Participatory budgeting in Tower Hamlets

Today I visited Tower Hamlets a diverse, multi-cultural municipality in the East End of London that is known as the site  of the largest Participatory Budgeting (PB) project in the United Kingdom. Shazia Hussain spent time telling me about the process she led back in 2008 – 2010.

Implemented two years in a row, the local authority used 2.4M pounds each year of mainstream council funding and this money became available for allocation by the community to top up mainstream services. This was a large scale exercise with a large spend on  communications to ensure the community was fully aware of the opportunitiy to decide the additional services they wished to purchase for their community.  And it was their decision; the community through a voting process made the final decision on spending. In terms of the IAP2 spectrum this project was operating very clearly at the ‘Empower’  level.

Why did this Council decide to embark on this initiative? As a neighbourhood renewal area, the Council had implemented many consultations in the past. This time they wanted mass scale; they wanted many, many people to be involved in local decision making. And they also considered that this process would lead to the delivery of  better and more appropriate services by involving people in the decision making process.

The process

Service providers (council departments and other service providers in the area) were invited to identify projects or services to be considered for funding. (In other PB projects the community identify projects).  In Tower Hamlets the project included commuications to encourage people to become involved, and then one session was held in each local area at which presentations were made about  the options and people were given time to discuss these options with others. And the process culminated in a vote with people ‘purchasing’ services for their local area.  A second level of engagement was undertaken by the successful projects with the service providers inviting community input into how the new service would best be delivered in their local area.

Reaching out to people

Over one hundred people in each of 8 geographic districts were involved. They were successful  in attracting young people and many previously excluded groups. Their reaching out included advertising, posters, reaching every contact they had. In total over  800 people were involved in the deliberations and voting.  The authority had set a minimum – that they would only undertake the process if there were a minimum of 50 people.

The project was considered a success by the local community and within the council it had high level of support from both the elected members and the senior council officers. According to the Participatory Budgeting Unit December 2009 publication “62% of participants felt that the PB process strengthened their level of influence over local decisions and 77% of participatns would like to see the process repeated.”

However, the Authority has not continued to implement these large scale exercises. According to Shazia the activity was successful in buildding trust in the community and they wanted to move on to other ways of substanially involving the community in service delivery and in these difficult financial times they can not afford the large scale efforts  they implemented in 2008 – 2010.  They are now moving on to community planning underpinned by neighbourhood agreements on service levels – and this is another story.

So what can we learn from this large scale exercise – most importantly it builds trust.  And it builds trust because people had real influence – they could see the direct outcome of their involvement. There were many people involved from a wide range of groups – it was coonsidered to be representative. And the discussions were informed and deliberative. But these large scale exercises cost money and this council is seeking ways to embed community involvment in a more sustainable manner – providing a mechanism for on-going involvement on any services with which the community wishes to become involved.

About Kimbra

Kimbra White is a specialist community engagement adviser and facilitator. To get in touch call 0438 435 939 or via her website.