Those passionate about democracy, and more specifically direct, participatory or deliberative democracy, are bound to feel a sense of awe and inspiration from reading about ‘real-world’ innovations in political engagement. This notably includes the successes garnered through several decades’ worth of participatory budgeting (PB) exercises that have happened and are currently taking place. From humble beginnings, the extent to which it has spread to municipalities across the world, not limited to Brazil and South America, is quite the story of institutional design and concomitant political struggle to open up elite-led political processes.

We are told, and rightly so, that participatory budgeting has unique foundations in social and redistributive justice, participatory civic engagement and the political restructuring of decision-making authority. We are also often told that participatory budgeting has basic conditions in which it tends to occur and thrive. Two of the more noted aspects revolve around social capital and political will.[1] Indeed, participatory budgeting does take root in places and spaces that entail ‘thick’ political culture, in places of protest and social movements, as well as where associational networking is broad and well integrated in society and politics. Moreover, participatory budgeting is also contingent on political will, the desire to see it through, as top-down implementation is very often how it springs up.

While most people would easily concede these do not cover the whole gamut of what incorporates PB, literature has invested a great deal into the conditions to which PB occurs via social capital and/or political will, without looking into features or struggles that take place on the ground by practitioners and volunteers. What happens if we have both a vibrant civil society and political savvy politicians who favour participatory budgeting? What happens if we have neither? What we aren’t told is how to make it – PB – happen: the nitty and gritty details of implementation and design when we have been given the go-ahead to do so. The glory of participatory budgeting, while quite the romance attached to it, involves a host of trials and tribulations, and it starts from more basic, less glorified beginnings.

We have plenty of literature about the politics of specific regions, left-leaning political parties, cultures of protest, but less on how to make PB representative of diversity, including racial, religious, ethnic minorities in idea generation, and how to make processes at par in gender. Moreover, while we may be well versed in intersectional analysis, we may not know how to reach out to communities that need to be incorporated. How do you find the contact information, how do you reach out? To be sure, people have been noting the issues of representation in deliberative bodies for decades now, but it still remains an issue at large. Sometimes, you have all the awareness and good intention for broad inclusion and large numbers, but no one or just small amount of people show up to assemblies/public forums. Thus, you could be well versed in facilitation techniques and public participation, but have very few to mediate discussions for. How do you draw out big numbers?

What this means to point out is that designing a process, as opposed to observing it from the in-or-outside, involves grinding away to see to it that people show up to assembly meetings, that facilitators and delegates and volunteers are prepared, for anything and everything. As part of a steering committee for participatory budgeting, my story of getting involved was inspired by the need to bring theory to practice; my academic life has revolved around the idea of making democracy more deliberative. What has transpired is fascinating from a researcher’s standpoint, but probably more long-lasting is the appreciation of the colossal effort that is needed to make it work, to ensure people and bodies are in place for assemblies, to have volunteers do literature drops to reach a broad audience of people, to garner (some or any) funds you may not have for printing materials. The steering committee I am part of is tasked with the revamp of PB in the inspired Ward 2 of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Politics cannot be left out of the picture in the success of PB in Hamilton, and indeed it has been quite relevant to the subsequent implementation of both voted on projects and PB going forward. Similarly, PBW2 has also been a story of an astonishing array of motivated residents who have built PB up from scratch, and to something quite special as the resident voter turnout on final projects in its pilot year (2013) was the largest per capita, world-wide for a first time PB. Yet, the 2016 process about to begin has had to be designed with little foundation to go on, as there has been a sort of disconnect between the two previous budget cycles (2013 and 2014) for reasons not touched on here. This raises the relevant question: given the chance to make PB from scratch, what would you do and how?

That is the more relevant question, I feel, having participated from the start (and it still being very early on as well). At what point do academic readings get met with reality and how can people’s bases of knowledge be applied towards a PB process? It involves a great deal of learning-by-doing. For example, a basic framework of principles and ethics needs to be established, then incorporated into comprehensive framework of by-laws/policies, and further made into accessible language for public use; posters need to be designed as well as assembly idea generation forms; emails to residents and neighbourhood associations, religious affiliations and unions need to be conducted en masse. More importantly, people need to be engaged and this is no small task to undertake. Reaching out to a Ward of 50,000 plus people for example, with a small number of volunteers is a huge process, and reaching out to the most marginalized, a very real and serious concern is all the more challenging. Presentations need to be given to members of the community, as PB is not something people know about, and even when they do they are not so easily persuaded of the merits of it and its relevance. Similarly, getting hold of city staff officials can prove to be a process that requires its own kind of finesse.

In thinking about PB there really needs to be an emphasis on building connections, on building a base of support and volunteers, as well as establishing links with the local politician and the local city staff who looks after the costing of proposals alongside delegates. Strategies of integrating people into design and outreach are absolutely vital. Much of the process in PB Ward 2 Hamilton is done from the bottom-up; we have had the responsibility of doing everything by ourselves. Practitioners are faced with the managing of basic but mundane needs to the solving of more complex tasks like the bringing of people together, and this tends to require a lot of motivation by committed people who must think outside of the box, be able to create on the spot, and drive forward the attempt to establish new spaces for participation.

[1] For reference to this literature see Nick Vlahos, “The Politics of Subnational Decentralization in France, Brazil and Italy,” Journal of Public Deliberation Vol. 9, Iss. 2, 2013.