Richard Wilson asks whether the explosion of budget consultations across the UK will help local government to meet the transformation challenge?

As recently published in the Guardian and the Local Government Chronicle.

We are in the midst of a local democratic revolution. In a pre-emptive attempt to ‘manage’ the political fallout from the slashing of local government budgets, well over 100 councils are now offering consultations on their budgets.

These consultations come in many shapes and sizes, from simple surveys to the Redbridge LBC ‘You Choose’ budget simulator, which uses a graphical tool to present trade-offs, and Devon County Council’s impressive ‘Tough Choices’ website, which gets the community to think through and propose solutions to funding gaps.

Like it or not, this is a flowering of local democracy. But are we sowing the seeds for the kind of innovative and responsive local government we will need to overcome the huge hurdle represented by the cuts?

Phil Teece, director of the CLG-funded Participatory Budgeting Unit, which supports local government to deliver participatory budgeting (PB), is sceptical. “Many budget consultations do nothing on their own to increase transparency and accountability, nothing to build community cohesion and nothing to hand over responsibility for deciding how public money is spent to local people. And that means they’re not PB,” he says.

Susan Ritchie, now at the Home Office, was involved with the celebrated Tower Hamlets ‘You Decide!’ project in 2009, in which residents allocated £2.4M. She says that “when you get PB right, its benefits for community-building are profound.”

There are, however, fears that current budget consultations are failing to transform the relationship between government and citizens. In fact, there are suggestions that some budget simulators may be damaging. Vince Howe, who ran the high-profile Newcastle participatory budgeting programme, explains that “such superficial processes that do not even attempt to create community or support meaningful discussion are likely to divide communities.”

But is it realistic for citizens to have a direct say over budget allocation? Isn’t that the role of councillors? Clearly we need a way of fusing the energy in budget consultations we are seeing with the community-building power of participatory budgeting.

To do this we must attach social networking systems, both online and actual, that can support sustainable communities, to online budget consultations. Communities that can plug the big gaps in our public services. Communities of government officials and residents who will foster the innovation we badly need. But most of all stronger communities that better understand one another, give government the licence to take risks and people the best possible chance of adapting to the new world we all face.

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