Bringing in the political process of Helsinki’s participatory budgeting

Helsinki city is starting a participatory budgeting process in November 2018, with a 4.4 million euro budget for the first year. Next week already the broad parameters of the on- and offline process will be approved of in Helsinki City Council.

In short, there is an Ideation and Suggestions phase in November 2018, during which actors as the stadin luotsit (‘city guides’) will be holding workshops and events to promote the development of ideas in different places and spaces of the city. There is a Planning phase in January-February 2019 (where more interaction is to take place regarding the ideas coming to proposals, including possibly a merging of ideas), an Assessment phase (where the costs of the proposals is estimated and their feasability confirmed if necessary), the Voting in May 2019 and following that then Implementation.

The on-line process will be using the Decidim platform, which is the open source tool for deliberation and decision making developed in Barcelona during the peoples mobilisations in Spain following the financial crisis in 2008, and which today is being used in more than 50 cities globally. Tools are always also political – and it is interesting to hear how Decidim has brought with it the on-line moments of deliberation.

Between 12.-14.9.2018 I signed up for and participated in an OSBU (osallistava budjetointi/ participatory budgeting) “design jam” organised by the city’s OSBU implementing ‘osallisuus ja neuvonta’ department, which took place as part of Helsinki design week, and which had the organisatory consultancy of pentagon design.

A first observation to be made here is of course that the already worked out timeline, with the open call to discuss the design of the process coming merely two months before the process is meant to start, throws up valid question marks with regards to in how far the process will truly be empowering a citizens process from below. This then of course is not to say the process cannot one day come to serve self-organising in the city, which I guess captures for me the motivation to have nevertheless taken part.

This tension between visions on participation being promoted for the sake of participation – of citizens in the cities plans – or the supporting of participation based on citizens needs – with the city empowering the building of citizens according to their values – was clearly also present throughout the workshop, whilst in itself the organizers of the workshop did go through lengths to listen to and capture on all the present voices.

I summarise in short as to what in particular I was taking part in bringing to the forefront during the workshop, and which I hope will be paid attention to (in the future). In itself my contribution during the workshop has had its grounds in the experiences as a civil society actor myself, as a member of the processes I have taken part in, as well as in the learnings that I have gotten from civil society actors elsewhere having experienced similar processes.

1.The development of the (larger) political vision is to be deliberated by citizens from the start of the process and throughout the process.

The design as laid to the forefront has a start (following an opening party on 26.10 in Gloria) in the Ideation phase. However, this then raises the question – Where is the preceding discussion amongst citizens on the larger political vision of what this participatory budgeting is a part of?

Also, where is the preceding and ongoing discussion as to what kind of objectives do we want the call for Ideas to be furthering? What values are the suggested projects meant to take into consideration? In other words, How do we avoid business as usual to take place? How do we make the process cater to what is not yet happening (enough)?

As a concrete suggestion then, our working group proposed for the deliberative process besides having its local nodes in different asukastalot, and libraries etc., to also have the process have a päämaja, a central location, for instance in Oodi (Helsinki’s new central library, and before Oodi’s opening in one of the neighbouring museums), where citizens, communities and city people could come together to hold deliberative meetings at relevant main moments in the process. This would then be parallel/complementary to the possibilities for commenting and deliberation on the proposals in the Decidim on-line platform.

Experiences elsewhere have pointed to the fact that there should be a good mix of on and off-line in the process, and it is clear that from different perspectives it would be very important to have a qualitative political process also off-line, to discuss things like objectives, principles and who knows one day charters for citizens concerning for instance the go-governing of public space in the city. For sure the target is not to keep on discussing a 4.4 million budget/year, but something far more than that (not only referring to the numerical number here).

2.Participatory budgeting is not a competition. To be celebrated are not the winners of the votes, but the deliberative process at large.

Whilst of course the enabling of projects wanted by citizens is worth celebrating, beyond the winning of votes, the most valuable aspect is the deliberative process between citizens/actors in the city, as also between citizens and city people. Awarenesshould be created that the money to be allocated is but a tool to have a genuine discussion as to What? is wanted to be done, Why? and How?

In addition such a dialogue process can give rise to new cooperations, practises, building of alternatives in the city – offering answers to people’s needs and demands, to larger community building, as also to pressing social and ecological issues.

It was good that in our working group discussions brought out that we find it important that all ideas are valuable, and that also the not enough voted for proposals will remain visible, and might even be able to be supported by other funds.

Also in another working group in particular the qualitative character of the process was stressed, going beyond the voting (the ‘likes’, the fortnite xp’s), when it was pointed out that whereas social media used by youth is the place to interact with them, it would be very important to go beyond the gaming and develop thoughts about democratization in the city and civic action in the classroom, as part of the curriculum.

3.The deliberative process is to be core to the whole of the process, from start, ideation, planning, evaluation, to implementation

The design laid out sofar does not clearly stipulate a role for citizens in the implementation phase of the voted projects. This absolutely and essentially should be the case. This hangs together of course with the first point laid out here, that the participatory budgeting process should be seen as a tool for citizens to be discussing what want to see supported in the city, and importantly also how.

This discussion can take us into the direction of critically evaluating what kind of companies for instance can be building a particular physical construction coming out of the demands.

Or then for instance, it is this deliberation that could become instrumental to be promoting economic actors/communities in the city who are having other values then monetary profit as the leitmotif for their workings. And there are of course an infinite amount of projects imaginable in which it would be exactly very important for citizens to remain on board of the process also in the implementation.

Another main issue, which caught the concern of participants, was the fact that the process is not part of the working agenda of city employees whose expertise would be necessarily involved in the Planning and Assessment phases. It will thus be important to be allocating resources also to this.

Whilst it feels at this stage open as to what will happen in practice with the participatory budgeting process, participating in the workshop allowed for the imagining of the process – when incorporating the elements of the above – as being like a germ for the further developing of municipalist elements in Helsinki city. Participatory budgeting is only one of the things both prompting and benefitting from a working deliberative citizens platform with local nodes. Another issue would of course be policy co-creating in the city. From such a point of view, it would be worth engaging with the process.

Ruby van der Wekken

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