How do you build trust and a better city? Bring the democratic spirit to life by putting power - and city funds - into the hands of citizens to make changes they care passionately about
Alberto Pereira is a big fan of board games. And his big dream is for people to understand all that playing games can do for them. “Board games are about so much more than winning,” he says. “You get together and spend quality time with family and friends, as well as socialise with new people, all the while thinking creatively and having fun.”
Pereira's home city of Braga had already helped him spread the word about games as an educational, inclusive and family-friendly activity by providing unused municipal space for his board games association. Then the city came up trumps again.
Playing games gets serious
When he heard about Braga's new participatory budget initiative, he pitched an idea for something he hadn't even dared to dream about before: establishing an international board games convention in the city. So many citizens voted for his proposal that he won city funding and support to turn it into reality.
“It was unbelievable,” says Pereira, “around 4000 people came from Portugal, Spain and beyond to the first convention - it was much bigger than I'd expected and shows that people loved it.” He is equally enthusiastic about the wider impact of participatory budgeting.
“I think that a citizen is only a citizen if they have a voice and can change things in their city and that's really important, especially for young people.”
The city had similar thoughts when it decided to adopt participatory budgeting as a way of getting closer to all citizens and ensuring the city is what they want it to be.
Looking to young people for guidance
With almost 40% of its population under 25, Braga is particularly focused on meeting the needs of its young people and establishing a trusting relationship between them and elected representatives. These ambitions underpinned its activities as European Youth Capital 2012.
“The city has a custom of listening to individual citizens,” explains Eva Sousa, head of the city's citizen participation department. “While a lot of things were already happening in the city born out of people's ideas, we wanted to have an instrument to support and promote the democratic spirit throughout our population and also to give young people a specific space to give life to their ideas.”
The result is a participatory budget with three strands, one open to the entire population, another for school children and a third for young people between the ages of 14 and 35. The last of these, given a sense of urgency and excitement with the title 'You Decide!', pioneered a novel approach of co-management with local youth councils.
Children in their new school playground
A powerful tool for democracy
“The big challenge with participatory initiatives is that many people don't believe their vote will count and leaders will decide what they want anyway,” says Sousa. “So in the first phase, we go out and talk to people personally to convince them they have a real opportunity and real choice, to help with their proposals and to run assemblies where they can debate with the city's decision makers.”
When it comes to motivating people to vote, the fact that the city is divided into districts is proving a real boon. District presidents, who are close to the residents in their neighbourhoods, are encouraged to act as local catalysts for participation, giving out information about the proposals and prompting people to have their say.
In recent years, the city has developed a portal dedicated to participatory budgeting which undoubtedly helps to take the topic directly into more homes. But Sousa is clear that, “Digital tools are good and they're growing, but a submission portal can't talk to you, so we think it's still important to get out into our communities and listen and have eye-to-eye contact with people.”
There is, in addition, one particular feature of participatory budgeting that helps get - and keep - citizens on board. Winning ideas must be implemented within a set period of time - 12 months - so citizens know the improvements they vote for will happen, quickly and visibly.
Rock climbing, robotics labs and rock music
In the four years of its participatory budget, the city has received 402 proposals in total and allocated €2,900,000 to projects that are already enhancing citizens' quality of life.
«Je pense qu'un citoyen n'est un citoyen que s'il a une voix et peut changer les choses dans sa ville. C'est vraiment important, surtout pour les jeunes »
Residents have better sports facilities and can take part in a wider range, including rock climbing. They can more fully enjoy the city's green spaces thanks to new benches and facilities. And they can have more fun with family and friends celebrating brand new city events and festivals.
School children are developing some of the skills they'll need as tomorrow's active citizens by creating and discussing their ideas for improving their schools. Winning proposals include establishing a robotics lab, remodelling science rooms and creating active outdoor learning spaces.
Vote-winning proposals from young people reflect their wide ranging passions and ambitions. They include an annual talent show for the city's musicians and DJs, a summer internship programme, an e-sports academy and, of course, Pereira's three-day international board game convention, AugustaCon. This is going from strength to strength, attracting more board game designers, players and speakers from global firms like Microsoft each year.
Opening up municipal assemblies and plans
Participatory budgeting is not, however, the only way Braga is taking the concept of active citizenship directly to its young people.
A scheme called Parliament Council - Small Great Politicians sees 10 children from every school take part in a simulated municipal assembly, presided over by the actual president of the municipal assembly, where they present and debate proposals reflecting their concerns and the city decides which ones to implement.
Older children studying geography take part in a project called We Propose, where they get to understand Braga's municipal master plan, local problems and possible solutions. Just as valuably, the city gets to hear their views on important issues for the future.
« Nous souhaitions nous doter d’un instrument capable de soutenir et de promouvoir l’esprit démocratique parmi notre population. »
From cash machines to castles
Braga's participatory budget is one of 11,000 now estimated to exist around the world. It's clearly a concept that plays particularly well with Portugal's politicians at every level.
Two years after Braga introduced participatory budgeting, Portugal announced its plan to introduce the world's first version on a national scale. Innovative in many ways, one of the most eye-catching is its ambition to reach as many citizens as possible with voting via ATMs, electronic banking machines.
One Portuguese citizen delighted that the concept has been more widely adopted is Alberto Pereira.
« Les instruments numériques sont efficaces, mais un portail de contribution ne peut pas vous parler. Ainsi, nous pensons qu’il reste important d’aller à la rencontre de nos citoyens, de les écouter et d’être en contact avec eux. »
“What I feel is that the city was like a castle, too far away, but now it is different. Now you can present your ideas and feel part of the city. I wish I'd had these opportunities when I was young, but better late than never!
“Because Braga cares about hearing our views, I have realised my first dream of bringing board games to everyone. I did have a second dream - to be an astronaut - but it's good to get at least one of your dreams!”