Participatory budgeting, the big society and student voice

Nov 9, 2010   //   by AsherJac   //   News  //  No Comments

The Participatory Budgeting (PB) Unit, one of the organisations behind Every1Counts ran an excellent conference today. It was partly celebrating 10 years of PB in the UK, but really was looking forward to the future of PB in the age of the ‘Big Society’.

If you want a flavour of the conference, have a look at this archive of our tweets from the event: #PB10 – Participatory Budgeting and the Big Society

We heard from several of the increasing number of PB projects from across the UK, many of which already involve young people (such as Udecide in Newcastle). Whilst the approaches that each of them took varied, common motivations, benefits, risks and barriers arose. Each of these apply to schools and colleges as well as the local authorities and neighbourhoods we heard from today.


  • Need to allocate scarce resources fairly.
  • Desire to engage more people in the ‘political’ process.


  • Engages different people from those typically involved in political process (voting, standing for election, etc.).
  • Is more efficient: people get what they really want, not what someone assumes they want so less money is wasted.
  • Motivates people to stay involved: they see the decisions they make actually being put into action – unlike with consultation where too often opinions are expressed and then appear to disappear into the ether.
  • Creates an understanding between the community (‘service users’) and the service providers.
  • The community starts to understand how much things costs – and so why you can’t do everything.
  • The community has a sense of ownership of things they have decided to spend money on: this has led to less vandalism, increased use and greater satisfaction.
  • Specific projects have seen benefits such as reduced truancy, anti-social behaviour and crime. In Brazil they improved tax collection because people could see their money being spent.


  • If PB is not carried out thoroughly, with good sharing of information, deliberation and consensus and is allowed to just turn into a vote it can embody the ‘tyranny of the majority’ – the majority decide to spend money on themselves.
  • There are statutory areas of any public budget that certain people are responsible for, handing that (or bits of it) over to others is a risk.
  • That PB is seen as a way for those in power to opt out of their responsibilities: avoid hard decisions and blame the community when the worst happens.
  • That PB just fiddles around the edges with extra bits of money (which may well be disappearing now) rather than dealing with core budgets – and therefore core issues.


  • This needs to be a thorough process, and that takes thought, time and resources.
  • Creating the space, skills and techniques in the service provider and community to be thorough with the process.
  • Getting people to trust others with ‘their’ budget.
  • Lack of trust that people, collectively will make sensible, unselfish decisions.
  • Difficulty of defining a budget for a given area (i.e. trying to work out what money is actually spent on one small area such as a street).

What does this mean for schools and colleges?

Well, if we could start this process off in a small way in schools, we’d start to equip citizens with the tools they need to play an active, informed role in the ‘Big Society’. Whether you agree with the term (or the rhetoric) I’m sure we’d all like to see our schools acting more like communities, with everyone taking a share of the responsibility. What today has shown me is that if we expect people to take a share of that responsibility we need to give a share of the power: which is primarily through budgets.

So why not sign our pledge and commit to starting the process in your community?

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