Civic Budgeting? This is Not Going to Happen… And yet it did!

Łódź. Photo: Olga Łabendowicz
Łódź. Photo: Olga Łabendowicz
Łódź. Photo: Olga Łabendowicz

Contrary to the opinion of many sceptics, civic budgeting in Łódź turned out to be a great success in 2013. 908 projects were submitted by the residents of the city and 129.000 votes were casted what has resulted in the case of Łódź being widely discussed and analysed. How was it achieved?

As it usually happens in case of simple questions, the answer is extremely complicated. There was no one reason but a few equally significant aspects that were conducive to the success. To put things crudely, in case of such complicated processes almost everything has to be made right – planning and preparing clear regulations, information campaign, application and civic participation. When one aspect is neglected, the success is prone to failure. I will try to elaborate on some of those slogans below. I will, however, omit most information concerning the description of the procedure itself (due dates, finances, city divisions, among other). Those who are interested in those matters are encouraged to see already existing publications and references1, in which a precise description of all the solutions applied in Łódź may be found2.

 Boundary Conditions – Planning the Process

 The decision to introduce civic budget in Łódź was made gradually3. It is difficult to determine why the authorities have eventually decided to make this step. Certainly, the reasons were various. Participatory budgeting was becoming increasingly popular and the examples of cities such as Sopot were encouraging enough to experiment also in our own backyard. Positive results of pilot participatory budgeting by community councils in Łódź (local auxiliary entities)4 or encouragements by some of civic activists and city councillors were definitely conducive as well. All those inspirations and suggestions would, however, not be as influential if the city authorities were not convinced that civic budget would be not only a conceptual advantage.

In face of forthcoming council elections each additional supporting vote from the residents of the city mattered. The later events have shown that a successfully executed budget may evoke a lot of positive emotions what may be in turn reflected in the results of the elections. Especially in case of policy-makers who – contrary to their predecessors – have put stronger emphasis on issues connected to civic participation. Regardless of what has prevailed, one thing is certain: Łódź – in comparison to many other big Polish cities – has had time to prepare to introduce civic budget.

After getting a permission from the City Council, president Hanna Zdanowska has appointed a team5 which for a few months was preparing the regulations for the project. The team consisted of individuals of various backgrounds what was definitely an advantage. Next to city and community councillors there were also administrative officers, members of NGOs and representatives of academic world. They have worked intensely. During meeting held every week for 17 weeks, the process of participatory budgeting was being analysed in every possible manner – from issues related to redistribution of resources, types of tasks submitted, modes of voting to objectives of campaign aimed at residents of the city.

Often the discussions were heated and in case of a few issues – considered quite controversial – consensus was possible to be reached only by the means of voting. Eventually a document was accepted and signed by every member of the team. What is also important is the fact that recommendations formulated by the team were almost entirely accepted by city authorities and translated into the language of regulation which later on became the legal basis for conducting civic budgeting.

Aware of the fact that we could not have foreseen all possible situations, we were, however, still proud of the created frame – including entries about the cyclicity of the process, lower age limits of participants6, scope of projects to be submitted, transparency of the process, extensive promotion, information and education activities related to the entire enterprise aimed at residents of the city and finally introduction of an obligatory annual evaluation. Briefly speaking, most requirements postulated by II Congress of City Movements debating in Łodź in a similar time manner were introduced into participatory budget of Łódź7. Appointing of an intersectoral team as well as reflecting the agreements in further actions later on resulted in creating a good practice, in most respects. As good does not mean ideal. There was not enough public consultations with regard to the suggested solutions as for example in Dąbrowa Górnicza. Lack of time was the main problem here. We were faced with alternative – either we arrange consultations and postpone introduction of civic budgeting by one year, or we abandon consultations and this obvious mistake we correct during evaluation after the I edition.

The second solution has been chosen eventually. Boundary conditions were, however, promising. Residents of the city were promised to have an influence on expenditures amounting to 20 mln zł from city budget. Less than the created team has suggested8 but still an enormous amount of money. We could then have hoped to attract attention of residents as well as media. Rules and the structure of the project themselves, on the other hand, allowed us to believe that a good participatory budgeting can be conducted in the city.

Promotion, Information, Education

Even the best possible rules of participatory process will not do a thing if no resident of the city accepts an invitation to take part in it. The aforementioned team as well as the city authorities were perfectly aware of this fact. Therefore from the very beginning a huge emphasis in recommendations and the regulations was put on issues connected to promotion, information and education.

It was agreed upon that actions encouraging residents of Łódź to take action as well as content-related support shall be held throughout the entire process of preparing civic budget. According to recommendations of the team, NGOs were to be in charge of conducting a promotion, information and education campaign.

Two organisations which have submitted a joint offer have been chosen through the competition organised by the city: Fundacja Normalne Miasto – Fenomen and Łódzkie Stowarzyszenie Inicjatyw Miejskich Topografie. They were responsible for preparing information materials (printed and electronic, including a website9), promotion as well as for constant communication with the residents of the city – by the means of mass communication, Internet and face-to-face communication. We have organized a series of meetings: two with stakeholders (i.e. with community councils and NGOs; April); 36 community meetings (one meeting per each local auxiliary entity; two meetings per day; May); five research tours (one tour per each district; May); one meeting with deaf residents of the city with help of a translator of sign language (June); six meetings devoted to presenting regulations concerning voting and projects submitted by the residents of the city including five district meetings and one general assembly (September). 805 people came to the meetings. We must also count in participants of other meetings we were invited to and which were organised by outside groups not as a part of the campaign (eg. meetings of supporters of various political parties such as Civic Platform or Democratic Left Alliance). The sheer number of participants of such events signifies the scale of the project.

While preparing the campaign we tried to make submitting the prospective projects by the residents of the city as easy as possible. Therefore in June we have been assisting in filling out the forms for submitting the ideas. We were available by phone, e-mail and in person. Moreover, should there be a need – we visited the person concerned (eg. residents of day care centres). Frankly speaking, we were not expecting such an immense interest in the project. Number of conversations increased daily. We have answered the last call 10 minutes before the closing date of submitting projects – someone wanted to know were the documents shall be filed.

By the end of June me and my friend have estimated that we have answered 264 phone calls. Moreover, 121 visits were paid at the information desk and six additional advisory meeting were held besides that. The City of Łódź Office has also made a huge contribution by appointing in each organisational unit an office worker or workers who were to help residents by answering their questions concerning their ideas for projects. Public administration officers were helping with identifying proprietorship status of a given parcel as well as estimating costs of projects. They were also providing advice whether a given project may be completed in one year. Despite the fact that the smaller units were simply paralysed by the abundance of responsibilities, most office workers did their utmost to answer the posed questions immediately.

In September, right before the voting, the City of Łódź Office has additionally got involved in the promotion by eg. purchasing press announcements, production of radio and TV spots, a number of press conferences and “door to door” campaign, in which participated volunteering city officials as well as representatives of the city authorities, including president Hanna Zdanowska10.

Also other organisations, institutions and communities (eg. some community councils, Youth Community Council in Łódź, residents of the city) have spontaneously got involved in the promotion. Such were our hopes and expectations from the start and this is how the entire process has been planned. We have hoped that many solutions included in the regulations of civic budgeting will force residents of Łódź to inform about the process their neighbours, families and friends. Already at the stage of submitting the proposal of a project, we required 15 signatures supporting it what has resulted in a need to spread the information about the project among others. Some proposals were signed even by almost a thousand people. Grapevine communication has once again proved successful.

When civic budget has become one of the hottest topics in the city, the residents took over the reign. NGOs and administration had nothing much to do but to support the already existing interest. The promotion and information success was, however, undisputed. The cooperation of local government with third sector organisations had very good results, despite minor problems. The City of Łódź Office could have redistributed the responsibility for some tasks it did not want to be occupied with. NGOS have managed to conduct the meetings as independent moderators as well as to provide clear and understandable information about the budget. Some solutions we have introduced – such as advising – proved to hit the bull’s-eye and has drawn attention of other cities. Good results of a similar cooperation have encouraged other local governments which – as in case of Warsaw – have decided to commission the campaign to NGOs.

From an Idea to Application

In the case of promotion, information and education campaign there were a few fathers (and mothers) of the success. When in comes to issues related to submitting, verifying the applications and voting, it was almost completely dependant on the city authorities (executive and legislative) and administration. If it was not for the enormous work done, the entire enterprise would not have a chance to succeed.

Not many people are aware of the challenges the local governments face due to civic budgeting. In Łódź, the issues connected to participation are dealt with amongst all by Office of Civic Participation, which played a vital role in the entire process. Due to the fact that projects submitted by the residents of the city concerned tasks related to the competences of municipality and county, involvement of officials of most organisational units of the City of Łódź Office became crucial. The Office took up the coordination of the process. At some point – when 908 applications were submitted to the office which had to check them in terms of formal, legal and economic efficiency requirements or during voting and counting of votes – there was an enormous amount of work to be done. Office workers often stayed overtime, even up to 2AM.

Other units of the City of Łódź Office also had much to do when it came to applications, especially due to the fact that the stage of verification has traditionally coincided with period of summer vacations. Temporary commission of city council for civic budgeting in Łódź has also played a vital role. There, the already verified applications were submitted. Councillors could support or change the decision made by administration so eventually they were responsible for the decision which idea will be submitted to voting. Summer meetings of the commission were hence open for all those who were interested in the matter.

According to adopted regulations the entire process of budgeting was to be transparent. Therefore, those who have submitted their ideas to the project could not only get acquainted with an extensive justification provided by officials but also could actually take part in the discussion during the session of the commission. Councillors have met 15 times just to consider applications what took ca. 60 hours. In the meetings took part also ca. 540 residents of the city. Some of the applications were considered a few times to make sure whether none of the ideas was dismissed too early.

Thanks to the effort of the councillors, only 146 applications (ca. 16%) were verified negatively. Only projects impossible to be implemented, those which dealt with parcels of an unclear proprietorship status (eg. parcels not owned by the city), requiring a lot of time to complete or due to exceeding funds devoted to civic budget, were rejected.

Some ideas have already had secured financing from a different source hence there was no need to submit them to voting. Thanks to work of councillors and administration, suggestions of residents of Łódź were verified justly and transparently. Also nine days of voting (via postal correspondence, personal contact and Internet) went smoothly. There were, however, some instances of people trying to pass itself off as somebody else, but those were marginal situations. The City of Łódź Office has worked out a procedure thanks to which each person whose PESEL number (Universal Electronic System for Registration of the Population in Poland) has already been used in electronic voting could withdraw an unfair vote after filing an adequate declaration. It turned out that most residents might have experienced more difficulties due to network server crash two hours before the closing time of voting.

Summary – Everything is Fine But What Now?

The first edition of civic budgeting came to a successful end. Łódź conducted a complicated participatory process without making any shortcuts. Well-thought-over rules, intensive work of authorities and administration, involvement of NGOs and most of all an enormous public enthusiasm resulted in creating participatory budgeting which may be presented as a good practice, in most respects.

The first year has brought difficulties but it was also groundbreaking as it introduced an entirely new model of co-decision-making of the residents of the city. In the next years it shall already be easier – it will require presumably much less effort to inform the residents how does the participatory budgeting work and how one can participate in it. We already posses the knowledge necessary for avoiding some of the mistakes.

The bar is, however, very high and it will definitely take a lot of effort not to knock it off. We may not let down the trust of the residents of the city. A lot remains in hands of local authorities, which are responsible for application of the chosen projects and preparing the next edition of budgeting. After all, even the best participatory process is not given once and forever.

 

Translation: Olga Łabendowicz

 

1 Most of available materials are published in Polish.

2 See: Budżet obywatelski dla Łodzi: materiały informacyjne dla mieszkańców <http://issuu.com/fundacja_fenomen/ docs/budzet.dlalodzi.1> 28.11.2013.

3 Jak budżet obywatelski znalazł się w Łodzi?, <http://issuu.com/fundacja_fenomen/docs/budzet.dlalodzi.info> 30.11.2013, p. 15–16. 

4 Ł. Prykowski, „Głos łodzian się liczy” – czyli doświadczenia z budżetem obywatelskim w radach osiedli, <http://www.gloslodzian.pl/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/glos-lodzian_raport-www.pdf> 15.11.2013.

5 See: Zarządzenie Prezydenta Miasta Łodzi Nr 2476/VI/12 w sprawie powołania Zespołu ds. opracowania zasad funkcjonowania i wdrożenia budżetu obywatelskiego w Mieście Łodzi, <http://bip.uml.lodz.pl/_plik.php?plik=uchwaly/pm/ VI_2476.PDF> 03.12.2013.

6 Submitting projects with no age limit, voting by 16 year-olds already.

7 See: B. Martela Ile partycypacji w budżecie obywatelskim?, <http://partycypacjaobywatelska.pl/wiadomosc/ile-partycypacji- w-budzecie-obywatelskim/> 20.11.2013.

8 1 % of city budget was recommended, ca. 30 mln zł.

10 More in:Raport z konsultacji, <http://bip.uml.lodz. pl/_plik.php?id=35111> 25.11.2013.

The original article was published on the website: <partycypacjaobywatelska. pl>. The article published here is an overview of the original article.

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