Following Iceland’s banking crisis in 2008, comedian Jón Gnarr set up the Best Party in order to satirise his country’s political system. Campaigning on policies including introducing a polar bear to the local zoo, building a Disneyland at the airport and offering free towels in public swimming pools, the self-described ‘anarcho-surrealist’ was elected Mayor of Reykjavik in 2010, winning fans from Noam Chomsky to Lady Gaga.
In 2008, thousands of young people in Newcastle had a say in how the city’s £2.25 million Children’s Fund is spent. Part of a city-wide participatory budgeting programme called ‘UDecide’, young people who attended a voting conference would influence the allocation of funds by ranking project ideas in order of preference.
The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has opened up 5% of the city’s investment to a participatory budgeting scheme named ‘Madame Mayor, I have an idea’. It aims to allocate nearly €500 million to projects proposed by citizens, including the building of school gardens, ‘pop-up’ swimming pools and recycle stations.
50% of Seville’s local government budget is decided by participatory budgeting and the process is open to all those living in the city. Citizens can submit project ideas in person or online, and volunteer neighbourhood organisers are in place to collect proposals from community groups and individual residents.
Participatory budgeting – where the process of allocating a city’s resources is open to all citizens rather than delegated to council officials – sees investment decisions made from the ground up, and finds its roots in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.
Each of Porto Alegre’s 16 districts has a Popular Council made up of representatives from the community – from mothers clubs to housing cooperatives. Since 1989, these district-level assemblies have elected members to a city-wide Council of Representatives, with City Hall officials tasked with continuously liaising with these bodies. Through negotiation and feedback with the city’s grassroots groups, a list of priorities is created for local projects – such as improving sewerage systems, building local schools and hospitals, and paving streets. Once these public works have been agreed upon, community representatives can supervise the progress of each project and monitor how the funds are spent.
Participatory budgeting has proved popular with Porto Alegre’s residents, tens of thousands of whom debate and decide spending priorities within neighbourhood associations. These procedures can help redirect local spending to the poorest neighbourhoods and bridge the gap between citizens, politicians and public employees. By 2001, over a hundred Brazilian cities had adopted this model, which has led to nationwide improvements in a number of areas including water sanitation and levels of pre-school enrolment.
Citizen platforms – championing participatory decision-making, institutional transparency and increased social spending – now govern a number of Spain’s major cities including Madrid and Barcelona.
Elections in May 2015 saw victories for Ahora Madrid (Now Madrid) and Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona In Common) – new platforms bringing together existing progressive parties with social movements which emerged after the 2008 financial crisis. Campaigns were crowdfunded and citizens encouraged to take part in neighbourhood assemblies, vote on policy priorities and create crowdsourced manifestos online.
Manuela Carmena, a 71 year-old retired judge who ran as Ahora Madrid’s candidate for Mayor, campaigned to prevent home evictions and freeze the privatisation of public services. Backed by a creative social media presence, she won public support with promises to guarantee electricity and water for low-income households, carry out an audit into the city’s funding and administration, and cut her own salary by more than half.
Ada Colau last year became Barcelona’s first ever female Mayor. An anti-eviction activist who had previously picketed the homes of politicians to raise awareness of Spain’s housing crisis, Colau has pledged to do away with the privileges of elected office (such as official cars and expense budgets), post details of council meetings online for the public to scrutinise, and recover homes repossessed by private banks.