Mainstreaming participatory budgeting

Policy briefing – Mainstreaming participatory budgeting: What works in building foundations for a more participatory democracy?


This policy briefing reviews how participatory budgeting (PB) has become central to advancing three policy agendas in Scotland – public service reform, community empowerment and social justice – and examines the requirements to mainstream PB including the co-production of new systems, new mindsets and ways of working.

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Policy Briefing – Mainstreaming participatory budgeting: What works in building foundations for a more participatory democracy?

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Published: December 2018 by What Works Scotland



Key points

  • Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic innovation that has become central to advancing three policy agendas in Scotland: public service reform, community empowerment and social justice.
  • The grassroots growth of PB within Scotland's communities has been accelerated by increasing political, legislative, policy and capacity-building support since 2014. This has expanded PB processes from a handful in 2010 to more than 200 to date.
  • The Community Choices programme has generated an investment of £6.5 million by the Scottish Government, and local authorities have also allocated an estimated £5 million to PB processes so far.
  • These developments have built some foundations for the 'mainstreaming' of PB, which goes beyond the community grant-making model that has been predominant and opens up space for more complex models that also involve mainstream public budgets and service design.
  • For PB to make a substantial difference in the lives of citizens and communities, democratic innovators across Scotland will have to overcome a range of challenges related to culture (mindsets, attitudes, ways of working), capacity, politics, legitimacy and sustainability.
  • What Works Scotland has highlighted several areas for improvement, including the need to increase the deliberative quality of PB processes and their focus on tackling inequalities. Realising the transformative potential of PB depends, to a great extent, on those two dimensions.
  • Building effective digital infrastructure to complement face-to-face PB processes will be instrumental to the success of mainstreaming PB and enabling large-scale citizen participation.
  • The mainstreaming of PB must be supported by properly resourced and trained teams of local authority staff, including engagement practitioners and community organisers who can develop strategies to remove barriers to participation and ensure diversity and inclusion.
  • Involving a cross-section of the relevant population is essential for the legitimacy and effectiveness of PB processes.
  • National and local support for the mainstreaming of PB should include the development of regional initiatives that create space for peer learning and support across neighbouring local authorities. This may include the creation of cross-authority PB delivery teams that can support each other in the design and facilitation of large-scale PB processes.
  • Mainstreaming PB may require revising current local authority budgeting systems so that finance departments and procedures are retuned to accommodate new participatory and deliberative processes.
  • PB organisers must be mindful that whatever systems are put in place in the early stages of mainstreaming PB are likely to create path-dependencies for all future processes. Therefore, building mechanisms to regularly review those systems is key for ongoing learning and adaptation.
  • The success of PB depends on the buy-in and contribution by politicians and public service leaders who may not have been part of the PB journey in Scotland so far. As the foundations to mainstream PB are built over the next two years in each local authority, all relevant stakeholders, gatekeepers and powerholders must be involved in co-producing the new systems as well as fostering new mindsets and ways of working.

Introduction: What is participatory budgeting?

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a process that involves citizens in deciding collectively how to spend public money. This democratic innovation originated from blending two policy agendas: community empowerment and social justice. Over three decades, PB has evolved from experiences in Brazil to a global movement with thousands of processes around the world.
While PB processes vary depending on the context, conveners should consider ten key strategic choices in designing and implementing PB (for more details see Harkins & Escobar 2015). Below is a table summarising these crucial considerations.

Policy briefing