What is it?
Participatory Budgeting (PB) is a process whereby a community decides how to spend a portion of public budget.
The process can be used by a Town Council to engage its citizens in developing ideas, deliberate on them, and vote on how the budget is used. A portion of the discretionary budget for estate improvement can be earmarked for this purpose as a social experiment.
We can start with a specific set of blocks or HDB estate within a Town Council if we can secure the support of a sponsoring MP.
- Seniors may propose to install park benches or chairs at void decks or at areas where they often congregate. A student group may like to have Wi-Fi at the void deck where they often use as a study area.
- Residents may propose rooftop gardens of housing estates be transformed into a food forest that allows for foraging. A tech savvy resident may like to create a digital timebank for neighbourhood use.
The process should also include ideas that do not require any allocation of the public budget, but simply permission to be implemented (Toy Swops, Garage Sales, Potlucks, Volunteer Estate Clean-ups etc), so that residents can participate in the design of the communal life in their neighbourhoods.
 The National Youth Council in their Youth Action Plan have youth representatives sit on a panel to disburse additional funds above and beyond what the main panel has decided upon and considers this ‘participatory budgeting’ although it is closer to participatory grantmaking. Participate in Design has also facilitated PB projects in SG.
We hope to shift the relationship that residents have with their MPs (e.g. in MPS where the dominant mode of interaction is to request for help).
Participatory Budgeting focuses on ideas that can benefit their community and how they can contribute, and elected officials often become closer to their constituents through such a process.
Officials can begin to recognise how sharing power is not a zero-sum game — if I share power, I lose power — but a generative exercise that creates capacity and legitimacy that were not there before. It activates different parts of the community to tackle issues and develop initiatives that were not possible before, when people were not empowered or engaged.
People who live in a community know their own needs best. Allowing them to contribute meaningfully and make collective decisions will help create a stronger relationships and sense of belonging to their neighbourhoods. The process also educates residents on the rationale behind many decisions made around their estate.
Neighbourhoods may also start to acquire distinctive identities base on the unique ideas of the local community; and become places in which residents become more excited to live in. (Previously, participatory design projects were done under the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme, but the scope is more delimited).
Programmes, such as job coaching and work re-design, are implemented to encourage the hiring of marginalised groups in the hope that employers will see the business value and be willing to hire them.
Concurrently, there is ample funding and a supportive infrastructure for start-ups and social entrepreneurs.
Elected officials may be concerned about promising residents something they cannot deliver, so the process must make clear that not all ideas will be viable, and that the Town Council will help determine what is permissible within regulatory requirements. The decisions within those parameters, however, reside with the residents.
Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) will help to scope the project with interested Town Councils, to co-create a process and to co-determine the percentage of discretionary funds that can be used, and for what purpose, and within what parameters. In other words, we start by deciding on how the decision-making process should be like in the first place. The project will not move to implementation stage unless all stakeholders feel comfortable with it.
The participatory budgeting and citizen design process may follow these main phases:
- Community Outreach: getting residents to develop ideas.
- Facilitators help turn those ideas into full project proposals.
- Feedback: Share projects with larger community; Town Council and other relevant government agencies weigh in on what is permissible or not.
- Proposals are modified to address official and community feedback and a final list of proposals is chosen (possibly by a steering committee made up of a mix of residents, grassroots and Town Council).
- Residents vote on projects to secure funding. (An avenue for proposals to secure alternative funding can also be created).
At the feedback stage, the proposers may be connected to relevant government agencies if there are regulatory constraints. For example, NEA or NPB may be concern with attracting animals or pests to the food forest, or the grassroots worry about neighbours fighting over foraging rights. Proposers may simply discard the idea or find a workaround that address those concerns.
The ‘workarounds’ may in fact be quite central to community building itself—perhaps the proposed park benches do not even need to be paid for, if a hobbyist carpentry group decides to offer to make those benches pro bono, and in that case the seniors will get to know the neighbours who made benches for them to sit in, instead of a vendor. In this case, the proposers can simply work with the Town Council to understand what the design parameters or safety requirements are.
 Community members should have an opportunity to raise concerns and objections to the ideas, not because of budgetary considerations but community implications. Eg. If youth want to do sports at the place where seniors want their park benches, the PB process should design this so that they can have an opportunity to provide feedback to the proposing group.
Roles of Institute of policy studies (ips), Tote Board and other potential partners
Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) will be keen to co-create a process with a specific Town Council and secure stakeholders’ and local grassroots’ support. We will research, co-design, implement (through partnerships or vendors), and evaluate the PB exercise.
A Town Council should use its own budget for this to be meaningful as a proper PB exercise. Tote Board may fund the design and implementation of the PB process and facilitation costs.
Participate in Design has previously facilitated participatory budgeting projects for Neighbourhood Renewal Programmes and can be potential implementation partners. They have previously worked with Town Councils, HDB, and Citizen’s Consultation Committee.
IPS is in touch with various service-learning offices of IHLs (e.g. SUSS, NUS) and may draw upon students to support the community outreach and background research that might be required for each resident proposal.
Frequently Asked Questions
Since projects are being ‘pitted against one another’, will it have adverse effects on community cohesiveness?
The premise of the PB is that there is a limited amount of resources and to let residents themselves have a contest of ideas and make decisions democratically. Therefore, the design is to intentionally offer an opportunity to compare different proposals and make assessments of their communal worth in relation to their cost. We can also manage expectations by making it clear that not all proposals will pass muster or be supported.
With a proper feedback process and accounting back to citizens at each phase, and responding appropriately to participants’ complaints will give people a sense that participation is worthwhile, whether their projects get selected or not.
Given that Town Councils do not have a lot of budget, will such a dialogue be raising resident expectations or hopes, but not be able to meet it?
It will be made very clear in the engagement process with citizens that not all ideas will proceed to be voted on, and for those that do, not all will be funded.
Citizens may be uninformed or misinformed about the typical costs of amenities and infrastructure. A PB project can help residents realize the constraints and trade-offs involved, creating a better appreciation of the current work that Town Councils have to do.
This specific PB project focuses on ideas that can benefit their community and also how they can contribute, and elected officials often become closer to their constituents through such a process.
Furthermore, one difference between this and the typical PB project is that we can also build bridges to other sources of funding for projects that did not make the cut but had enough community support.
Will the process side-line grassroots and professionals who work in the Town Councils?
Different government agencies and grassroots organisations will be involved at the get-go, weighing in on the regulatory requirements or content of operation so that their professional expertise can be respected and well-utilised by citizens who are now given an opportunity to find solutions.
Possibly, the grassroots may even feel new sense of identity or pride by investing in facilitating a process in which residents discover and develop their capacities for contributing to their communities.
How will we ensure that we can reach all the residents? How will voting be done for the projects and will the approach selected bias certain groups of individuals?
We are currently studying the features of various digital platforms designed for participatory budgeting that allows online voting. A matrix developed by peoplepowered.org covers quite a few different online platforms and assigns them ratings on properties like cost and track record. The matrix does not include some other options like Stanford’s PB platform which is supposedly open source and free, and Polys which utilises blockchain technology.
However, we may need to complement the digital platform with physical voting or support residents in using them as some may not be digitally savvy. Each voting approach will have its own inherent biases in terms of which residents are more likely to participate. In order to ensure representativeness and inclusion, extra effort can be made to reach out to residents who may not come out to events or exhibits where proposed ideas are showcased.