Case study 3
Participatory budgeting – from proposals to community building
Cluj-Napoca I Bucharest I Bucharest, 1st District and 3rd District I Iaşi I Făgăraş
Mihai Tudorică | Association for Community Relations
Doris Cojocariu | Iași Community Foundation
Marian Dobre | Cluj Community Foundation
Rozália Csáki | Odorheiu Secuiesc Community Foundation
Ciprian Ciocan | Sibiu Community Foundation
Cristiana Metea | Țara Făgărașului Community Foundation
Gabriela Solomon | Vâlcea Community FoundationAlexandrina Dringa | CIVICA Iaşi
Dan Postolea | Iaşi municipal government
Cristiana Metea | Fundaţia Comunitară Ţara Făgăraşului
Liviu Ardelean | Făgăraş municipal government
Ana Ciceală | General Council of Bucharest
Ilinca Macarie | Bucharest 1st District Council
Liviu Mălureanu | Bucharest 3rd District Council
Daniela Popa | Deputy Mayor of Bucharest’s 1st District
Diana Culescu | Asociaţia Peisagiştilor din România
Ovidiu Cîmpean | Cluj-Napoca municipal government
Marian Dobre | Cluj Community Foundatio
Participatory budgeting (PB) is a new addition to the toolkit of interaction techniques between local authorities and citizens. It became better known and implemented throughout the country in the last five years, with mixed results. In some cases (see some districts of Bucharest, for example), the lack of tangible results after only one round of voting seems to indicate that the local authorities were not fully invested in the concept of participatory budgets, but rather interested in the effects it would bring in terms of political PR. In other cases (Cluj- Napoca being the best-known example), the process became an integral part of the local administration’s progressive “brand,” even when faced with criticism. In smaller communities, such as Făgăraş, the implications of participatory budgets go beyond the results themselves and mark a different manner of interacting with citizens.
Participatory budgets, and the more general subject of discussions related to local budgets, can provide great insight into the relationship between local authorities and citizens. They can also serve as an indicator of openness and transparency on the one hand, and of strong communities and engaged citizenship on the other.
Within the rather relaxed and permissive legal framework on this topic, local authorities are free to create and implement proprietary versions of participatory budgets. This can prove useful, as it allows for greater flexibility in catering to the specific needs of the citizens, but in turn produces variations that complicate analyzing the subject.
Law no. 215/2001 specifies that one of the core principles of local public administration is to consult citizens in resolving issues of local importance (Art. 2). Law no. 52/2003 on decisional transparency in public administration defines the principles and procedures that local authorities must follow to ensure that citizens are being notified and consulted on legal proposals, which also includes local budgets. Law no. 273/2006 regarding local public finance makes indirect reference to participatory budgeting, by describing the process of approving the yearly budget and the corresponding calendar. As described in the procedural manual put together by Asociaţia Pro Democraţia, these laws offer a framework for PB, but the budgetary process is so complex and rigid that it effectively limits the implementation of participatory efforts.
In terms of civic engagement, participatory budgeting provides citizens with a different way to affect public spending within their municipality, enabling them to have a direct impact and to exercise agency. In comparison to participatory budgets, consultations regarding local budgets – which require public consultations in accordance with the national laws – only allow citizens to voice their opinions on previously-chosen topics and leave them little room for providing and promoting their own solutions to community issues.
Such a participatory exercise can prove very useful for community-building, even if it is limited, both in terms of scope (participatory budgets only cover a limited array of topics, such as parks, public spaces, street art, etc.) and resources (the amount of money available differs from municipality to municipality – Făgăraş has a EUR 15,000 limit, that of Bucharest’s 1st District is a little over EUR 40,000, Cluj- Napoca and Sibiu both stipulated a EUR 150,000 limit for their latest proposals, while that of Bucharest is EUR 200,000). To be successful, PB requires an informed effort, both on the part of citizens and of the local authorities, and it can be an efficient anti-corruption tool, as it is based on transparency and constant dialog and involves many people. In the case of Iaşi, the contribution of citizens in the budgetary mechanism has contributed to greater visibility – and in turn greater accountability – of the local councilors, who are generally perceived to be an anonymous group.
When implemented properly, participatory budgets empower citizens in a continuous and direct manner, complementing the electoral cycle of voting once every four years.
Cluj-Napoca, the first city to implement PB
Participatory budgeting was first implemented in Cluj-Napoca in 2013 in the form of a pilot project limited to the municipality’s largest neighborhood, Mănăştur, following a civil society proposal (which included Adrian Dohotaru, now a Member of Parliament). As Ovidiu Cîmpean, Director of Investments and Head of the Local Development Directorate within the Cluj-Napoca City Hall explains, one of the goals was to improve the involvement of citizens with their own community. Since Cluj-Napoca is a dynamic and attractive city thanks to its academic life, this process involved constant dialog with university representatives and professors as well as with CSOs. This endeavor went beyond the PB mechanism, through the efforts of the Innovation and Civic Imagination Centre, where university experts and citizens meet and debate projects. Moreover, the municipality took notice of the limited involvement of youth in the PB process and thus created a dedicated framework for this age group. Cîmpean believes that civic involvement is a way of creating ownership among citizens and to help people understand democratic mechanisms and procedures. After the initial COM’ON Cluj project in 2013 and the shift of the focus to youth and informal groups, two additional editions took place in 2015 and 2016, when Cluj-Napoca was the European Youth Capital. This PB initiative targeted young people aged 14-35 years, and the source of funding for the selected projects was the local budget of the municipality.
The official launch of participatory budgeting in Cluj-Napoca took place in 2017, building on the lessons learned through past experiments. Since this example provided a starting point for other municipalities trying to implement PB, it is important to understand the framework behind Cluj-Napoca’s take on participatory budgeting.
The 2017 edition covered six topics: alleys, sidewalks and pedestrian areas; traffic safety, mobility and accessibility; parks and playgrounds; public areas, public lighting and furniture; educational and cultural infrastructure; and digitalization. These categories have been retained during the following years. The price estimate for proposals is limited to EUR 150,000 EUR. Voting is open to anybody over the age of 18 living, studying and/or working in Cluj-Napoca, which is verified by accessing the location of the device used to vote. Proposals can be submitted by anyone eligible to vote, in line with certain general guidelines, such as that they should be of general interest, fall under the jurisdiction of the municipality and not pursue any electoral or commercial intent. Proposals can be altered to make them more compliant with internal regulations (such as the need to get multiple approvals from different municipal departments) and similar proposals can be combined into a hybrid project. The procedure also provides for participatory workshops, intended to stimulate public dialog on the topic of PB in general and on each proposal in particular.
Voting takes place online, in a two-step process. First, each registered user has to choose one proposal for each category. The top three proposals in each category and the runner-up projects with most votes, regardless of topic make it to the second round. During this round, each user can only vote for one proposal. Six out of the final 15 projects are the most popular ones from each category, followed by the remaining nine with the most votes overall.
Information on the status of projects is available on the project’s website. The previous three editions, each with a total of 15 projects per year, have produced the following results so far:
- 2017 – 7 completed projects, 2 underway, the rest are at early stages / 10,530 votes
- 2018 – 5 completed projects, 1 underway, 1 on hold and the rest are at early stages / 3,659 votes
- 2019 – 2 completed projects, the rest are at early stages / 2,539 votes
Given the specific circumstances of 2020, which relate not only to the direct effects of the pandemic, but also to the uncertainties surrounding the local elections (the elections were postponed, but the definitive date was announced only in July), the mayor of Cluj- Napoca declared that PB would also take place this year, with or without changes, but no recent updates are available on the relevant website.
Even if it is being hailed as an innovative approach practiced by an equally appraised municipality, Cluj-Napoca’s PB initiative has its critics. MP Adrian Dohotaru, who has promoted PB in Cluj-Napoca since 2012 and is currently working on a nation-wide legal framework on the subject, highlights the main issues with Cluj-Napoca’s PB model – and, by extension, with the PB process at the national level. PB, he argues, covers only a minimal share of the local budget and is not centered around deliberation; nonetheless, even with all these flaws, it still makes an important contribution in terms of civic engagement and administrative innovation. The focus of the local authorities seems to be PR, rather than the effective implementation of proposals, and ever fewer citizens vote for the projects. On top of that, there is no social policy dimension to PB, which would be a great boon for a city that prides itself on having the most modern and European administration in the country. Participation is also an issue – greater citizen involvement could be fostered by organizing debates and public meetings. The current model sees the city as a unitary entity, without considering differences in neighborhoods when it comes to population, income and resources. If the stated goal is to improve the overall quality of life and the indirect gain is increased citizen participation, then organizing public debates could kindle cohesion around certain initiatives, whereas the current framework encourages individuality and competition, mostly among digital natives.
In addition to Adrian Dohotaru’s comments, it is worth noting that the digital-only format can be limiting. This is a concern raised by Bucharest activist Irina Zamfirescu who, among other issues, states that online-only interaction further disenfranchises citizens with fewer resources and wealth – a group that would greatly benefit from being more involved in the decision-making process.
PB in other municipalities – Bucharest, Iaşi, Făgăraş and others
The general process presented above has been implemented, to varying degrees of success, in other cities since 2017. In the case of Bucharest, it was not only the municipality that promoted a version of PB, but also some of the district administrations. In Iaşi, an original take on the idea helped to promote citizens’ involvement, and in Făgăraş, a small community was brought together by the efforts of the local authorities and CSOs.
After the 2016 local elections, the new mayor of Bucharest, Gabriela Firea, supported by most of the city council, began a multitude of projects designed mainly to score PR points. Among public fairs, free concerts and prizes for the best-looking balcony in town, the Bucharest municipality (PMB) initiated a PB program, Propune pentru Bucureşti (Propose for Bucharest). In August 2017, following the Cluj- Napoca model, the Bucharest city council approved a proposal to allocate EUR 4,000,000 from the 2018 budget to PB.
The campaign, which started a month later, in September 2017, follows a simple process –citizens can submit their proposals online, said proposals are evaluated for eligibility and selected by PMB experts, and citizens can then cast their votes, which in turn will yield 20 projects to be implemented the following year. Proposals fall under one of eight categories – healthcare, cultural infrastructure, public spaces, parks and playgrounds, smart city, infrastructure (pedestrian zones, squares, sidewalks), traffic safety and accessibility, and social infrastructure. While Cluj-Napoca’s PB model featured public workshops, they are not included in the Bucharest version.
Moreover, simply by checking the rules, some problematic features stand out: PMB not only left out dialog from the implementation phase of this public policy, but did not include it in the design phase either – CSOs and informal groups were not consulted on the matter and the proposal does not include the idea of community engagement; there is a lack of dialog, both within communities and between communities and their respective local authorities – for instance, a proposal cannot be submitted on behalf of a group; there is no community outreach – whereas the municipal representatives in Cluj-Napoca acknowledged the importance of informing and maintaining a constant conversation with citizens, PMB failed to include mechanisms or individuals that could help to facilitate this project. A more in-depth analysis of Bucharest’s PB scheme even describes this as “a contest that harms the idea of PB, a simple contest of ideas within a small group, with options filtered by PMB experts and voted by a small audience.”
The list of projects can still be found online, even if the official website no longer works. The most voted proposal, dedicated to increasing traffic safety, received 1,446 votes. No other iteration was organized in the following years.
As regards the results and the implementation of the winning projects, in the absence of an official response by PMB representatives, the answers were provided by city councilors (Ana Ciceală, USR) and members of CSOs (Irina Zamfirescu, Active Watch).
Ana Ciceală recalls that, after the voting ended, the first two proposals were discussed and partially implemented. The winning proposal was only put partially into practice, with little clout and follow-up. The runner-up, a proposal designed to aid couples facing infertility issues, was “adopted” by the mayor (since it aligned with her platform of helping the elderly, married couples and mothers), presented and voted in the council and implemented through Bucharest’s healthcare agency. Councilor Ciceală complains that, since there is
no dedicated department on the topic of PB, these projects got lost on the way. Moreover, since the initiator does not take part in the implementation, the original intention gets diluted and there is a distinct lack of empowerment and agency.
Active Watch’s Irina Zamfirescu, involved in monitoring PMB’s activity, has similar complaints. She highlights the fact that citizens and their needs have not been taken into account when shaping public policies in the past and that PB is no exception. Zamfirescu also complains that PMB makes significant changes to the projects, but still presents them as citizens’ proposals. While PMB, the richest local administration in Romania, has the resources necessary to implement PB properly and in an impactful manner, it is unlikely to assign an important share of its manpower to PB. It is also worth noting that, given that the PB process is based on a popular vote, a well-known person with a larger social media following has a significant advantage.
Since 2017-2018, no other PB attempt has been announced by PMB. The official PB website has not been updated and is only accessible via internet archives. Apart from the project dedicated to infertile couples, no news of other proposals that been implemented is available.
3rd District councilor Liviu Mălureanu and his colleagues took inspiration from Timişoara and Oradea (both inspired by the model used in Cluj-Napoca) and forwarded a proposal to the local council in 2018, which was approved. Since time was tight, a lighter version was proposed by the mayor’s office in order to implement the proposal more quickly, which was then approved by the council and subsequently implemented. Sadly, the process only had one iteration. Even if implementation was difficult, citizens were engaged, and the public servants put in the necessary effort. Over 60 projects were registered, despite little promotion and a faulty online platform, and hundreds of votes were cast. There were 10 categories and, even if the rules stated that this project was only addressed to people living or working in this district, voting was not limited in any way. The total sum dedicated for PB was RON 2,000,000 (around EUR 410,000). Since the district administration was not fully dedicated to the project, even if some of the proposals were implemented, councilor Mălureanu expresses his regrets on the subject – he considered this to be an opportunity for citizens to become more involved in the inner workings of the local authorities, not as a project contest.
The 1st District of Bucharest carried out its first round of PB this year. The structure was similar to that of the 3rd District, the original proposal coming from councilors of the same party. While their proposal was not subjected to voting, a similar proposal coming from within the local authority was passed by the local council. Councilor Ilinca Macarie recalls that the proposal, submitted in 2018, included limited funds dedicated to promotional activities and that the money for the projects was supposed to come from a different emergency fund, in order to simplify procedures (in this case, the money would be granted directly, without back and forth talks with each of the departments involved). A distinctive feature of the voting process in the 1st District was that voting was strictly limited to people with
a valid ID proving their residency in the area – proof of which had to be submitted when creating an account, which raised GDPR and security concerns from voters. Deputy Mayor Daniela Popa recalls that security was a central concern and that the registration process was compliant – the issue was that initially, the GDPR policy was not explicitly stated on the website; nonetheless, the issue was fixed, allowing for more than 1,150 users to register and vote for a total of 104 projects. After voting was completed, the winning projects were announced and talks with initiators were scheduled and their conclusions presented on a dedicated Facebook page. Diana Culescu, a landscape architect and president of a group dedicated to this field – Ordinul Peisagiştilor din România – received the most votes with her pilot project on a green registry for trees. She recalls that all interactions went smoothly and that the deputy mayor even built upon her proposal with other possible common initiatives. Both Diana Culescu and the deputy mayor talked about the possible future of the proposal after the local elections that are set to take place in September 2020, expressing their hope that they will not negatively impact the project.
Iaşi.Tu decizi (Iaşi. You decide) was launched in 2018, using the same model as that of Cluj-Napoca, but as an initiative of local councilors from one political party rather than of the municipality. Dan Postolea, head of the Communication Bureau of Iaşi City Hall, recalls the events: councilors from an opposition party came up with a PB proposal, popularized it and encouraged people to vote, but since the local council was not part of the process, the majority of councilors did not vote in favor of this initiative. Based on this situation and on the good working relationship the municipality has with CSOs, a new proposal was drafted, incorporating dialog with civil society, which was ready for implementation in spring 2020 but was postponed because of the pandemic.
Outside of classic PB, Iaşi already implemented its own take on involving citizens in the inner workings of the municipality a few years ago, starting with an idea of the CSO CIVICA Iaşi. Alexandrina Dringa recalls that the starting point for the idea was how most people perceive the roles of elected officials at the local level. The majority of citizens think that the mayor has all the power and that the city councilors have little say in running the city, she argues. That is why in the last four years her NGO created a special website that presents all councilors and displays the results of their activity, in order to create awareness that the city council, the local equivalent of a parliament, has more power than the mayor while mostly remaining in the shadows. The 27 councilors were asked to name the priorities for their mandate, in order to make their activity more transparent and to make it easier for citizens to know whom to address with a certain issue. The website can be consulted here, including the documents relating to the activity of each council member. Following the success of this initiatives, CIVICA launched Cetăţenii Conduc (The Citizens are in Charge), together with the Iaşi municipality. The mechanism is as follows: calls for projects on a certain topic are launched, citizens send in their ideas and three of them will be selected; later on, the selected ideas will be publicly presented at an event where local politicians take part, the idea being that the councilors will adopt one of these ideas, making sure that all bureaucratic hurdles will be cleared to make it happen. CIVICA is aware that such an initiative can be interesting to politicians because it enables them to improve their public image – but in is assessment, this is a reality of political life, and CSOs should not avoid this topic, since it has great potential to promote competition among local political actors.
This small local community held its second round of PB in 2020. Liviu Ardelean, advisor to the mayor, was happy to discuss the topic, since the first round of PB was considered a success. The municipality has a history of good collaboration with local CSOs, and therefore it was considered normal to involve representatives of civic society in all stages of PB. Liviu Ardelean argues that the community was open and involved because previous initiatives that brought together local authorities, CSOs and citizens had proved successful, such as the Ţara Făgăraşului bikeathon. Initially skeptical and expecting negative reactions from the public, municipal representatives were happy to see that even public servants from different departments were eager to help citizens with writing their proposals in the proper format, because there was a sense of community and accomplishment. He mentions that having young employees certainly helped in this regard. The downside was the administrative burden associated with PB, an issue that citizens did not take into account. The municipality also tried to build on the citizens’ involvement to organize public debates on other subjects, but these were hit-or-miss, depending on the topic. While a smaller community usually means more involvement, it also translates into more polarization, Liviu Adrelean argues, since most people are politically involved in some way.
Cristana Metea, from the Ţara Făgăraşului Community Foundation (FCTF), was involved in the PB process. The CSO contributed mostly with ideas on projects for the five categories after it was approached by citizens asking for support. Both the foundation and the municipality helped applicants with writing their proposals, and FCTF even helped with joint applications. FCTF also participated in judging the projects. She considers the PB initiative to be a useful exercise in involvement and community building, acknowledges the involvement of the municipality and is happy with the results of the project.
The PB model preferred by Romanian municipalities originated in Cluj-Napoca; while every municipality put its own spin on it, the basis –and the shortcomings – have remained the same. PB is recognized as a tool for civic engagement, but this does not always translate into how it is implemented. In order to fulfil this criterion, citizens and CSOs should be extensively engaged in the process from the very beginning and remain involved in a hands-on manner until the end.
Since community building should be a desired side-effect of PB, municipalities should encourage informal groups to come together around a topic and come up with a solution of their own. Municipalities – in collaboration with civil society organizations – should also aid citizens during the proposal writing phase, since most citizens are unfamiliar with the formal requirements of the state bureaucracy. Public workshops, information sessions and constant dialog should be the standard, alongside continuous reporting on the current state of affairs of each proposal. While the term “participatory budgeting” implies that the main focus is the budget – how it is decided and spent – its main benefit goes beyond the immediate results. PB enables citizens to experience that their direct contribution can bring about a tangible change, which is why local authorities that seek to innovate and revolutionize the relationship between them and their citizens should extensively target community outreach and building.
Working more closely within the existing framework and ensuring follow-up would be a great addition to the process – the case of Iaşi, which involved city councilors in projects proposed by citizens, could serve as an example. In this case, the councilors reduced the bureaucratic burden placed on citizens, ensured more consistent follow-up from within the local administration and in turn helped to promote grassroots proposal at a city-wide level. In this example, CSOs were involved in the creation of the collaborative framework and facilitated constructive deliberation, which yielded better results.