Over to you

You never know when you’ll need to sand, weld or rivet; or what about a sudden urge for a tennis racket, camera or lights? Needs are always changing, so how can a city be sure that it satisfies its residents? The new ‘object library’ in Lausanne can satisfy any of these spontaneous needs, and the way that it came about, through participatory budgeting, is the perfect way for the city to keep its finger on the pulse of the people living there.

A bi-partisan initiative

“This initiative for a participatory budget was bi-partisan, it came from politicians on the left and the right,” according to Lausanne’s Damien Wirths, who is overseeing the pilot project. So what is a participatory budget? It means that every year the city allocates a part of the budget to be decided upon by residents. People come together and propose ideas for spending, and then everyone in the city votes on their favourites. Voting is something that the Swiss are very used to, says Wirths, “In Switzerland we have a lot of voting. People have a lot of options. We have referendums, we have initiatives, we can very easily impact the policy making process.”

Doing it differently

With this in mind, Lausanne wanted to do the voting for the participatory budget a little differently. “Most of the time the voting at the federal level, for big issues like healthcare or retirement or taxes. Sometimes at the canton level too we have issues, but sometimes they can be a little far from the actual problems that they are facing in life.” Besides the issues at stake, Lausanne wanted to think differently about the voter base itself. “At federal and Canton level, foreigners and non-natives cannot vote. This makes them estranged from the system.”

Lausanne wanted to change that, counting the opinion of all the people living in the city so that they could all be involved in shaping the society that they share. “The idea was at very local level to offer people the option to propose things, to say their issues and to give them the possibility to offer solutions of their own,” Wirths says.

Participative budgeting is not something new, plenty of cities have it, but Lausanne came up with some very interesting new ways going about it. “In most cities with participative budgets people only propose an idea,” says Wirths “and the administration puts something together to implement the solution.” But it’s not like that in Lausanne. There, “people have to propose a project and the budget goes to the project for people to create the solution.”

You have come with something stronger

That means that people do not approach the initiative abstractly, but in a concrete and realisable fashion. It is also a system that challenges people to think more deeply about the issues they want to tackle, according to Wirths. “You cannot just say ‘I’m not happy’, you have to come with something stronger.”

No exclusion

However, this approach has a potential downside. Many people, especially the more vulnerable or less heard-from members of society that the city was explicitly trying to include might not have the know-how to put together a comprehensive proposal.

Not willing to accept the idea that anyone would be excluded, Wirths says that the city “collaborated with an association who provide support for interested people. If you have an idea, but you don’t know how to transform it into projects, you can go to workshops where you can get help to create a project. This was important to ensure that everybody would have a chance to propose something, and no one would be estranged from the process.”

This support included ten workshops all over the city, and to really ensure participation in less socio-economically privileged areas of the city, they held special extra events to inform people and get them interested.

A massive success

The first instantiation of the initiative was a massive success. 34 projects were proposed, and after checking what was possible and legal to implement, the city allowed 19 of those for voting. Wirths explains that this was in no way the city curating the options available, but simply a matter of feasibility and legality.

To ensure full transparency, the city posted all 34 projects online, and for those that were not eligible there was a detailed explanation of the issues which made them unrealisable. The drive for inclusivity was also successful. According to Wirths, as a result of their activity, “Groups of people that propose projects were mostly unknown by the administration. We were afraid that it would be the same old people and groups that already have access and make proposals. But this was not the case, it was new people proposing new projects.”

Ways of voting

The drive to have full participation especially of the relatively deprived neighbourhoods in the city went beyond the project proposal to the actual voting system. “When you check participative budgets around the world there is several ways to vote,” Wirths explains, “In Lisbon people can vote with text-messages on the cell phone.” This means that there are low barriers to voting, which is good, but it also means that “there is no control, everybody can vote even if you are not inhabitants.”

Other cities have more formal approaches, “In other cities you receive at home a paper with an identification number that ensures that you live in the city.” That anticipates that it is really the residents that are deciding, and that each resident gets an equal vote.

However, it is complicated and expensive and creates potential barriers for participation. In the end, Lausanne decided for ‘aposteriori control’. People could vote with their phones, but after the votes came in the city checked them against the register of residents and made sure that only votes from residents, and only one vote per resident, were counted.

The city was also concerned that in more privileged areas people would have stronger lobbying power and be able to rally more people around their projects. To counter this, it was made mandatory to vote for a minimum of three projects. “You couldn’t vote for just your project, you had to split the vote.” That way even if you were just voting for a friend, you were compelled to also choose some projects that you really found inspiring.

The results are in When the analysis of the voting results came in, it was another major victory for Wirths and his team. “Through the addresses we could see that every part of the city participated. I was very happy with that.” The competition had eight winners, with money being allocated to each project in order of popularity until the whole budget of 100,000 swiss francs (€94,000) was expended. “Each proposal had an initial limit of 20,000 francs, but since some proposed less than this, more winners were possible,” Wirths explains.

We already know the winner – the object library where residents can get things they want to use once without buying them. What was Wirths’ favourite project? “From the point of view of the municipality we have no preference.” The point is to give the people what they want.

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer