Offering locals money to come up with great ideas that meet their needs may sound like an easy win, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Over several editions, Bialystok has finetuned a process that opens the door for anyone to, as they put it ‘Become a hero in your city’. “New football pitches, playgrounds, outdoor gyms, cycling paths, cultural and social activities, concerts…” Tadeusz Truskolaski, mayor of Bialystok, lists off just a couple of the great initiatives that have come to fruition thanks to the participatory budget, which has made almost €19 million available to residents to propose projects with 260,000 local voters having participated to choose the best ideas so far.
After years of running a participatory budget, this has become an integral part of local democracy in Bialystok. The principle is that the inhabitants are the experts on their own needs, and they will therefore be in the best place to decide what is missing in the local space, from events and activities to infrastructure. “Almost every housing estate has benefited from the projects selected by the residents,” Truskolaski says, these projects both “enrich Bialystok and make the city more attractive.”
Getting the word out
It all starts when the city puts out the open call. But once that happens, the city doesn’t sit back and wait for proposals – far from it. For Bialystok, it is important not to have the same old participants year on year, so they throw their effort into communicating about what’s on offer, running communication campaigns, distributing information, and running direct coaching sessions and conversations with interested residents so that they can be confident of submitting a good application, no matter what their background.
One of the most popular and innovative stages of this process are the ‘writing marathons’, where locals can come and propose their ideas to experts in the relevant field, who will counsel them on the best approach to take. People from all over the city descend on these marathons and enthusiastically work together on formulating their ideas. Because it’s so important that the budget is used for things that are of interest to all communities within the city, the city does all it can between the announcement of open calls and the deadline for submission to ensure that anyone who has an idea will have the tools at their disposal to transform that idea into a coherent and exciting proposal.
The race is on
Once the project proposals are in, there are two questions that the city has to ask itself about each option. The first one: Is it legal? A skydiving launch pad on a local skyscraper might be lots of fun, but it would be taking health and safety risks one step too far. They check each plan against the city’s zoning plans and make sure it fits with what’s already there. The next question: Is it possible? A €100 budget for an outdoor cinema – you might want to think again. A zero-gravity public park? Sounds great, but we’re not sure that the technology is ready yet.
Once this initial vetting is done, a team of experts assess the project. These experts include city officials, but also other groups that participate in building the fabric of the city, such as NGOs and civil society groups. They ask questions like: Is this project something that will really be accessible for people? Does this sound like it will bring real benefits to the city?
This is not a series of closed-door sessions. Transparency is ensured by allowing the applicant to participate in the evaluation stage, and to propose changes or remedies where issues come up with the feasibility or advisability of the project. Once a decision has been made, it is carefully explained, and applicants have an opportunity to appeal the outcome. “We act hand in hand on many levels, looking for solutions both in matters important for individual housing estates and those of general urban importance,” Truskolaski emphasizes.
Time to vote!
When the day comes that the official list of projects is announced, it’s time for the applicants to get busy again – they’ve got to promote their projects! That means convincing as many residents as possible that their idea is the best. The city keeps supporting residents even at this stage, giving them access to promotional tools that they can tweak and personalise for their own projects. The city also throws an enormous event, the Citizen Fair of Bialystok, where all of the participants get a chance to present their project and entice people to vote for them.
The voting itself is spread over two weeks in October, giving everyone plenty of time to participate. At this point there’s a real drive to get the votes pouring in – that’s how they had 240,000 participants over seven years. An important part of the recipe is making voting available both online and in real life. Not everyone is comfortable using the internet to vote. In fact, we know that across Europe as much as 44% of the adult population are digitally illiterate, meaning that they have difficulty with basic tasks such as reading and replying to emails.
If you add to that the families, for whom the current big move online is adding great stress, where not every member has easy access to their own digital devices, you have a sizeable section of any given population for whom online presentation is a barrier rather than an enabler. As Bialystok wants literally everyone to have the opportunity to participate in allocating the budget, there are also special voting spots, including voting buses that rove around the city, stopping in public places and inviting people to take part.
There are no age limits on voting, so young and old can vote alike, and indeed the number has been steadily increasing as the years go on – thanks in no small part to the great energy of the participants in promoting their projects. “We are very happy to see the unflagging interest in the participatory budgeting in Bialystok as it reflects residents' commitment to building the local community and shaping our environment together,” declares Truskolaski. “With the commitment of Bialystok citizens, we can build civic society and our small homeland together, which makes Bialystok a better, more comfortable and friendly place to live in.”