When urban populations can decide how to use the city’s budget: what can we learn from Lithuanian and European examples?

About 30 years ago, a decision was made to adopt a completely new practice in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil: introduce participatory budgeting (PB), allowing the city dwellers themselves to decide how to use almost an entire half of the city’s budget. The aim was to help the less well-off citizens receive a higher portion of public expenditure. But it wasn’t the only goal: today PB is also considered to be a tool of social change, which creates communities and their networks and which is capable of looking at cities through the eyes of the people instead of simply spending funds on more or less significant improvements of the city.

The fundamental principle of participatory budgeting is simple: the municipality allocates a certain portion of the budget for the implementation of projects proposed by the residents. The ideas that will be implemented are voted on and determined by the residents themselves. It sounds uncomplicated and appealing; however, on closer inspection, it is evident that there is no single universal template of PB: therefore, each municipality seeks for and discovers its own ways to apply this practice in real life.

In Europe, the practices of participatory budgeting started spreading at the start of this millennium; currently, PB is applied in the activities of 15 large cities (with populations of over 1 million). The unrivalled leader in the number of projects is Poland, where the implementation of PB in municipalities is compulsory in accordance with the Law on Self-Government. Meanwhile, after a dip in interest, Italy is once again experiencing a renaissance of participatory budgeting. 

In Lithuania, according to the data of Transparency International Lithuania (2021), PB is implemented by only 22 of 60 municipalities so far. Nevertheless, successful examples are contagious; in the words of the interviewed specialists in the municipalities of Alytus City, Tauragė District, and Vilnius City, implementation of this tool not only helps in involving the local residents in specific decision-making processes but also often sends very clear signals about what is the most lacking area for the local residents and what the municipality itself should devote more attention to. Moreover, practising PB provides the opportunity to encourage civic activity of adolescents: in Tauragė, projects can be voted on by residents aged 16 and older, whereas in Poland, depending on the municipality, this can be done by even younger school-age children.

Alytus, the earliest adopter of participatory budgeting, observes qualitative growth in the residents’ ideas 

Alytus City Municipality was the first one in Lithuania to invite the residents to decide for themselves how and for what purpose a portion of the city’s budget will be used. After starting the PB practice, which was called “Initiatives of Alytus Residents”, in 2018 and after making use of the opportunity to try out various models, it learned from its mistakes and became the example that was later followed by many other Lithuanian municipalities that started to apply PB in their activities. 

Currently, the ideas in “Initiatives of Alytus Residents” are divided into small-scale and large-scale projects. Up to 25,000 euros is allocated annually for the implementation of the former ones and up to 150,000 euros is budgeted for the implementation of the latter. This constitutes about 0.2 percent of the annual budget of Alytus City.

The primary concept and regulations of the initiatives have been modified multiple times, in order to find the best-functioning model: for instance, when the residents vote for the projects, the requirement to provide one’s personal code has been dropped because people did it reluctantly, and the number of voters was significantly lower because of it. Another dropped requirement is for the municipal council to approve every winning project, because there were cases when an idea chosen by the residents’ votes was stalled due to the politicians being stubborn about what they like or do not like. The procedure for the submission of the idea itself has also been changed: the residents are asked to provide more details about the proposed ideas in order to determine the estimated cost of the project as accurately as possible.  

According to Agnė Grigaliūnaitė, representative of the Alytus City Municipality, currently the projects proposed by the Alytus residents are characterised by high quality rather than by quantity. “Last year, just two projects were submitted for voting, but both of them are interesting, high-quality, and necessary for the city. We see that people think consistently and choose the locations purposefully. The dominant projects are for infrastructure improvements in the city centre or in the spaces near blocks of flats and in parks. For the small ideas, more small scale but cosy solutions are offered, whereas for the large-scale ones, the proposed projects are for environment improvements or for creating a sense of significance, e.g. “The Alytus-Myliu” Gate”. 

The projects proposed, selected, and implemented by the Alytus residents themselves include “The Concert Space of the City Garden”, “The Anzelmas Matutis Park – Space for Children”, “Syringa Park”, grill zones in the Youth Park, sculpture of a bronze squirrel with a nut, music-playing benches. 

Each municipality creates a unique recipe

“Idea for Tauragė” – this is how participatory budgeting was called by the Tauragė District Municipality, which created its program by basing it on the examples of the municipalities of Alytus City and Klaipėda District. However, it adapted them for its own needs: in order to better reflect the needs of the city and district residents, three categories were chosen in which the residents can submit ideas: small-scale (up to 20,000 euros) projects in the Tauragė City Elderate and District and a large-scale (up to 60,000 euros) project in the Tauragė District. By the way, as noted by the Tauragė Municipality representative Kasparas Bertašius, the district’s residents are more active than the city’s: they not only vote more actively but also propose more projects.

A bit more than 0.12 percent of the total annual municipal budget is allocated for “Idea for Tauragė”. Every year, residents suggest 12–15 ideas, which are later voted on in order to select the winners of all three categories. The most relevant ideas for Tauragė residents are: recreation and play spaces, training equipment, maintenance of the living environment. The more interesting projects include a mobile stage which can be used both during events and as a leisure space or as a stand-out element of the environment.

“The residents usually suggest ideas related to the living environment that is the closest to them. Typically, they are not individual but created together with the communities of other residents, education institutions or like-minded individuals: this is encouraging, because a larger number of people contributes to each idea. Later on, the same people get more actively involved by both voting on the ideas and by urging others to do the same”, Bertašius says.

The first year is a test

The Vilnius City Municipality took a slightly different route while creating the participatory budgeting program “Dalyvauk”: basing it on the good practices of the cities of Gdansk, Helsinki, Alytus and Šiauliai, the municipality first tested the model it had created in pilot elderates. 

“In 2021, we conducted a pilot project in 3 elderates of Vilnius to see and evaluate the entire process, the potential risks and mistakes. In 2022, after clarifying the processes and their descriptions, all elderates participated. In total, about 3,000 Vilnius residents – which is not many – voted on the idea they liked. Our goal is ambitious: we want to reach up to 20 percent of residents who would make decisions regarding the use of the city’s participatory budgeting funds”, Daiva Mikulskienė, representative of Vilnius City Municipality, claims.

In 2022, ideas of the first PB were implemented: the Justiniškės walking path for all seasons of the year, the Balsiai football field and training equipment zone, and the beach space near the river Vilnelė.

As demonstrated by the first two years of Dalyvauk, the most relevant ideas for Vilnius residents were recreation and sports zones, leisure places, and green areas. Proposals included pet-walking fields, small outdoor libraries, grill zones, spice gardens, as well as the still popular tennis tables and roller-skating hills.

Lessons from European leader Poland

Poland is specified as Europe’s leader in the application of participatory budgeting: this is determined by the legislative framework, according to which, PB is compulsory in all municipalities. However, as emphasised by the practice’s application specialists, the fact that it is compulsory does not automatically turn PB into a high-quality tool which solves real problems. 

“If we look at it from the perspective of implemented projects, then yes, indeed, every city of Poland has participatory budgeting. It must have it, as it is determined in the Law on Self-Government. On the other hand, this is the reason why participatory budgeting is becoming less effective. In order for it to be managed effectively, specific laws were created that determine how money can be spent, who spends it and why. Each city follows the same rules, regardless of their size, budget, or historical context. But, after all, this practice is not about money-spending. It is more of a process which helps create communities, their groups or their interactions: it has to be flexible, changing and adapted according to one’s needs. However, that is not how it is in Poland. So, all that’s left for our municipalities is to do their best to adapt to the rules without breaking the law. Is this effective? It would be much more effective if there were no restrictive, across-the-board regulations”, Przemek Górski, Inspector of Local Initiatives Office at Łódź city in Poland, which has been applying PB in its activities for multiple decades, is certain. He has been working on PB activities in various European countries for many years.

According to him, even though Poland indeed implements the largest number of PB projects in Europe, most of them are far from being as great as they could be. He considers Switzerland and Germany to be better examples: countries where participatory democracy is mature. Ukraine, too: where there is an evident need to negotiate and decide together how the severely-limited funds will be used.

Looking at Lithuania, which is only starting to take the PB path, Górski recommends it to learn from the mistakes his city, Łódź, has made and avoid repeating  them: “We should have taught the city dwellers to speak with one another and we should have developed groups that could challenge each other (e.g. vehicle drivers vs. cyclists), that would be able not to fight each other but cooperate and help find the happy medium while creating the greater good: a city which is for everyone. Also, we made procedural mistakes that created the monopoly of larger institutions (e.g. schools): the larger the institution, the more votes it casts, therefore, the projects that are important to these institutions are much more likely to win. Accordingly, I’d like to advise the program’s implementers to not forget the dialogue between all participating sides. Participatory budgeting must be a societal project: if you want it to work, you have to provide everyone with knowledge and grant the opportunity to take part in discussions and decision-making. Educate and negotiate: that way, you will gain the most benefit”. 

Italy’s turn

Italy, which started using PB in 2001, experienced fluctuation: after consistent growth over the first eight years, PB’s popularity declined significantly during the period of 2009-2014. This was influenced by both the imposed specific restrictions on the ideas submitted by the residents and by the transformation of PB itself into a political tool, which frequently resulted in stalled implementation of the winning ideas. It started improving only in the mid-2010s: this required not just political changes but also at least several highly successfully implemented examples that reverberated through Italy, inspiring other cities and encouraging more and more municipalities to return to PB activities or to start implementing them.

For instance, one of such inspiring projects was the Milan program “Conto, Partecipo, Scelgo” (“I am visible, I participate, I choose”), during which the city dwellers could select the best ideas that will receive 9 million euros for their implementation. In total, over 600 ideas were received, 40 of which were submitted for voting and which were voted on by over 30,000 city residents (people who reside, work or study in Milan). Nine projects were selected, one per each of the nine districts of the municipality, and up to 1 million euros were allocated for the implementation of each of them. One highly successful project, which encouraged other Italian municipalities to choose PB, involved the capital’s residents voting on the creation of green zones, new cyclist and pedestrian paths that would connect the districts, and even a network of self-cleaning toilets in the most tourist-visited zones.

The Italians’ lesson for Lithuania: there must be as much promotion of successful examples as possible. This not only encourages new municipalities to join the activities of participatory budgeting but also stimulates the activity of the local residents themselves, because it allows everyone to be both a decision-maker and a direct recipient of the benefit brought by those decisions.

As shown by Lithuania’s practices of participatory budgeting, it is a good opportunity for community initiatives. On the other hand, European cases pave the way for even more ideas: as seen in the experiences by the participants of the international project T-Factor, this initiative can become a tool to (temporarily) utilise abandoned and empty spaces of the city or to make use of the typically long lasting “waiting time” of the regenerating areas for interim activities.

Lodz, Poland. Photo by Lodz.pl
Lodze, Poland. Photo by Lodz.pl
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