Opening up the Council - Participatory budgeting in Kingston

In many ways budgeting is the one thing that local councils do that most effects the lives of citizens. Everything else that a local authority does is affected and in many cases limited by the budget. Equally as the budget is to a greater or lesser extent raised by taxes on local people it has an ability to impact on people’s standard of living.

It is therefore vital that we at least have the consent of local people in the decisions we are making in setting the budget. But increasingly local authorities are looking to involve people in the process of budgeting.

This having been said we should not see the budget setting process as a process in isolation from the rest of the council’s activities. Councils should aim to be open and involve the citizens in all that they do – and by involvement it should be a two way process and not just the passing out of information (important though that is).

In Kingston, my own local authority we have always tried to foster a culture of openness. All Council committee meetings (apart from the scrutiny committee which our opposition party chairs) are not just open to the public but they are actively encouraged to participate in the debate on equal terms with the councillors (although legally only the councillors can take part in any votes).

We have also tried to embrace e-government techniques to both provide extra access to information for citizens and more importantly to help people to interact with us and tell us what their concerns are. We have of course done what I consider to be the basics although having looked at some local authority websites across Europe I realise that in some senses the UK is one of the leaders in this. So for example all councillors contact details and declarations of interest are freely available on our websites. We also have all committee agenda and minutes on there. All planning applications are also available and people can submit their responses to them via the website and these are then reported to the relevant committee.

However where we have really led the UK is in e-petitioning. If any individual citizen has an issue they want to bring to the attention of the council or protest against then they can set up a petition on our own website. Once the petition has closed (and the person setting it up decides how long they want it open for) it has to go to the relevant committee for them to decide what action should be taken on it. The petition organisers are of course told which committee it will go to and they can (and usually do) come and debate the issues raised with councillors.

Another option that residents have if they disagree with any decision we have taken is to “call it in”. That is to have the decision suspended and referred to the scrutiny committee (where the opposition has a majority) for an enquiry following which they can send it back to committee who made the original decision, or the cabinet (we actually call this the executive but I will use the term cabinet here as it is more widely understood) or the full council for reconsideration. Any group of 100 residents can do this and Kingston is I think the only UK authority that allows residents this right (some councils even stop opposition parties on the authority doing it).

Anyway to return to the actual issue in hand here ie how to increase participation in budgeting. There are many techniques which could be used but I prefaced this with my remarks as to how we as a council go about trying to increase resident participation in the council’s work because while budgeting is important it should not be seen as a stand alone activity which has a whole different set of processes around it.

Some local authorities in the UK have run referendums to allow people to decide on budget scenarios. Indeed we looked at the possibility of doing this in Kingston and decided against. The problem with such a referendum is that while it is a two way process it is in no sense iterative. As a council you put a number (three has been normal in referendums in the UK) of scenarios saying if we set a council tax (which is a property tax and the only tax councils set in the UK) of X then we can make these services better, if we set Y then we’ll keep them the same and if we set Z then we’ll cut the following services. The problem with this is that many people’s reaction is for example that they want you to cut things you didn’t mention and have a lower tax and there is no way to capture that information.

So what are the alternatives? Well two that have been used in the UK are citizens juries and polling. In both cases you have the opportunity to ask a greater number of questions and in more depth. Citizen’s juries have the advantage that it is a more two way dialogue and you can explore people’s views in greater depth but due to the small number of people present it can be very difficult to get a properly weighted sample and results can be inaccurate. Also while the citizen’s jury allows the participants to better understand the issues in coming to their views, it is not a process that the rest of the public goes through and so there is a high probability of the majority of the public not trusting the result of the jury. Polling overcomes the disadvantage of a weighted sample as a greater number of people are involved but it has the disadvantage that it is not a dialogue process also it is more reflective of general opinion.

In Kingston we have opted for the polling option for the greater accuracy of views which it gives us. However we aren’t as we say in English a “one trick pony”! As I set out above we have a comprehensive set of arrangements to help citizens participate in our decision making process and that comes into play in the budget process as much as (or given its importance) more than in other decisions.

Traditionally in the UK the council officers will construct a budget based on the administration’s political priorities. The Council’s cabinet would consider it then publish it to the other councillors a week or so before the Council was due to meet as a whole to vote on it. Don’t get me wrong several authorities in the UK still do this, Surrey which is a neighbouring authority to Kingston certainly does.

What we do is that we publish a strategy looking 3-4 years ahead saying where we anticipate the budget going and that is the basis for officers to work on. But crucially that document is regularly updated and discussed in public as the budget develops. Draft proposals are polled across the borough (in our case by MORI) and the opposition have the opportunity to scrutinise cabinet members on their proposals. However the open nature of our structure means that the public can turn up to cabinet meetings to question us and all the proposals are available electronically. Any proposals which residents take a specific position on they can petition us via our own website as stated above and we will have to address the points raised with them at a formal cabinet meeting.

But it has to be recognised that getting people involved at an early stage is difficult. Even with all the lengths we go to in engaging people and seeking their views it is still common that a protest group springs up in the last week on a particular issue and we hope we have systems that are flexible enough to deal with this. However like many councils (although we hope we are better than most) we still have some protest groups which appear after the budget has been set and when it is too late (its not legally possible in the UK to change your budget once set).

So in this way we think we have a more participatory budget process. Its not perfect we recognise and we are always looking for new ideas and methods to improve the process and we hope to learn something from conferences such as this and best practice elsewhere.

Cllr Simon James
Executive Member for Economic Development and Regeneration
Kingston Council