Direct democracy options: Participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting allows the public to assert control of the future of their local vicinity and prepare voters for future local council elections

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Participatory budgeting is a mechanism which enables the participation of citizens in the process of deciding how public money is spent.

It began in 1989, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where participatory budgeting was successful in dealing with deeply embedded corruption in Brazilian society while empowering marginalised communities.

Participatory budgeting has spread to over 7,000 cities (ranging from metropolises to small towns) around the world. In Malaysia, Penang is the only state known to have practised this concept on a limited experimental basis.

Participatory budgeting has the following cycle of engagement:

  • A steering committee that represents the community sets the rules
  • Residents brainstorm ideas for their communities through small group meetings (eg by gender or age criteria)
  • Volunteers of the community convert these ideas into proposals
  • Residents vote on the proposals that best serve the community’s needs
  • The government or institution funds and implements the winning proposal

Let us look at the example of the methodology used in gender-responsive participatory budgeting in Penang. This methodology has a few major steps:

  • A demographic survey of the community followed by focus group discussions. The focus group discussions involve understanding the local issues, the origins of the issues and how to solve them. Residents vote on a priority list that was developed from earlier discussions
  • Planning and budgeting on the solution
  • Project implementation
  • Project monitoring and evaluation

Let us examine the case of People’s Housing Project at River Road (PPR Jalan Sungai). There were a couple of proposed community projects (ie building maintenance and security) in 2014 that were identified through the surveys. Most of the residents voted to have a building maintenance project, followed by cleanliness.

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As a result of the vote, a community cleaning contract was implemented where residents of the community were invited to apply for roles for this contract project.

The Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC) allocated a preliminary RM70,000 to kickstart the project, and this project was supervised by the council and the local representative.

Hence the gender-responsive participatory budgeting initiative generated some local jobs for this People’s Housing Project and facilitated closer relationships between the council and residents.

Any implementation of participatory budgeting is bound to face challenges such as the level of awareness and the ability of institutions to support gender-responsive participatory budgeting projects.

We believe participatory budgeting allows the public to assert control of the future of their local vicinity and prepare voters for future local council elections. This concept is a tangible expression of citizens being the agents of change, instead of abdicating their future to politicians.

Unlike the other two proposals (referendums and recall elections), participatory budgeting can be implemented without a constitutional amendment. A local council should allocate around 10% of its development budget for participatory budgeting projects.

By introducing these three options of direct democracy, Tindak Malaysia believes we can arrest any further decline in public faith in our governance.

By empowering voters to determine their future, cynicism can be channelled into effective policy proposals. We should not be weighed down by the hopelessness of the current government or worry about the disadvantages of direct democracy.

We should start focusing on how to bring about these three forms of direct democracy options in reality. We can begin by lobbying our politicians to implement participatory budgeting, first in local councils and then push them to draft bills on recall and referendums.

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We must act now for a better Malaysia.

Danesh Prakash Chacko is Tindak Malaysia’s director and research analyst at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development (Sunway University). Fork Yow Leong is an activist with Tindak Malaysia and specialises in law

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