Seoul is continually revising its participatory budgeting (PB) program to give residents a stronger role in setting strategy, recognizing that participatory budgeting tends to be more consultative than collaborative. “When we say we institutionalize civic participation, more authority has to be given to citizens in terms of planning and budget,” Seoul Innovation Bureau Director Mr. Jun Hyo Kwan Jun said. “We are going to reinforce citizens’ power in budget planning.” Under a ‘traditional’ participatory budgeting model, which Seoul adopted in 2012, citizens can propose ideas, serve on review committees and vote for their favorite projects. But the power to create strategy, establish priorities and develop and implement project proposals had remained with city officials and civil servants. So a community of civic groups and experts, including a researcher at the city’s own Seoul Institute think tank, developed a new model for participatory budgeting, in which the public can take a more involved role in developing and shepherding spending proposals from idea to implementation. Features of the new model include establishing a more structured and collaborative proposal-review process, so that amateur proposals can be developed into feasible projects; and supporting processes around co-creation of district-level innovation plans including paid citizen advisors. This new model is being tested, adapted and iterated in various districts alongside ‘traditional’ participatory budgeting, and initial experiences suggest that it is best suited to civil-society groups with the expertise and energy to tackle complex problems through government mechanisms. Seoul has also experimented with human resources and marketing around PB. For example, a year-round ‘Participatory Budgeting School’ identifies and prepares hundreds of residents to serve on a resident committee, and some seats are reserved in order to ensure a representative diversity of viewpoints. Some students have substituted class time for participating in committee meetings, adding a youth perspective. Neighborhood outreach has also been added to the committee’s duties in order to boost proposal submission and voting.
Involving residents in the work of government is a bedrock principle of democratic engagement. But the work of government is also technical, complex and often tedious; engaging with it meaningfully requires training and time. Residents must be empowered to provide input and direction in ways that draw on and integrate with the work done by professional civil servants, to optimize the time and expertise of both sides.
How Did They Do It?
The Seoul Metropolitan Government began implementing participatory budgeting (PB) in 2012, during Mayor Won-soon Park’s first administration, as one of many programs designed to devolve agency and decision-making authority downward to civil society and citizens. The model was relatively straightforward, built on the Porto Alegre model. But after a few years of operation, civil-society groups and researchers began raising concerns about whether the program was truly giving citizens a more meaningful voice, and they brought forward ideas for how to improve it. So the story unfolded in three acts: the early years, identifying the program’s shortcomings, and testing new structures and mechanisms:
Participatory Budgeting 1.0
- Citizens make proposals, online or offline, for projects that they believe should be funded. Submission is open to all stakeholders, including non-permanent residents (such as students) or commuters who work in Seoul but live elsewhere.
- Proposals are forwarded to the appropriate and responsible government officers, who evaluate their appropriateness and feasibility.
- Staff-approved proposals go to a participatory-budgeting committee, made up of 300 citizens, for additional review.
- Citizens vote for their favorite projects.
- Training: Seoul launched a participatory-budgeting ‘school’ which operates year-round to train residents on the program and the structure of city government. Any citizen can take the course, and alumni are selected by lottery to join the participatory-budgeting citizens’ committee for a one-year term. Members also receive additional training for sub-committee roles and responsibilities, e.g. project evaluation. They are volunteers, and they receive only a small stipend per meeting for transit and food costs.
- Budget: For the first few years of the program, 35 billion won ($USD) was allocated at the metropolitan level, and 15 billion won at the district level.
Participatory budgeting is intended to give citizens real power over budgets, and Seoul’s civil society was particularly interested in citizens being involved throughout the entire process: from submitting proposals through evaluation, decision-making and implementation. But evaluations of the first three years of Seoul’s PB program identified the following shortcomings:
- Under-representation. Residents who volunteer for PB tend to have ample leisure time and be knowledgeable about city government, so youth, low-income residents and other key groups are underrepresented.
- Exclusion at key junctures. Under the original model, city staff evaluate the proposals submitted by citizens, to determine which are appropriate and feasible and can move forward for citizen review and voting. This takes a key decision-making step out of the hands of citizens. And after projects are voted on by citizens, city officials are responsible for monitoring implementation of the approved budget.
- High barrier for successful proposals. Under the original model, project ideas from non-experts are at a disadvantage, because of the staff screening phase. Staff are not at liberty to amend the proposal unilaterally, so they typically approve or reject it as submitted. This compounds the under-representation challenge referenced above and makes participatory budgeting less likely to direct funds toward less-advantaged people and communities.
- Political influence. Citizens had the opportunity to propose and fund projects at the district level, through the district office. But researchers concluded that in some cases, citizens were being influenced or pressured to submit and approve proposals based on the district government’s own priorities.
- Scale. Researchers concluded that structurally, the amount of money allocated to participatory budgeting was too small (about 2 percent of the budget,) and spending decisions were overly predetermined because of the top-down nature of the budget process.
Participatory Budgeting 2.0
In 2015-16, a revised participatory-budgeting model was developed. Based partly on recommendations from Seoul Institute researchers and civic activists, it aims to better advance the city’s collaborative and decentralized governance strategy. “We needed a more structured process, so that the citizen groups in villages can make their voices heard in policymaking,” Seoul Innovation Bureau Division Director Cho Kyung-Man said. This new model was piloted in 2016 and then expanded in 2017. Seoul now has participatory budgeting running on several tracks, administered across three different Bureaus, with separate budgets depending on whether the projects are at the city-wide, district or neighborhood level and whether the 1.0 or 2.0 model is used. The following innovations have been introduced:
- More representative citizens’ committee. Thanks to a large number of volunteers—by mid-2018, about 2,000 residents had completed the participatory-budgeting school—Seoul has been able to reserve seats to ensure that the review committee has an appropriate balance of genders, age groups, regions of the city, etc. The metro government also introduced mobile PB schools to reach organizations working with youth, women and people with disabilities.
- Collaborative proposal development and evaluation. The resident committee now has a deliberative function of evaluating and developing projects, and it also monitors the city budget. A key goal of the 2.0 model is that citizens should be able to submit an idea in any stage of development, to lower the barriers to entry. The resident committee will then work with the author and with technical experts to evaluate the idea and develop it, as needed, into a feasible proposal for budget allocation. It takes three rounds of review over three to four months for an idea to be ready for a public vote. “Previously, we just maintained the project as it was – rejected or approved,” said Mr. Choi In Uk, Deputy Director of the Civil Cooperation Team in the Finance and Planning Bureau’s Participatory Budgeting Division. “Running the system made us realize this is not the right approach. We cannot ask the citizens to provide a complete proposal. Now we are trying to improve the evaluation process. Citizens can propose very simple ideas, and we can improve the idea.” Evaluation criteria include the effectiveness of the project, and its fairness and equality in terms of location and impact for different social groups.
- District-level Social Innovation Model. To ensure that resident voices were being represented in the district-level participatory budget, the metropolitan government will support a structured innovation model in which district residents gather to identify top issues and an agenda, and then co-create a local social-innovation plan with the district government. Citizens with relevant experience and expertise can be employed by the district office as a local participatory-budgeting support advisor, a position that has been filled in nearly half of the districts.
- Active marketing. The city has recognized a need for active outreach to encourage project submissions. “While they are accepted year-round, most of the proposals are received during our month-long proposal campaign launch,” Choi said. “As a reference, we've maintained 3,000-4,0000 citizen proposals since 2015. Considering the size of Seoul, this is an impressive number."
- Voter outreach. Offline voting was added for 2018, to complement the online mVoting system. Committee members set up booths at district offices, during an extended four-week voting period, to publicize the program and invite people to cast votes. Choi said city staff have been surprised by committee members’ dedication to the program. “Every time we make a difficult request to them, they accept our request and they take pride in what they’re doing,” Choi said. One citizen volunteer, who was participating in the get-out-the-vote effort at a local district office, echoed this. “I realized that we are shaping city government ourselves, and I have pride in that,” she said.
How Is It Going?
In 2018, 65 billion won has been budgeted for the 2.0 model and in 2019, 70 billion won is expected. The budget execution rate of participating budget projects is very high. Particularly in the case of municipal projects, the total amount allocated is annually, and the execution rate is more than 90%.
The district-level innovation model has given the program a sort of ‘laboratories of democracy’ function, as different districts engage with and implement participatory budgeting in their own way.
The program has been successful at surfacing niche issues or needs from particular populations. For example, one submission proposed installing remote-control devices that would assist residents with disabilities in securing their homes. The committee decided to increase the requested budget so that such a device could be rolled out across Seoul, not just in the requester’s complex. Another proposal involved a truck that would provide mobile showering facilities for the homeless. The author requested personal support to launch the project, but the committee decided to support the initiative at a broader scale as a new social service.
The PB system has also generated ideas which are then incorporated into larger programs or the general budget; for example, the Sharing City Center was originally established through a PB proposal.
Officials and observers who have been deeply engaged with the program noted several ongoing challenges, some which are common to participatory budgeting programs generally and some which are specific to Seoul:
- Bureaucratic engagement. One interviewee noted that different business units of the Metropolitan Government have very different attitudes toward participatory budgeting, depending on the nature of their work. For example, the parks department tends to be extremely favorable toward participatory decision-making, since improving parks is a popular initiative and relatively easy to execute. By contrast, departments dealing with social-welfare benefits or policy for women and families take a more cautious approach toward citizen engagement. The possibility of failure is a key factor, where the burden would fall on the shoulders of city staff.
- Project biases. Citizen-led budgeting tends to favor certain kinds of projects--namely, small investments in physical infrastructure. Some city officials attributed this to citizens’ conservatism--i.e. hesitant to approve big-ticket items, volunteer decision-makers will distribute funding across many smaller projects. But it has led to what some see as an over-emphasis on facilities at the expense of services.
- Benefits for the organized. The participatory budgeting 2.0 model is tailor-made for organized civil society, which has the expertise, energy and capacity to identify and address social issues. According to one interviewee, civil society activists have been thinking about their chosen issue for a long time, and now they finally have an opportunity to implement initiatives using city funds. So there is pent-up demand not only to make proposals, but to plan and implement projects together with city government. This was the impetus for the more structured 2.0 participatory budgeting model. But as a result, the new model may actually be more daunting for ordinary citizens to engage with--i.e. where in the 1.0 model they can essentially propose an idea and walk away, in version 2.0 there is a process to follow the proposal through its development and implementation.
- Encouraging diverse participation. While the program has introduced features to encourage participation from a more diverse set of citizens, stakeholders acknowledge that it’s an ongoing challenge. The goal is to structure and institutionalize collaboration models that allow citizens to meet, discuss and develop proposals--something that Seoul is running multiple experiments on.