Is that your final answer? By Maria McHale

10 Nov 05
Choosing spending priorities involves some tough, painful and invariably unpopular decisions. Harrow decided to put its residents in the hot seat and invigorate democracy in the process. Maria McHale went to see the Open Budget in action

11 November 2005

Choosing spending priorities involves some tough, painful and invariably unpopular decisions. Harrow decided to put its residents in the hot seat and invigorate democracy in the process. Maria McHale went to see the Open Budget in action

So who fancies giving up their Sunday to meet in a dark and stuffy hall to discuss local government finance? Luckily for Harrow council, it seems that at least 300 people in the north-west London borough are prepared to give up their time to help a pioneering plan to revive interest in democracy.

Last month, the Harrow Open Budget initiative culminated in a gathering that could change the way local spending decisions are made. On a sunny afternoon, a diverse mix of residents sat at tables of ten in the local leisure centre and, with the help of a facilitator, worked through a series of priorities for the council.

Using 'Who wants to be a millionaire?'-style technology, each person had a hand-held computer to register their vote, which was then fed to a central computer and flashed up on a large screen.

The event was run by the Power Inquiry, an independent body funded by the Rowntree Trust, which is investigating ways of reinvigorating democracy and engaging the public in decision-making at both a national and local level. Power Inquiry director Pam Giddy says it was an 'opportunity for residents to have a real influence over how their tax is spent'. The idea came from schemes in Brazil and the US, where politicians had managed to engage and involve their constituents in the decision-making process.

Giddy told Public Finance: 'When I went to America to check this out, you could see that people did actually feel like they were being listened to, that their voice could make a difference.'

So, instead of a consultation involving isolated individuals with limited knowledge of how local services operate, the room of people were briefed on what policies they could influence and vote on.

They had to decide which were most important to them: Cost? How well will it work? To what degree were users involved in design? Would it help the poor and reduce inequality? Would it take care of the environment? How will it affect people in 20 years' time?

A set of five sessions, setting out the options, pros, cons and costs was then worked through during the afternoon (see panel).

Harrow finance chair Sanjay Dighe says it was fascinating to watch and he hoped the process would make the participants aware of the difficult choices councillors had to make.

He says: 'We are only allowed to observe here but I am keen to see what they will make of the decision-making process. At the council, we are trying to get rid of the perceived gap between councillors and residents. It is good to try different ways of doing things and this will give us a much greater understanding of where the residents' priorities lie.'

However, one of the main criticisms of the event is that the people chosen had put themselves up for the selection process and had a greater than average interest in local affairs. But both Dighe and Giddy say that the age and ethnic diversity of the group was crucial. Groups deemed to be under-represented among applicants were actively sought in the community to make the gathering as representative as possible.

Giddy says the whole point of the process was to ensure people understood what decisions they could make. 'If you educate people about the facts and explain the consequences, then, unsurprisingly, they can make an informed decision. Giving people responsibility for their choices and actions along with the full facts makes it easier to understand why decisions are made and what can be changed. You can see people beginning to understand the process and why politicians have made certain decisions. It makes the whole process of decision-making more transparent.'

One of the younger participants on the day describes the chance to participate as a 'real benefit'. Eighteen-year-old Tessy Akpeki says: 'I know that younger people are supposedly not interested in politics but it is a good opportunity to have your voice heard. There is no point complaining about poor services or the choices your council has made if you have not made an effort to contribute.'

Giddy says the group was presented with some hard choices. 'These trade-offs and decisions are not easy. But experience shows that when a group of citizens is given the responsibility, the information they need to weigh up the issues and time to talk through them as a group, they come up with wise and considered responses.'

So what happened? Well, perhaps most surprisingly, money was not the most important consideration. The cost of council services was voted only the fourth most important criterion in setting spending priorities.

The group believes the most important fact is how well the policy will work, followed by its impact on the environment and on people in 20 years' time.

Taking money from other council spending was the most popular suggestion for funding the choice of options, with most of the group members prepared to cut spending on reducing traffic congestion to fund the other options. Adult social care was the least popular option for cuts.

The options, detailed in the panel opposite, were voted on throughout the afternoon. Then a smaller 30-strong team was elected from the group to work with the council on incorporating the outcomes into the budget process.

Giddy says the day had given councillors more power rather than removing any of their authority. 'The councillors are in charge. They are elected and they must make the final decision, but this has allowed them to see what people think. Often politicians, at a national or local level, feel that if they give away a bit of power it weakens them. But, of course, the reality is that it strengthens them and enhances their standing.'

How the residents voted

The group of almost 300 Harrovians had to consider five policy areas and what should be done about them.

Reducing the amount of waste we produce

 Option 1 : The status quo, public education instead

 Option 2 : Collect waste less often, recyclables more regularly

 The majority voted for option 2

Tackling traffic congestion

 Option 1 : Deter car trips by controlling parking

 Option 2 : Help improve public transport

 Option 3 : Promote car sharing

 Option 4 : Reduce the need for the school run

 Option 5 : Improve the attractiveness of cycling

 The majority voted for option 2

Providing adult social care

 Option 1 : Increase the amount of supported housing

 Option 2 : Provide remote care using 'smart technology'

 Option 3 : Support family carers

 Option 4 : Provide care in 'residential homes'

 The majority voted for option 3

Providing better options for young people

 Option 1 : Focus services on youth centres

 Option 2 : Give young people 'opportunity cards' and more choice

 Option 3 : Target areas in greatest need but close youth centres

 The majority voted for option 1

Make our neighbourhoods feel safer

 Option 1 : Improve appearance and presentation of public services

 Option 2 : Increase the coverage and intelligence of CCTV

 Option 3 : Support the Antisocial Behaviour Unit

 Option 4 : Work more closely with young people

 Option 5 : Reduce crime investments and raise awareness about low crime levels

 The majority voted for option 1