Community Planning West Dunbartonshire (CPWD), supported by funding from Council, were looking to engage residents and community organisations in a series of community budgeting events to support capital investment in local projects.
The aim was to strengthen community engagement in participative processes and use this as a mechanism for building a longer term relationship of trust and partnership with communities in the spirit of community empowerment. The actual funding of projects using the small grants model was a tool for achieving this rather than a goal in its own right.
Theme: Community Planning and Empowerment
Following allocation of £1m capital funding in February 2016 to support the Your Community approach agreement was reached to align £425k for a programme of Community Budgeting. Phase 1 of the programme took place September - November 2016, with bids of up to £2,000 invited for localise community projects. 9 voting events were held for local community residents to have their say on funding.
This used a small grants model where community groups were supported to apply for capital funding for projects that would benefit the local community. The groups were then invited to present their proposals to other residents from that community, who would vote for the projects that they thought would best benefit their area.
Three phases of community budgeting took place between 2016 and 2018, resulting in a wide range of local community organisations projects receiving funding to deliver initiatives such as upgrading community facilities and resources, installing benches and delivering greenspace projects and targeting and reducing social isolation through group activities.
What helped us to improve community participation?
To support the community to engage with this programme, CPWD undertook a lot of work to raise local communities’ understanding of the aims of this activity and how to get involved. They quickly identified that the terminology they used was important to how people perceived the process, and decided to use the title ‘community budgeting’ rather than ‘participatory budgeting’ to highlight the process was about community empowerment.
The programme has been highly successful in increasing community engagement, with many people building links to groups and community organisations they were not previously aware of. CPWD has also developed a strong relationship with members of the local community, and have developed a strong community network that they can engage with about future work that they did not have before.
What were the barriers to improving community participation?
Following the first phase of the funding, CPWD received feedback from some of members of the community that other commitments/ access issues prevented them from being able to attend the community events where they could vote for projects. In response to this feedback, the process was adapted for phase two, to allow residents to vote in advance instead of attending the public meetings. Since a lot of the projects involved young people, the CPP also extended the voting age to allow anyone over the age of 8 years old to share their views.
While these changes to the process were developed in response to feedback, they also received criticism from citizens. Many felt that young people should not be permitted to vote and that voting remotely opened the process up to manipulation. Its important to recognise that processes such as this one, when introduced, will be viewed with scepticism and mistrust by some citizens. However overall, the process is a positive one.
CPWD also faced challenges in ensuring the funding application and reporting process was not overly onerous for community groups or too prescriptive about the types of things that funding could be used for, given only capital funding was available.
The restrictions in place for use of Council funding meant that groups, and the team running community budgeting, required to be creative in developing ideas and ensuring that applications delivered what was needed in local communities while also fitting the criteria for capital funding. This complexity was challenging and something that was a barrier to building trust with citizens involved.
As was anticipated before the programme commenced, a key learning point for CPWD is that the process of engaging and building relationships was far more important than the allocation of small grants in the majority of cases. Many groups involved in the process reported that they felt making connections had been the ‘best bit’ of the process. Leading to a Community Conference in February 2018 titles making Connections to build on this learning.
Also, in order to keep people engaged and make sure they feel valued, it is important to communicate progress even when nothing is happening. That ensures that citizens feel fully involved in a co-produced process.