Participatory buzzwording

DERISION is greeting Fremantle council’s proposal to establish “participatory budgeting”, a new fad doing the rounds of local governments worldwide.

The details are fuzzy but under the model a “citizens jury” somehow gets established and it recommends to council how to spend $1 million on projects proposed by “the community”.

To help it figure out how to make the process work, the council intends spending $20,000 on consultants.

Questions that need resolving include how is the jury selected, who selects it, and from what pool of citizens. How do members of the community put their ideas before the jury and how are those project ideas assessed. Will the jury have the final say on doling out the cash, or will the decision rest with the council — which would seem to render the entire exercise an expensive and convoluted advisory committee.

Fremantle real estate man Hayden Groves isn’t happy with the proposal, describing it as “yet another layer of bureaucracy to an already ineffecient local government system”.

The WA REIWA president, says citizens elect councils to make decisions, not to outsource decisions to others: “I would have thought our councillors already have sufficient insight into the needs of and therefore spending priorities of the city,” he told the Herald.


Former deputy mayor John Dowson, now president of the Fremantle Society, is similarly scathing: “This proposal could seriously undermine the current system rather than improve it, and is open to abuse,” he says.

“The reason we have highly paid officers and 12 councillors and a mayor is to implement the policies and plans of council and to manage the budget.

“We do not need vested groups or individuals hijacking our $100 million budget.”

He adds Fremantle already has a well-established precincts system: 12 community-based groups that brainstorm ideas for their areas and liaise with the council to achieve results. When first proposed the precincts were heavily supported by the council but the links and supports have degraded over the years.

Mr Dowson says the $20,000 set aside for consultants would be better spent reviving the precincts.

Mayor Brad Pettitt believes participatory budgeting could help people re-engage with the council and boost increasingly dismal voter turnout.

“Council sees it as a way to empower our community to work with us to make decisions affecting people’s everyday lives, as well as providing more transparency and insight into our budgeting process,” he says.

“Participatory budgeting is growing in popularity worldwide and is something we’ve been looking at with interest for some time.”

The proposal will be fine-tuned by the city’s CEO, before coming back to council for the vote.

“Participatory budgeting” was initially formed out of the town of Porto Alegre in Brazil in the late 1980s. It is gaining momentum in Europe, Africa, the Americas, New Zealand and eastern Australia.


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