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Lessons From Paris, Home to Europe's Largest Participatory Budget

BY Antonella Napolitano | Thursday, February 12 2015

The City of Paris helps citizens assess the cost of their PB ideas (Source: City of Paris)

Last fall, Parisian voters decided how to spend 20 million euros of their city budget, the city's first ever participatory budgeting experience. This year there is more than triple that up for grabs, the process for allocating funds has been improved, and the general public can submit project proposals for consideration. As the home of Europe's largest participatory budget, Paris is leading the continent by example.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo was new to her office when the vote took place last year, so the process was not as thorough and well-crafted as the administration would have liked, says Clémence Pène, the 29-year-old in charge of digital strategy at the Mayor's Office (and, full disclosure, the longtime curator of the PDF France conference). This year they are making some key changes and offering additional support to participating citizens.

The city put out a call for ideas on January 14. Participants can submit proposals until March 15. Once submitted, every idea is discussed on the platform for up to three weeks and then is sent to the administration, which assesses its feasibility. This process should last until May, according to the schedule. Already more than 4,200 citizens have created a profile and about 1,400 ideas have been posted on the platform.

The different kind of projects that citizens can submit (Source: City of Paris)

The city is providing support to these active citizens: from workshops around the city to information that can help them estimate the cost of a project, the administration is trying to make this a co-designing process. In June, the projects determined to be feasible will be shared with citizens in an assembly and a popular vote will follow in September.

Votes will be cast both online and on paper ballots. “The Mayor cares about the paper vote in order to give the chance to vote also to older citizens and people who do not own a computer,” says Pène. According to a 2013 report from the French Digital National Council, 80 percent of French citizens have a computer at home.

“Personally,” Pène adds, “I would only have an online vote, perhaps with assisted-online voting in public places. We could end up having hundreds of projects, and this will complicate things if we have to do it on paper ballots.”

The Redistributive Logic of Participatory Budgeting

There are two things that a participatory budget should have, says Tiago Peixoto, an open government specialist at the World Bank and a renowned expert on participatory budgets: ideas have to be submitted by citizens and investments should focus on poorer and challenged areas.

“The inversion of priorities is the defining trait of participatory budget,” he tells me in a Skype interview, “the 'conservative' view of PB take the needs of citizens into account.”

The first attempt at a participatory budget in the French capital lacked both: in fall 2014, the city of Paris invested 20 million euros in the participatory budget, but people could only vote for a set of 15 pre-selected projects. More than 40,000 citizens voted at the time (Paris has 2.2 million residents), with 60 percent choosing to vote online.

“What often happens is that cities try to implement participatory budget without using the 'redistribution formula' and then find out that they're not getting the same results Brazil had,” says Peixoto.

Brazil, his native country, was notably the first to experiment and successfully implement participatory budgeting, starting about 25 years ago. A study from late 2013 shows that the between 1990 and 2008, over 120 of Brazil’s largest 250 cities adopted participatory budgeting.

As reported by the Washington Post:

Municipal governments that adopted Participatory Budgeting spent more on education and sanitation and saw infant mortality decrease as well. We estimate cities without PB to have infant mortality levels similar to Brazil’s mean. However, infant mortality drops by almost 20 percent for municipalities that have used PB for more than eight years — again, after accounting for other political and economic factors that might also influence infant mortality.

The 2014 budget was just a first step for Paris: in 2015, the city has significantly changed how it works. In addition to committing more money, the city has changed the way the money will be allocated: of the 75 million euros in the participatory budget, half will go to “city projects” and the other half will be divided between the 20 city districts.

Among the winners in 2014: green projects in schools, coworking spaces connecting students and entrepreneurs (Source: budgetparticipatif.paris.fr)

Paris seems to be learning from the pioneers of participatory budget, giving more resources to the areas that need them the most.

The first arrondissement, the very centre of Paris, has a local budget of 200,000 euros, while suburban poorest neighborhoods like Belleville-Menilmontant (the twentiest) and Pigalle (the eighteenth), the latter traditionally famous among tourists as an area with sex shops and nightclubs, will have considerably higher budgets, around 3 million euros each. It has to be noted that both districts reported among the highest level of voter participation last year.

Participatory Budgeting and Politics: A Relation Yet To Be Defined

At the presentation of the 2014 budget last year, the newly-elected Mayor Hidalgo announced:

The response of local officials to the crisis we are facing is not fearing the people or stigmatizing their choices: it is instead to trust them, giving them more room to express themselves, more tools for information, more power to influence; it is not to impose management and prescribing practices, it is to propose new spaces and allow them to take ownership of those as freely as possible."

In times of crisis and strong partisanship stances in Europe, the underlying political process of participatory budget is not to be underestimated: it is very important, says Clémence Pène, that all the “mayors” of the 20 arrondissements chose to commit to the process (it was not required). The participatory budget is now happening beyond political partisanship, as those people come from different parties, she adds.

According to research, participatory budget is not the perfect recipe for re-election, though: recent studies assess that there is no significant effect on partisan affection, though it increases odds of reelection in local election by 9 - 10 percent (but only for one term.)

There is evidence that citizen engagement practices, including participatory budgeting, increase tax revenues, Peixoto wrote on his blog last January.

“Participation leads to more participation,” he summarizes, adding that there isn't a single study proving that participatory budgets lead to lower voting percentages.

The Brazilian PB expert and scholar points out the importance of reinforcing participatory budget by law is particularly important: the institutionalization of the process ensures it can survive political transition. This is happening in several places (in Europe, most notably in Poland.)

On the legal side, the city of Paris seems to be committed: participatory budgeting was approved by the Paris Assembly as a rule of law, Pène tells me. The next Mayor won't be able to reverse the process unless the Paris Assembly does so.

Is There a European Way to Participatory Budget?

At the moment, Paris stands as the biggest participatory budget attempt in Europe and it may well be so for the next few years: Mayor Hidalgo committed to invest 426 million euros from now until 2020, about 5 percent of the entire city budget.

Participatory budgeting is also increasing significantly all over Europe: the number of cities implementing PB grew from around 300 in 2010 to more than 1300 in 2012, and it's still growing, Peixoto told techPresident.

There is no single “European way” to PB, it seems. Peixoto points out that European countries are implementing it with different approaches. Portugal and Spain have always been very active, he explains, and they have developed an approach focused on enhancing democracy, very close to that of South American countries, given the strong relations. Germany, instead, works more on administrative efficiency.

Where does Paris's experiment stand?, I asked Pène.

“We are trying to do something completely different: it is a case of a classic administration changing the hierarchy of projects to develop, [...] changing itself,” she says, hinting at the fact that change may well scare public officials more than citizens.

Participation can be sometimes be overwhelming, explains Pène, when I ask her how many people are involved: at the beginning it was only the Mayor's office, but soon the Deputy Mayor in charge of participation joined. Then the citizens' response became so huge that offices in charge of local development, smart cities, and communications followed.

While the process itself seems clearly defined, it is not clear to figure out how it will develop and how to ensure social sustainability.

That's part of the challenge, Pène says: “I think that results will show in five years: I hope that, at some point, organizations that have innovative projects will chose the city's participatory budget to make them become a reality.”