Between 2009 and 2010, a project known as ‘You Decide!' was given £4.76 million by the Tower Hamlet's Council, plus an additional £300,000 by the local Primary Care Trust (PCT), totalling over £5 million over the two years.
Tower Hamlets was split into eight Local Area Partnership (LAP) areas which together formed the basis of the project. A single You Decide! event was held in each LAP, and LAP Steering Groups (made up of residents, councillors and service providers) helped to monitor and shape the services which would be delivered in their local area.
The process began with an organising team asking for bids for delivering council services which could appear on a list of choices. The bids had to meet one of the five Council priorities or one of the LAP's own priorities identified over the past year. After being presented to Cabinet, the bids were shortlisted by council staff.
An advertising campaign using a mix of traditional methods (such as posters and leaflets), and networks (such as those of the councillors and steering group members), were employed to reach as many of the community as possible. Through the campaign people were encouraged to register for participatory budgeting events, with a capacity of at least 100 people at the events in each LAP area. Overall, 815 people attended the events, and the range of advertising techniques engaged a diverse group.
Each LAP was given £280,000 to buy projects offered on the shortlists. The events themselves were split into three stages. First, participants were informed about each of the projects on the list in detail. Second, they deliberated with each other about which services they liked and why they considered them to be important for their local area. Third and finally, they voted in an interactive manner, buying the most popular items in the list over a series of rounds, watching the total amount of money decrease as they spent it.
During the projects themselves, all the LAP Steering Groups were invited to a ‘Service Speed Dating' event where they met the providers of the services and negotiated with them to alter the services to suit the preferences of the local area. Many of the services were considerably altered.
In the evaluation of the events a majority of participants said they had developed skills linked to empowerment, and the community overall felt they could better influence their local environment and services. There was a recognisable impact on individuals, communities and decision making through increased levels of empowerment. 77.2% wanted the council to repeat the event in the future.
- An effective advertising campaign in the lead up to the events helps to engage a diverse range of citizens.
- By creating a list of priorities, local authorities can ensure that the proposed bids are suitable from their own perspective. In best practice, these priorities would also have been co-produced with involvement from local people.
- Shortlisting projects in advance of participatory budgeting forums may be necessary, but transparency should be ensured through use of pre-agreed criteria – in this case comparison with local priorities.
- ‘Speed Dating' with service providers allows for greater deliberation and thus a more informed choice when allocating money. It also creates space for citizens and services users to directly influence providers and improve project proposals.
- Dividing boroughs into smaller areas creates a local focus and manageable budget, which can nonetheless be facilitated by a single local government function. In relation to devolution, a combined authority team could support each local authority to run its own participatory budgeting exercise which would then feed into regional budgets.