Fresh conversations, new stances: deliberative democracy and participatory budgeting

Deliberative democracy Democracy Public consultation Government expenditure Urban planning Infrastructure Australia Melbourne

In contemporary Australian society there are regular calls for worthwhile and informed discussions regarding issues of public interest. Entering into thoughtful talk in a group requires that participants are able to bring themselves forward in ways that enhance the exchange, beyond over-used stances where one party provides information and expects the other to listen submissively. Deliberative democracy provides an avenue for such conversations. Its methods, such as citizen juries and participatory budgeting juries, provide a way of bringing together people who are most likely strangers, who would like to be constructively involved, and who often know little about the sponsoring organisation, its policies, programs or initiatives. The decisions that emerge from such groups of people are fresh and unexpected. A delightful rationality is catalysed, by participants having the opportunity to test their views and values and explore those of others. People change their minds. New ideas are forged from bringing seemingly conflicting perspectives alongside each other. Learning about relevant policies and strategies becomes part of the process.

In the last few years, local government has started to employ these methods more frequently, often with the support of non-government advocate newDemocracy. While these are complex and demanding forms of community engagement, they provide sophisticated and well thought out results. They build relationships, as community members, councils’ elected representatives and senior council managers do things differently, in new conditions. They create appreciative mutuality, not often seen between council representatives and their communities. As facilitator of the City of Darebin's Participatory Budgeting Jury on community infrastructure, and an observer of the City of Melbourne's People’s Panel on its 10-year financial plan in 2014, I’ve seen citizens, mayors, councillors and senior managers join forces to make sense of local and contemporary concerns, taking up a far wider spectrum of roles and behaviours, and producing more sophisticated results than is common in council engagements.

What makes deliberative processes so different from other community engagement processes? Intent, group composition, and evidence are key. Intent: if a council decides to put the time and investment into such a process, they are most likely to spell out their intent to honour its recommendations.  Group composition: diverse and interesting, since members are chosen through a random stratified selection for chosen characteristics such as age, gender, background and locality, to create what has been termed a ‘mini-public’. Evidence: provided by ‘expert witnesses’, with a clear brief to assist the group to come to grips with its key question or ‘charge’.

The participatory budgeting approach, developed in Latin America in the 1980s and adopted widely in the US, grew out of frustration that government spending often failed to reflect the needs of the population, or to meet governance standards. A brief glance at US participatory budget processes in cities such as Chicago and New York shows the way in which they bring people in the community into alliance with elected representatives, as desired projects are put forward and selected. ‘Residents of the 49th Ward voted to spend $1 million of Ald. Joe Moore's discretionary budget on street resurfacing, bus stop benches, new carpeting for the library, a water feature at a park and a walking path extension along the lakefront’. In Latin American and US processes, entire constituencies have access to mass voting to select projects nominated within a specified area.

In Australia, councils now use participatory budgeting processes to get citizen informed recommendations on budget decisions. They draw on the citizen jury format, where a group of between 30 and 45 people is recruited from a random stratified sample for chosen characteristics. Its discussions are informed by evidence provided by the council and/or community submissions from the broader community. In the case of the 2014 City of Melbourne process, focused on maintaining the City’s reputation as a liveable city in an environment of economic uncertainty, jurors had privileged access to the City’s forward budgeting and strategies. In the City of Darebin’s case, community groups proposed over 35 projects, which were prioritised by the jury, informed by evidence from senior managers and staff and external expert witnesses.

At Darebin, as facilitators, we met a group of energetic, interested people from across the municipality. They were not connected by location or special interests. They had not come to beat a known drum. They were willing to spend one Saturday a month for four months, 9.30-4.30 to get to an agreed outcome on this question: How should we best spend $2m to improve our community through use of infrastructure funding? The Council had accrued the funds from ratepayers through a two percent rate rise, and invested them in a special infrastructure fund, which the jury was given the task of allocating to appropriate projects.

At City of Melbourne’s Cr Stephen Mayne states that the city wished to hear from its ‘silent majority’, those who do not engage with council (ABC Radio, Future Tense). Coming face to face with such a randomly selected group can highlight to a councillor or senior manager that the people they usually meet with are rather too familiar, and do not reflect the breadth of age, cultural or professional characteristics in their municipality. This can be a surprise, and provide a refreshing sense of being in touch with the municipality’s constituency as reflected in its actual demographics. This mixed group composition is likely to provide assurance that the jury’s perspective will rationally enhance elected representatives’ decision-making. It is also encouraging for councillors to meet those jurors whose professional roles equip them with specialist expertise, and who speak their language. This contributes to more confidence in the ‘community’ than might usually be the case.

As a facilitator, I am not simply there to aid discussion and prevent arguments. Where possible I try to help participants display themselves at their best, providing opportunities for participants to take up seasoned or new and unfamiliar tasks and stances in deliberations. It is satisfying to see group members expand to take on roles essential to fulfilling a problem-solving task in a group or team, as outlined by Tyson in a classic study of the workings of planning, decision making and learning groups, Working in Groups (1998). Tyson outlined specific roles, which could appear simply to be jargon terms. However, very few people are aware of their own typical ways of contributing in a group, and closer observation may reveal that individuals often play the same kind of role, rather than trying out different ways of contributing. Task roles include starter, information/opinion giver, coordinator, summarizer, energizer, diagnoser, reality-tester, consensus tester, technician, scribe/recorder and spokesperson. Those relating to relationship building are encourager, communications helper, harmonizer, trust builder and process observer (Tyson, 1998, 30-31). Good chairpeople often fulfill many of these roles. There are defensive roles such as jester, who ‘helps the group survive unpleasant situations, difficult problems and crises’ (32), and dysfunctional roles such as lobbyist, playboy/girl, recognition seeker, blocker and pessimist (33).

From their previous experience with community engagement, councillors and council staff are all too familiar with citizens taking up roles that impede problem solving. Deliberative methodologies present participants and staff with a threat-free path, in which effective task and affect type roles come to the fore in all contributors in the jury experience, in a context of learning, explanation and collaboration. In the early stages, it is common to see the roles of authoritative information giver and acquiescent information seeker to the fore, as was apparent in the first meeting of the City of Melbourne People’s Panel where jurors met Councillors and executive staff at table groups to learn about the main areas of budget allocation. However, by a later session, panel members’ information seeking roles were amplified by many other roles. Some were good reality testers, others informed critics. Group members with an eye on the time took the chance to provide summaries, and move the action on. Where Council players in the early appeared to identify as leaders and experts, unlikely to pause unless an insistent juror sought information on their own terms, they now displayed a different style of leadership, with a coordination focus, acting as communication helpers doing their best to field questions from each member of the table group. By now all contributors took a productive stance in building trust as they probed the terrain of budgets, services and infrastructure.

At Darebin there was strong evidence throughout the jury that members were in an unusual position to relate to council in productive roles: they became the initiators, for example by putting forward criteria for decision-making and initiating discussions with expert witnesses; they became critical analysts, approaching the selection of expert witnesses from the perspective of expertise available beyond council and undertaking critical examination of council strategies. They adopted the role of rational advocates, adopting evidence presented to them to inform the selection of decision-making criteria. Encouragers assisted older and younger members. A strong process observer called for clarification of process to ensure complete transparency in decision-making. Technicians took on reporting for the final presentation.

Darebin Council’s elected representatives unanimously accepted the Participatory Budgeting Jury’s recommendations. Of the eight projects recommended, six depended on the initiative, community worldview and deliberations of the jury. Council would not have thought of them. Implementing a project such as a pop-up piazza will involve crossing organizational silos. Councillors made statements such as this: ‘The jury has been a highlight of six years on Council.’ ‘The recommendations include a creative element, which is refreshing for us as councillors who often have to have their heads down on day-to-day business.’ One councillor noted that there was pride around the chamber in receiving the recommendations, since councillors had worked together closely on the project and fully supported the process. Perhaps the aspect of the jury’s work that was particularly appreciated was that the jury took a ‘whole of Darebin’ approach and put an equity lens to the fore in setting criteria for prioritising projects.

This is not to say that councillors, senior staff and jurors didn’t experience moments of anxiety and nerves, wondering if the jury was going to reach an outcome in the time available. Running a participatory budgeting process is an intensive, high investment process. Demands made on City of Melbourne and Darebin were significant. Jurors might request as many as 40 items of information at the end of a session, for complex pieces of work, such as costings for a community centre, modelling of rates scenarios or council policy positions on gaps in infrastructure provision.

However from my observation this approach mobilises new thinking, based on the development of new roles, by citizens, councillors and council staff alike. There is eagerness on the part of the citizen participants, such that juror retention rates and commitment are outstanding. Once an organisation has committed to the process there is willingness on the council’s part to hear from critical evaluators, and to value the attributes of citizens as spokespeople. Both the Darebin and City of Melbourne experiences demonstrate mutuality and respect between citizens and councillors around complex issues such as finite budgets, equity and long term planning. The beauty of participatory budgeting is that it was developed to ensure transparency in places experiencing budgetary constraints. With increasingly complex issues to be dealt with, councils and communities do have the capacity to work together productively, such that the community is able to enhance its elected representatives’ work. The participatory budgeting model shows potential to be tailored to specific requirements in different settings. Above all it generates qualities rare in contemporary politics, respect between the parties involved, and the effort to listen.

Councillors are often ambivalent about community engagement, now an ubiquitous element of local government business, which ensures that newsletters turn up in the mailbox informing residents about planning, spending and community activity, that creates focus groups, polls, pop ups, visioning sessions and open house events to test citizen views, and keeps online have your say sites humming constantly. All councils are familiar with their 'usual suspects' – those who turn up again and again at council meetings, with partisan interests, and the persistence to pressure for their agendas. Community engagement is a hungry beast – however much work is done, more will need to be done, to make good on citizen expectations that their "aspirations, concerns, needs and values are listened to, acknowledged and integrated in meaningful and transparent ways in the decisions that affect their lives" (City of Darebin, 2013). It is promising to see councillors interested and rewarded by the participatory budgeting approach, perceiving those involved as a publicly interested ‘us’, rather than a belligerent ‘them’.

A concern for critics, including councillors, in regard to juries, is that they may not put an adequate value on equity (Elstub, S & McLaverty P, 2014). As representatives elected through a democratic process, they are aware of the responsibility of a decision-making role. At Darebin, after hearing from an expert witness that one in three people in the municipality live in poverty, the jurors decided on equity a key criterion in their choice of projects (City of Darebin, 2014). The final outcome surprised and pleased councilors. Citizens are in fact capable of roles beyond ‘me! me! me!’ and of give and take and negotiation, though experience may sometimes have suggested otherwise.

Once upon a time the original instrument of public consultation, the public meeting, resulted in unfavourable media of this kind They arrived angry and they walked away three and a half hours later even more furious. Today, participatory budgets leave in their wake new potential and goodwill. In the words of David, a former journalist and member of Darebin’s participatory budgeting jury to a Victorian Local Government Association audience, 'We did lose jurors along the way. What that left us with by the last day was a group of dedicated and determined people. We had spirited discussions but we never had an argument and worked well as a team. The greatest support was the facilitators who kept us on track, allowing for necessary diversions, and making sure everyone in the group had a say. Not everyone was confident enough to stand up in a room and express their views, but we found everyone had something important to contribute.'

'The Darebin jury was a perfect example of how a team can come together and work well if there is a common goal. We didn’t simply take the view: "We come up with the idea, it’s not our problem to make it work". Rather we proposed: "Here is a project we’d like to see happen, and here is the dollar amount we think you will need to make it happen." We had already judged that project to be achievable given the evidence presented to the jury, sometimes calling on skills from outside council. I’m the kind of person who does get involved, but I could never have put my mind to this municipality-wide decision-making, short of running for council myself. In the process I got a much better idea of what our council does and the kind of things councillors have to weigh up when making decisions.'

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