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A Bright Hope in The City of Lights

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Antonio Michel
June 1, 2018

Since its Revolution in 1789, France has become a global reference for freedom and democracy. After a succession of short-lived and diverse regimes, the Fifth Republic was established in the middle of the 20th century and received praise for advancements in citizen freedom, democratic institutions and economic growth. Nevertheless, when it comes to citizen participation, the political culture in France has been characterized by a top-down structure and a centralized approach. “Les citoyens” (citizens) have not been actively involved in decisionmaking, in part because officials believe they lack the skills, experience and information to contribute to policies. However, under the administration of Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, a new, promising movement towards a more inclusive government and a more participatory society has begun, highlighted by a Participatory Budget initiative.

Participatory Budgeting (PB) is one tool that increasingly is being used in towns and cities around the world. It not only engages large, diverse numbers of people in deliberative, informed discussions about how to spend public money, but also gives them the power to vote on which projects should receive funding. Pioneered in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989, PB has proliferated around the world, and is currently spreading in the United States. As of 2017, 25 cities in the U.S. have adopted PB mechanisms, located across several states, including Arizona, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas and Washington (for more information, click here).

Participatory Budgeting also exists in France, but as is the case in many other places, it has struggled to take off due to the size of the communities and the lack of institutional coordination. Only 25 of 36,000 cities in France have adopted this tool, and 13 out of those have less than 20,000 inhabitants and only three have more than 100,000.

However, PB has been quite successful in Paris. Since her inauguration in 2014, Mayor Hidalgo has emphasized the importance of giving residents the opportunity to have a voice in shaping the city’s budget. What started as a pilot PB program with a small budget, now has become a large-scale project, with half a billion Euros allocated for the period of 2014-2020.

Participatory Budgeting is open to all residents of Paris, from all ages and backgrounds. Neither nationality nor residency have to be proven. Dozens to hundreds or even thousands of residents can participate in PB by submitting project proposals, voting for projects and monitoring the implementation of the winning projects.

The PB process is supervised by district-level commissions, as well as a commission at the city-level. The district-level commissions include 10 citizens who are randomly selected from the PB online Platform. The city-level commission is composed of both elected and citizen representatives. Specifically, the elected representatives include three council members and a representative of each political party elected at the Council of Paris, and the citizen representatives include eight randomly selected users on the PB website, and two youth (one from the Parisian Youth Council and one from the Students Council).

The annual PB cycle begins at the end of January with the submission of project proposals, which are organized around 14 thematic areas. Any Parisian can submit a proposal for a district-level or city-wide project. Workshops and meetings are held throughout districts to help residents develop and post project proposals. Between March and June, the appropriate commission evaluates the cost, feasibility and eligibility of the proposals. In July, the selected proposals are announced online, and in early September, promotional campaigns for the project are launched. At the end of September, Parisians can vote for up to 10 projects online or in ballot boxes located in public spaces throughout the districts. To ensure fairness, residents can only vote for projects in their district or for city-wide projects. After the winning projects are announced, residents can track and monitor progress online, which helps ensure government accountability.

Since its implementation in 2014, more than 11,200 projects have been submitted. Of these, 416 have been approved and voted on. In 2014, nine projects won and received 17.7 million euros. Two years later, 11 city-wide and 208 district projects were selected for a budget of 94.4 million euros. The number of voters has increased roughly 40 percent in the same period. The majority of the projects revolve around quality of life (25 percent), transportation and urban mobility (15 percent), and the environment (14 percent). The positive impact on the level of commitment and engagement from residents is evident. According to Participedia, the Parisian Office of Urbanism acknowledges several benefits emerging from this initiative, such as: cooperation between citizens and institutions, collaborative dialogue and the implementation of new ideas. Moreover, public workers have learned how to be flexible and open to change, and how to prioritize and plan shorter projects. Similarly citizens have learned about public finance and project management.

Public Administrators around the world can learn from this and other PB projects. Participatory Budgeting can be effective and yield important benefits, particularly when carried out in larger cities, and when the citizens can get involved in various ways. Such processes are even more successful when they are made more accessible, and when age, nationality, residence and other demographic factors are not used to limit participation. Using PB as part of an annual and transparent cycle can increase the consistency of the process and boost public confidence both in PB and in government more generally. There is little doubt, that because budget allocations take into account the preferences and ideas of Parisian residents, the city of lights now shines more brightly.

To learn more about this case, you can visit https://participedia.net/en/cases/participatory-budgeting-paris-france.To read about other innovative applications of public participation, visit www.participedia.net.

Author: Antonio Michel is a Graduate Assistant and a Master of Public Administration candidate at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Before, he worked for three different departments of the Mexican Federal Government (Foreign Affairs, Social Development, and Energy). He obtained his bachelor’s degree in International Relations from ITAM, in Mexico. He can be reached at [email protected]

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