In beautiful Prague - our first stop - we visited Alternativa Zdola (“bottom-up alternative”), an NGO that pushes for participatory budgeting in the city’s Holešovice district.
In this process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, “ordinary” citizens decide how to allocate a public budget, so far mainly on a municipal level. If done right, it does not only improve government transparency, but can also foster active citizenship and increase public participation in politics. The model was pioneered by the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre in 1989 and has since spread to many cities in Latin America and – to a lesser extend – to other continents. Around the world, more than 1500 municipalities are estimated to have initiated participatory budgeting.
Prague Holešovice, just as Prague as a whole, is not one of them. Yet! The community organisers of Alternativa Zdola think it would do a lot of good for the area they are living in and its specific circumstances: In Czech Republic, political engagement on the local level - both passive and active - is very low. On the one hand, voter turnout is in decline, somewhat leading to a democratic deficit of the decisions made by the local administration. On the other hand, parties struggle to fill their lists of candidates – due to the political apathy of the residents, but also because the benefits are not very attractive, politics and politicians do not enjoy a positive reputation in general and (if done right) it is a lot of work.
According to Alternativa Zdola, these circumstances facilitate the election of representatives, who put private before public interests, and corruptibility in office in general. A more direct and participative element to complement the representative system may, thus, just be what Czech people and politics need. So where do they stand?
The organisers started out with an information campaign, which caught the attention of a Holešovice representative, who put it on the district council’s meeting agenda. With success: It was decided that almost 1 % of the budget, about 1 million CZK (ca. 36.500 EUR) will be earmarked for participatory budgeting. The council currently elaborates the concrete conditions under which the process will take place; they are expected to greenlight it on Monday (we cross fingers!). Citizens will then be able to propose concrete projects until the beginning of September, followed by a rather short period of implementation. In the meantime, the community organisers will focus on providing information on the concept, mobilising as many people as possible and building coalitions with and among NGOs.
Could this work on the national or even the European level? Their answer is: yes, but it would be more important that the EU supports ongoing activities in the field of participatory budgeting by providing respective funds and opportunities for exchange. The goal is to build a critical mass in order to have bigger part of the budget administered in a direct, participatory fashion.
According to Alternativa Zdola, participatory budgeting can foster continuous, meaningful public participation and civic responsibility. And help to avoid well known Czech ad-hoc acts of political dissent like defenestrations.
Monday will be a big day for them: Show them some support! Check out their website and the website of the project and like them and the project on Facebook. They are also on Twitter (but this does not really seem to have caught on in Czech Republic): @azetko, @PRozpocet .
Very interesting article! Any news on what happened that Monday?