True governance is about utilitarianism. The right choices in terms of policy and action should create maximum happiness for the greatest number of people. For city administration, budget allocation – the funding designated for expenses on civic infrastructure and services – usually serves as the first and most vital step.

In most cities, the mandate for allocating the budget lies with the municipal corporations, municipalities, and nagar panchayats or town councils. But for these agencies to serve their constituents better, there must be a reliable process to ascertain what citizens need and want and what projects will satisfy most of them.

An effective process that is not dependent on guesswork would prevent the wastage of funds and ultimately provide a better quality of life by truly accounting for the needs and concerns of the residents.

More often than not, there are never enough funds nor time to do everything. How should funds and time be prioritised, and whose aspirations should be addressed? How can the civic budgeting process be made more inclusive, equitable and effective?

Participatory budget-making

Participatory budgeting is a tool for inclusive policy-making that directly involves citizens in deliberations on the distribution of municipal funds. It provides elected representatives with insights and perspectives from multiple stakeholders to create focus on funding choices.

The process follows an annual cycle of engagement with phases for planning, executing and reviewing the budget. Citizens define what features, concerns and sectors in their neighbourhoods and cities should receive funding, ranging from footpaths, streetlights, parks and drainage systems to housing, hospitals, schools and others. They are then asked to collectively prioritise these projects through a transparent and democratic rating system.

Global success stories

The roots of participatory budgeting can be traced to the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1989, under the leadership of the Workers’ Party in coalition with pro-democracy social movements. Its initial success soon made it attractive to other municipalities. Today, participatory budgeting is successfully being implemented in 1,500 cities across the world.

Pune was among the first Indian cities to introduce and implement participatory budgeting in 2005 and has been successfully doing so ever since. Every August, the municipal corporation publishes advertisements and invites residents to submit suggestions for the forthcoming budget.

Citizens are encouraged to fill in and submit a suggestion form that is available online or at a local ward office. The proposals on civic work are then sent to the prabhag samiti, or division committee, which comprises elected representatives of the locality, to be incorporated in the municipal budget.

Participatory budgeting was also introduced in Seville in Spain in 2004. By 2013, approximately $17 million of the city’s total budget of $1 billion is allocated through participatory processes.

In 2009, residents of Chicago’s 49th ward were the first to introduce participatory budgeting in the United States. Since then, Chicago has successfully implemented six voting cycles across the city (and is currently in the seventh cycle).

The case of Mumbai

For Mumbai, a bottom-up system can be considered where municipal budget-making is decentralised to the neighbourhood level with citizens directly involved at all stages of planning. The process would involve the following steps:

1. Identification of percentage share and budgetary constraints:

The initial step should be to define the percentage of the total capital budget that would be determined by the citizens. For instance, of Mumbai’s Rs 10,000-crore capital budget for 2021-’22, about 30%, or Rs 3,000 crore, could be decided by the citizens through the participatory process.

2. Delineation of neighbourhoods

Once the allocation of funds towards participatory budgeting is defined, each ward can be divided into about ten neighbourhoods, and each neighbourhood can be given a fixed sum out of the total amount. Thus, 600 sq km of Mumbai can be divided into pockets of 5 sq km each. Within the fixed sum, each neighbourhood can decide demands for various civic or public works.

3. Annual public neighbourhood-level meetings:

To deliberate and collectively decide where the money should be spent, citizens can be invited to public neighbourhood-level meetings using pamphlets and newsletters sent by their resident welfare associations or societies. Social media platforms as well as messaging platform groups can be used to spread awareness about the budgetary process. Clear information about the budget, its timeline and process must be provided, allowing citizens to come prepared to the meeting with ideas, concerns and suggestions. Such transparency will also help gain the trust of the citizens.

Assuming about 100 residents show up to each meeting, the features raised by them can be recorded, enlisted and prioritised by a rating or voting system in three hours. Features can range from pavements, streetlights, bus stands, public toilets, public parking, drainage, bus stands etc. The priority of each feature can be determined by the number of citizens it affects – a larger pool affected would increase the rank of the feature.

4. Drafting prioritised list of proposals and submission of citizen input:

A prioritised list of proposals can be drafted and sent by each neighbourhood to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, made up of elected representatives of the people for review and financial feasibility. This would then culminate in a budget presented to the city at large.

Citizens should be offered feedback about their ideas and notified about development and work undertaken during the year. Additionally, before the next meeting, citizens should be encouraged to review the successes and failures of the previous year’s budget.

5. Checks and balances

Critics may argue that the participative budget is time-consuming compared to an imposed budget. Since the budget preparation starts from the ground level to the top authorities, too much participation may derail the process and waste time on matters of less concern. Also, the participatory model could sacrifice long-term planning to prioritise local issues, and ignore regional or national issues to meet citizen demands.

However, it is important to understand that while any tool meant to support decision-making may be lengthy, such processes are aimed at deepening democracy, preventing corruption and building equitable communities for all.

Moreover, such detailed timelines often allow important decisions that affect citizens directly to pass through multiple rounds of deliberation, allowing the most refined outcomes to be generated. Further, addressing local matters is important since there already exist numerous other decision-making processes by municipal corporations and governments that target national concerns.

Also, it is usually recommended that 30% of the total budget should be participatory. This leaves the remainder of the budget up to municipalities for allocation towards macro-issues.

To ensure that the participatory budget does not become redundant over a period of time, a system of checks and balances can be put in place. A system can be implemented wherein, depending on the total capital budget, a range of one to three projects can be allowed per neighbourhood, in the order of priority.

When proposals are submitted by each neighbourhood to the municipal corporation, they should be strictly required to follow the order of priority, and not pick and choose between projects based on which is cheaper. In this sense, the municipal corporation could work in a decentralised manner to ensure transparency and coordination, and develop adequate infrastructure that would best address the needs and concerns of all citizens.

A democratic future

It is important to ensure that the money generated by the citizens is spent for their benefit. As citizens shape the cities of the future, diversity and value must be encouraged along with valuing local knowledge.

As a democratic tool, participatory budgeting holds the key to reaching a more representative sample of residents and addressing their needs as well as aspirations in the built environment. It is only through such a process that cities can truly represent the needs of the people they serve and foster an equitable future.

Rahul Kadri is a Partner & Principal Architect at IMK Architects, an architecture and urban design practice founded in 1957 with offices in Mumbai and Bengaluru.