A big idea 2: Let public vote on council budgets

Max Rashbrooke is a research associate at Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, and has just published the report Bridges Both Ways: Transforming the openness of New Zealand government. This article sets out the second of five ‘big ideas’ drawn from the report, with the rest to follow in subsequent weeks. This article was originally published on Newsroom.

Number two: Direct voting on council budgets

Imagine if you could have a direct say over how your council spends its money – if you could get it to build that children’s playground your neighbourhood needs, or install lighting to make your area safer.

As it stands, you can put in a submission on your local council’s annual plan – if you get the chance – or you can lobby your ward councilor. But whatever voice you have in that process is one step removed from where the decisions get made.

Imagine if, instead, local councils put up 10 percent or more of their annual budget to be decided directly by you and your fellow members of the public. It’s a model that has worked well overseas, notably in Brazilian cities, and often goes under the slightly clunky title of participatory budgeting.

It’s not easy or cheap, of course. (But then why should democracy be cheap, when it’s one of the key foundations of our lives?) It starts with council officers going round their area, block by block, ward by ward, letting people know there is a big chunk of the annual budget up for grabs.

This culminates in a big end-of-year town hall meeting, where residents (or temporary representatives appointed for the occasion) vote to allocate the funds. The great thing about this process is that, unlike referenda where people can vote on issues in isolation, it forces citizens to make trade-offs. If they want more money for library upgrades, there will be less for swimming pools.

When these schemes have been used overseas, they’ve had proven benefits. For a start they get lots of people involved in politics – including people who’ve never been involved before, especially those living in poverty, although the poorest are often still not engaged.

In the Brazilian city of Porto Allegre, up to 40,000 people have been involved in the process each year. And as a result, the spread and quality of public services has increased: in particular, public services have been extended to cover those previously excluded from their benefits. Unsurprisingly, what councils deliver also better reflects what their citizens want.

These methods work best face-to-face – a lot of their magic resides in the interactions of citizens, in the moments when they confront each other’s views and have to justify their own. But that labour-intensive process can be supplemented by less demanding schemes – such as creating longlists of potential building projects for the public to rank online.

“Why should democracy be cheap, when it’s one of the key foundations of our lives?”

As with most schemes designed to create more ‘everyday democracy’, these direct budgeting ideas don’t aim to write local councillors out of the picture. For many reasons they will always remain important, and will have to make most key decisions. Direct voting on budgets is just designed to shift the balance a little in favour of citizens. And the evidence from overseas is that people are more than up to the task, if only they get the opportunity.

One of the big issues this idea would face in New Zealand is the limited power of our local councils. Because we have an exceptionally centralised form of government, our local councils don’t do many of the things – like running schools and health services – that their overseas counterparts do.

That means a lot of council spending goes on things like wastewater services where there isn’t much discretion, or a public interest, in shaping them. Those services, to a large extent, are what they are.

So direct voting on budgets would have to be adapted to local circumstances. It might be that it works better with those that, like Wellington City Council, have unusually large budgets and fund a wide range of projects. Or it might work better in smaller councils that are more flexible and naturally open to their consitutents.

Or it could be that, instead of holding big town hall meetings, councils get citizens involved in different ways – for instance, by letting community boards or other organisations have more control over specific projects, such as upgrades to their local shopping area.

A final alternative: instead of accepting that councils have few powers, we could argue that a move towards participatory budgeting could be the spur for something that probably should happen anyway – the shifting of some services from central government to local councils that arguably have a better idea of what their residents want.

Whatever happens, the basic point is that the more closely people can control certain (though not all) budget decisions, the better the quality of those decisions and, ultimately, the services that result. In an era where people expect more control over their lives and more transparency than ever before, it could be a sensible reform for government to make and thus ensure that it keeps up with citizens’ expectations.

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