Around this time every year, local governments set the budget for the following 12 months. A time consuming process where planned expenditure is decided, and then rates are set to meet those expenditures.
It’s your money; do you feel you’re getting sufficient say? Because there is another way …
I believe we need to make two changes to the budget process
Pre-Budget Adoption Council Meeting/s
At the budget meeting this week I moved that we suspend Standing Orders so that we could collectively go through specific parts of the budget, and vote whether they stay in or not. I think this would be transparent and also allow Councillors to register their disapproval on various projects/expenditure. It would effectively allow votes to occur on specific areas of contention rather than having to adopt the budget as an all or nothing basis as is currently done. It is my hope that if a Councillor loses a particular vote on an item via a full vote, they would accept that democratic process and still be able to vote for the full budget.
I resoundingly lost the vote to suspend Standing Orders, and that’s okay. But I question whether all the budget meetings leading up to the adoption of the budget should be confidential. No formal position of council can be made anywhere but in the council chamber, so workshops operate by a ‘consensus’. I believe consensuses can sometimes be distorted, and would prefer an official vote. An added benefit is that ratepayers and residents can really see what their representatives position is.
So, I’d like to see a “pre-budget adoption” council meeting where what would normally occur behind closed doors is open to the public, and every line item which a Councillor wants to discuss/explore, can be debated by the full council and confirmed by an official council vote.
Newly elected Councillor Lorna Clarke mentioned at the budget meeting that Bayswater should consider ‘Participatory Budgeting’ (PB). And I agree, and hope that she moves a Notice of Motion to that effect.
Christensen and Grant (2017) provide a solid overview of Participatory Budgeting, and its history, here. They state PB first occurred in Brazil in 1989. In Australia it first occurred in 2012. There is a wide variation in how PB is conducted, however “to ensure the authenticity of deliberative processes by randomly selecting participants to ensure they represent a microcosm of the wider community.”
This is similar to how the City of Bayswater recently conducted their Local Planning Strategy community consultation which received positive feedback from participants. Details of the process can be found on page 101 here with specific details on the Community (Deliberative) Panel on pages 105 to 108. Essentially, a random cross-section of the community, totaling 30-40 people, attended 2 full days of discussion.
“Deliberative processes are designed to allow space and time for participants to test assumptions, question sources, set criteria, deliberate and form consensus and given the complexity of the work and spending of local government, this deliberative atmosphere is convivial in assessing what can at times be politically controversial decisions.” Christensen and Grant (2017).
Key questions are:
1. Which part of the budget is open to PB? (City of Melville used PB just for $100,000 of community grants)
2. What is the time of the budget outlay? (Just for the 1 year, or longer term projects)
Negatives include the cost, so it is likely PB would only occur every few years. In addition, we are a representative democracy, criticism may occur over elected representatives “outsourcing” decision making like this to the public; in effect it would be a move towards a direct democracy.
If the City of Bayswater goes down this route, there is no reason why we can’t strive to set a new standard in PB.
Power to the People
(Please be aware that these views are my own and have not been endorsed by the City of Bayswater)
Christensen, H & Grant, B 2017, Participatory Budgeting: The Next ‘Big Thing’ in Australian Local Government?, Austaxpolicy: Tax and Transfer Policy Blog, viewed on 6 June 2018, http://www.austaxpolicy.com/participatory-budgeting-next-big-thing-australian-local-government/