Evaluating Participatory Budgeting activity in Scotland: interim report year 2

Research Summary of interim findings of an evaluation study of Participatory Budgeting activity in Scotland.

Findings in relation to core research questions

1. Impact on local services

For the most part, the activities funded and proposals presented through the various PB approaches and events have not been focused on core council services, with the exceptions of local bus transport in the Western Isles and Edinburgh City Council's housing and revenue roads capital. The nature of activity funded is small scale, reflecting the main mechanism for disbursing funds through small-scale local community grants. The provision of small grants to communities is at some level a council service in itself, and has also traditionally served the purpose of delegating to and facilitating activity directed by local communities according to their needs. The very small scale nature of the proposals presented and the activities funded through the PB activities indicates a number of conceptual, operational, and strategic challenges for local authorities and communities, and the Scottish Government in the roll-out of the commitment to 1% of mainstream budgets.

The impact to date on local services has been limited with no demonstrable evidence of impact or change. The prospect of moving to 1% of council budgets to be allocated through participatory processes means making a 'jump' from area-based allocations of an average of £10,000 to potentially up to £1m each across 23 wards in Glasgow, for example, and on a smaller scale in other local authorities, will potentially have significant implications including:

i. Restructuring institutional processes and opening up routes to participation in resource allocation and priority setting at a higher level within the local authority than currently obtains.

ii. Addressing local authority staffing and resourcing of the process.

iii. Building community capacity for engagement in decision-making on local and authority-wide priorities and service provision.

iv. Clarity on the strategic intent and purpose of expanding participation.

2. Impact on local communities

From the evaluation data and observations to date it is clear that there are mixed views on potential impact. Variations are evident as to whether there has been an impact on local communities of the PB processes, the extent to which any impact has been positive or negative, different perspectives on these questions from community residents and citizens and from local authority and other institutional stakeholders, and the extent to which any impact has been transformational and is sustainable.

What is clear is a high level of engagement and commitment from Council Officers who are involved in the processes. They are enthusiastic in a number of key aspects:

  • re-connecting with communities
  • supporting increased community involvement in priority setting and planning
  • the potential for transforming relationships.

However, a number of competing perspectives exist alongside the enthusiasm. The sustainability of current models is a recurring concern among local officers, reinforced by the absence of robust strategic policy and resourcing commitments at the council level. A second, but not secondary, observation is the resistance or at least uncertainty around the allocation of 1% of council funds through participatory processes and the implications for staff numbers, service provision and quality, and the protection of statutory services.

3. Impact on local democracy

As regards the potential to transform the relationship between citizens and the state, which is a high-level ambition of PB, there is very limited evidence of significant change. What is clearer are divisions in opinion and experience which demonstrate a spectrum of responses and perceptions from largely negative to rather more positive and optimistic.

There continues to be high levels of cynicism as to what the real intent of PB activity is and the extent to which there is 'authentic' (Harkins and Escobar, 2016) engagement. The operational inconsistencies and lack of clear and advance communications in many of the local authority areas, including the case studies, have contributed to a lack of clarity and understanding as to what PB is and why the local authorities are engaging, which in turn have reinforced existing perceptions among community participants of being the object of state (local government) interventions rather than partners co-producing actions and outcomes.

For some participants their experiences of the PB activities are another example of having had something 'done to them' or activities being tokenistic rather than having been part of a changing relationship.

PB activities to date have not generally been presented as 'democracy in action", although some local elected members describe it this way, there are positive and optimistic perceptions of the potential for a changed relationship with more decision-making authority vested in the community, with a sense and practice of ownership and responsibility respected.

A major barrier, however, to effecting a transformation in the relationship between local authorities and local communities is the extent to which local authorities – officers and elected members – are prepared to transfer power to local communities; and the extent to which local communities are organised and resourced to assume that power.

Questions of power are under-developed in the context of PB as a transformation in the relationship between the state and citizens. Among elected members and council officers there is evidence of an enduring perspective that the lowest level of delegation of funds should be the local neighbourhood or area partnership and that elected members and officers should set the level of resources in the community pot.

4. Tackling inequalities

So far evidence for the evaluation has revealed very little reference to the enabling potential of the Public Sector Equality Duty ( PSED) within the Equality Act 2010, or indeed proactively using its provisions to advance equality and foster good relations in PB activities. This suggests that the PSED is an under-utilised lever for local authorities and public bodies to ensure a more inclusive approach to their PB activities, and to maximise the alignment between the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and ethos and drive for mainstreaming equality to deliver more equal and inclusive outcomes.

Overall equalities monitoring of PB activities is limited, with data capture of participation limited to voting events. There is a recurring acknowledgement among officers and elected members of under-representation in engagement, participation, voting, and receipt of funds particularly among Asian, Black and Chinese members of the community. These deficiencies have been highlighted as areas of concern by ethnic minority and community organisations.

PB activities are not (yet) breaking established exclusions experienced by ethnic minority people and other communities, such as the newly integrating communities of refugees and asylum seekers and migrants from 'new' parts of the world. While there is limited evidence of participation by new and established migrant communities, for the most part it has been very localised and limited to one or two groups, and in some cases through places of worship.

There has also been a limited level of participation from disabled peoples' organisations ( DPOs), with one example from Glasgow events, and no other self-identifying DPO leading proposals/bids at local events. A number of proposals have included requests for resources that may be used by disabled people and older people.

There are one or two exemplary equalities analysis where data has been generated and analysed across protected characteristics and this is being used to inform approaches to community engagement and participation. Examples include a thematic project in Edinburgh on tackling hate crime in partnership with the local authority and Police Scotland, and other projects in Edinburgh specifically designed to engage young people. Fife, the Ayrshires and Edinburgh have involved local schools in these approaches. Thematic projects to support local mental health projects and wellbeing have also formed part of activities in the Ayrshire councils and Aberdeenshire.

Other local authorities recognise current deficiencies and the need to improve engagement with a wider range of community-based and community-led organisations.

For the most part equalities concerns, as encapsulated in the protected characteristics within the Equality Act 2010, have largely been considered in the context of socio-economic disadvantage, and a place-based approach to policy dominates in part through the use of deprivation indices and locality planning. Based on the evidence to date, practice of equality impact assessment and analysis of participation, engagement, and beneficiaries appears to be a significant area for development. The intersections of sex, gender, race, class, age, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation and place are not evident in the design and delivery of many PB activities, with the result that 'tackling inequalities' approaches lack a multi-dimensional perspective.


Email: Jacqueline Rae

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