construction of a school climbing wall, the renovation of the Forest Theatre, a skate park and the construction of roofing above paddocks for dogs in a homeless animal shelter.

Immediately after the projects for 2014 were selected in Gdańsk, work on the next PB commenced (PLN 11 million to be allocated). In other cities the local authorities have also gained momentum. Some of them claim that it is because they do not want the participatory budgets to be used in the campaign before the local elections. Others are hurrying precisely because they want to incorporate it into the campaign.

And three more examples. In the small but wealthy Konstancin-Jeziorna, where the total expenditure this year amounts to PLN 146 million, including capital expenditure of PLN 46 million, the value of a task proposed under the participatory budget may not exceed PLN 100 000, with the total amount defined at the level of PLN 1.5 million, i.e. 1 per cent of the total expenditure and over 3 per cent of capital expenditure.

The ratios in Rzeszów are more or less 50% lower. In that city, within a total expenditure of PLN 1186 million and a high capital expenditure (PLN 437 million), the amount of PLN 6.5 million, i.e. about 1.5 per cent of capital expenditure, was allocated for the participatory budget. A similar ratio to capital expenditure in Rzeszów is recorded in Przemyśl; however, the reason is that the capital expenditure in this city is low. The participatory budget in Przemyśl amounts to PLN 1 million, i.e. less than in Konstancin, accounting for only 0.3 per cent of the total expenditure. This 1 million zloty is to be spent on a park, a playground, equipment for classrooms in a school and the modernisation of a sports pitch.

All the above examples show that although the local authorities have different approaches to participatory budgets, their level, regulations and procedures, in general, even if they try to perform according to good practices and allocate reasonable funds, it is still a kind of game in which the inhabitants are eager to participate in.

No obligation expected

What is the future of participatory budgets? In autumn last year, PSL (the Polish People’s Party) announced that it would submit a draft act on the obligatory introduction of participatory budgets in cities and municipalities of over 5000 inhabitants at a level of at least 1 per cent of total expenditure. The discussion was rather weak, the supporters of the budgets were more often ‘against’ than ‘for’, and subsequently the issue died out – the draft act got stuck in some consultations and nobody refers to it any more

It also seems that nobody has caught on the grotesque idea of Jarosław Makowski from the Civic Institute, who stated that Europe should introduce participatory budgets in Euro-regions, or even a Pan-European participatory budget to enhance its reliability and level of democracy (Makowski wrote that citizens of Europe could, for example, submit a project on a Pan-European system of city bikes).

A good participatory budget has the following characteristics – as Kraszewski and Mojkowski listed: it is binding for the authorities, it is based on a transparent, open development process facilitating discussion and involving the inhabitants, it is reasonably high and planned every year, instead of being occasional. It generally seems that such features are usually complied with, although meetings with inhabitants are sometimes missing. The official bodies sometimes take decisions on the eligibility of projects based on such discretionary criteria as “social importance” or “project attractiveness”. There are also cases that are evidence of an instrumental approach. For example, the mayor of Kołobrzeg has stated that thanks to him “throwing in” half a million zlotys the inhabitants had the opportunity “to have a little fun” (an example from the Batory Foundation report).

Nevertheless, it seems that in spite of their weaknesses, the participatory budgets are gradually emerging as a permanent practice, particularly in big cities. In smaller centres, as the MP and local activist, Waldy Dzikowski claims, the practice of investment consultation is permanent. The participatory budgets refer mainly to investments, although they could also fund, for example, social programmes or employment of specific people.

Sometimes, due to the possibility to vote via Internet, the turnout for voting on PB projects is higher than in local government elections. However, it may be assumed that the growth of their popularity will soon decline and after some time the issue will be boring for citizens, just as it has started to be boring for the media. Google Trends shows that the peak of interest in PBs was observed at the end of September last year and has been ranging from 5 to 20 per cent of the peak level for many months.

The participatory budgets will become boring for citizens since the more projects that are submitted, the higher will be the number of inhabitants disappointed due to the fact that their project has not gained support. However, they will mainly understand that, in fact, they are deciding about insignificant funds, compared to what the authorities are spending. The local elections, when the issue is raised about the real budgets, several hundred times higher, may help them to become aware of this fact.

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