Digital Participatory Budgeting in Scotland
Innovative use of digital and online opportunities has made it easier for people to have a greater say in local decision-making in Scotland. A unique cross-sector collaborative approach was taken to developing digital, with collective solutions and sharing of learning achieved through an open, iterative and experimental methodology. The Scottish Government encouraged rapid growth of participatory budgeting and digital, in line with the ambitions of open government and strengthening democracy.
Since 2014 the Scottish Government has been supporting and promoting participatory budgeting (PB) as a tool for community engagement and as a resource to build on the wider development of participatory democracy in Scotland.
The Scottish Government identified that PB supports the principles of Public Service Reform and also complements the aspirations for the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, giving communities more powers to take forward their own priorities and ambitions. It also helps to deliver the Public Sector Equality Duty by advancing equality of opportunity and fostering good relations between different groups.
In 2016, the Scottish Government invited The Democratic Society (Demsoc) to consider how digital participation could play a role in meeting these goals. On the basis of its research - set out in Digital Tools and Scotland’s Participatory Budgeting Programme - they recommended that digital participation could help local PB processes to: reach new audiences; involve more people in decision making; be more flexible in their engagement processes, by overcoming barriers of time and place; speed up engagement processes; and connect local networks to engage with the government and each other.
The integration of digital elements in PB processes has been identified as a way to widen involvement in decision making, gather more data about that involvement, and to bolster councils’ and community groups’ expertise in using digital engagement and decision making tools. PB and digital PB were commitments in Scotland’s first Open Government Action Plan in 2017 https://www.gov.scot/publications/open-government-partnership-scottish-action-plan/ , along with improving access to information, public accountability and civic participation, technology and innovation for openness and accountability.
While isolated examples of PB have been attempted across the UK before, this is the first ever programme - to our knowledge - to introduce in a sustained way the development of digital participation for participatory budgeting, where a growing number of local authorities and communities have been involved in trialing and then developing the use of digital participatory budgeting.
Objectives of the innovation
To help to widen involvement in participatory budgeting - by making idea generation, deliberation and voting online available to a wide variety of community organisations and local authoritie.
To develop the skills, resources and engagement in digital participation practice - to integrate these into an existing participative practice and to understand how these can be mainstreamed across Scotland.
Local authorities - enabling the development of digital engagement and participation skills particular to the digital participation platforms and practices for digital PB. Engendering a culture of openness around spending that remains relatively new.
COSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) is a key part of the programme, helping to develop collective learning and approaches to PB and digital PB for local authorities. This has led them to develop central participatory budgeting expertise staff unit, and now exploring multi-function digital participation platforms for use across Scottish local authorities.
Community organisations - empowering a variety of organisations working with communities to develop their own digital participatory and participatory budgeting practices.
Members of the public – an alternative way to participate, in theory, from their own home without having to attend in person voting events or deliberative events. Feedback was sought of members of the public to find out how they felt about taking part online – if they took part, or if not, why not. Feedback was also taken on the ease of use, the style and whether or not would use similar again to take part. High-level findings are reported in the above mentioned learning report for each council and in detail reported in linked case-studies.
Scottish Government - in developing its understanding of and commitment to open government practices, as well as the fulfilment of the first Open Government Action Plan commitment to participatory budgeting. https://www.gov.scot/publications/open-government-partnership-scottish-action-plan/
The aim is for digital participatory budgeting to become a ‘mainstream’ activity - along with PB - for the whole of Scotland. By the end of the current Scottish Parliamentary term, Scottish local authorities collectively have set an ambitious target for growing participatory budgeting: they aim for at least one percent of their budgets to be decided through participatory budgeting - and to achieve this, many are investing in digital participation. To date, approximately 20 of local authorities in Scotland, out of an existing 32, have used digital participation tools for their participatory budgeting.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Scottish Government has taken a unique cross-sector approach. A collaborative approach, which involved multiple partners, created a culture change in local government engagement with communities, to a more open and participatory culture.
By commissioning out the delivery and experimentation of digital to experts in digital participation, Scottish communities have had access to the latest developments in civic technology from across the world.
The ambition was to replicate offline in-person deliberation, in an online space. Evidence of this in comments/discussion of ideas and testing of deliberative tools.
The key point to recognise in this innovation is the methodology itself – a genuine iterative experimentation, willingness from a collaboration of partners to test new approaches and new tools. This was embedding new cultures of openness, and digital environments for the first time. While this was a challenge itself, it led to communities and staff gaining digital skills.
What is the current status of your innovation?
Innovation started in 2016, and is in it's fourth phase. Learning has been collated from previous phases, and from iterative experimentation over the years. This has led to a move to collective now developing a bespoke digital solution for wider participation. The lessons have been invaluable in getting Scotland to this stage. The narrative and context in Scotland that supports this innovation in digital cannot be underestimated - the ongoing political support and legislative environment, encouraging community empowerment, exploring participatory and deliberative democracy, and the commitment from the Scottish Government to creating a more open government.
Collaborations & Partnerships
Citizens and Community groups - leading and developing, evaluating
Local authorities - testing, trialling and sharing experience
Experts in digital participation commissioned to lead programme - The Democratic Society
COSLA - coordinating collective local authority voice and expertise
International - sharing learning with Northern Ireland http://www.participatorybudgetingworks.org/resources
Third sector - to explore equalities
Universities - to evaluate
Scottish Government - funding
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Citizens : more variety and opportunity to take part
Community groups and citizens involved in developing and planning as citizen voice to guide the PB project. Recieved training and advice on digital.
Local Government officials: encouraged to develop new digital skills and reflect on how this process could make their institutions more open.
Governmental representative bodies: Cosla now coordinating efforts for local authorities to develop infrastructure for digital participatory budgeting.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Results so far:
- A number of local authorities and communities now have embedded skills and practices for digital participation.
- Some local authorities are committing significant investment to using and developing digital participatory budgeting.
Impact is recorded in case studies (publicly available) and The Scottish Government has commissioned external evaluation. Interim report available: https://www.gov.scot/publications/evaluating-participatory-budgeting-activity-scotland-interim-report-year-2/
Regular workshops and annual conferences have been held.
This creates a support network across Scotland for those innovators involved to share experiences. Creation of a PB Champions role to support this.
More local authorities and community groups to use digital participation beyond social media online tools and ‘informing’ communications.
Challenges and Failures
Institutional: Local authorities aren’t used to digital participation. Have not developed (uniformly) policies or approaches to how it works. Participatory democracy is relatively new.
Response: Working with local government officers to understand how they are able to deal with potential conflicts. The development of senior leadership and incentive from Scottish Government - clear targets, eg 1% commitment
Skills: Skills required to do digital participation - developing the platforms, engaging online about them and managing the conversations and the online voting processes - is all new.
Response: Developing and supporting key individuals to continue to learn, such as starting of a ‘digital development group’
Infrastructure and sustainability: No pre-existing digital infrastructure for participatory budgeting, so each instance of PB has had to develop its own.
Response: Latest phase includes research to identify how can become sustainable, and self-commissioning.
Conditions for Success
Scottish Government leadership, including political level leadership and ambition, has helped to grow PB and digital PB in Scotland significantly. However, this creates a challenge of sustainability. There are significant challenges if this early - and ground-breaking - work is to be repeated with regularity and to eventually become a mainstream activity for all communities and local authorities.
Local authorities and community groups need access to assets, best practice, regulatory and ethical advice and the necessary guidance to run and commission online digital participation. Enabling local authorities to explore and learn from doing digital PB themselves.
Wider infrastructure - online platform options that are accessible, easy to do and reliable.
Evaluation processes - ability to reflect and identify good practice - more developed framework for recording and analysing digital processes beyond the simple data that a digital PB process produces.
Rapid growth in digital participation for PB in Scotland – from initial testing with 3, to 10 successful iterations, to further 20 involved, and expansion to community organisations. Potential to grow to all 32. This was possible through the collected learning, experience and training through Scottish Government support and competitive funding process.
Appetite for digital participation has spread across Scottish public sector. Key learnings have been influential in informing work in Scottish Government – who are now exploring setting up a digital engagement platform for PB – and working with COSLA as they explore implementation.
Sharing the learning in digital participation from this innovation internationally: eg) Northern Ireland benefited from learning, with the partner organisation (Demsoc) co-partnering in establishing ‘Participatory Budgeting Works’ to advise, provide training on both offline and online PB, and the integration and establishment of this innovation.
This innovation is in line with the First Minister’s ambition on taking office in 2014 to create a government which is ‘more open and accessible’, and the open government commitments and Scotland’s pioneer role in the Open Government Partnership. This innovation has built experience, appetite and enthusiasm for digital technologies, citizen participation enabled by technology, and a wider enthusiasm for more participatory democracy. This has fed into and strengthened the open government movement. The experience of achieving PB, as a practical realisation of an action of open government, opens up further possibilities for other types of action that contribute to opening up government. Some of the other actions that could be taken (other Open Gov commitments/actions) are far easier to achieve than PB and digital PB which necessitates a real shift in culture.
Some additional learning points:
Willingness and iterative experimentation: It is worth noting the effort and open-mindedness of many participating local authorities, and public to try new approaches – that were not always seamlessly easy to implement (eg outdated digital infrastructure available). The act of trialling new tools and approaches is ground-breaking, and indeed some have received recognition for their success https://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/service-area/chief-executive/chief-executives-services/recent-awards )
Digital skills development:
Many were learning on the project, and finding ways to embed technology. Many of these people were not digital experienced, nor working in that area of technology and IT infrastructure. Training was delivered in all circumstances, and offered to staff and community members, as well as assistance provided to members of the public participating where possible. This innovation built confidence and skills across Scotland for community engagement project
Evaluation has been complex in that often results are intangible, hard to identify and there’s a lack of recording and sharing of learning on the same metrics across Scotland. This remains a challenge to be tackled as next phase of work continues and open government practices grow in Scotland.
Key to development and meeting the 1% target will be resources, infrastructure and support for local authorities and communities to set up and run their own digital participatory processes. The current phase of work is exploring how this will be possible, trying to develop an overview of how digital PB can become sustainable for communities and embedded practice across Scotland.
Full detail on how challenges were responded to, what changed as a result, and how this has all been carried out in an iterative, experimental way, are detailed in full in the innovation Learning report, available here: https://www.demsoc.org/2019/02/06/digital-participatory-budgeting-in-scotland-learning-report/