In 2014, Paris began a multi-annual process in which Parisians are invited to participate in the distribution of an annually increasing share of the city’s budget. The general purpose of Budget Participatif (BP) is to promote democratic innovation in the city, giving citizens the opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their daily lives. BP should be “an inclusive device, (…) a tool against social inequalities” (translated from Mairie de Paris 2016). Citizens can be involved in the phases of agenda setting, giving input for (and co-selecting) spending options and in deciding by public vote which ideas are to be implemented. The participation process runs at four levels: the City, the 20 arrondissements (district level), some low-income neighbourhoods and all public schools at primary, college and lycées levels (Cabannes 2017).
In the first year, 17.7 million euros were spent on the BP. Parisians were able to vote on 15 projects designed by the City of Paris (Budget Participatif 2016). One year later, in 2015, Parisian residents were able to submit proposals themselves. They initially submitted more than 5000 proposals. A process of preselection reduced the number to approximately 600 projects, out of which 8 were selected at the level of the city for a total budget of about 35 million euros. In addition, 181 less expensive projects were selected at the level of Paris’ 20 arrondissements for a total budget of about 59 million euros (Holston et al. 2016: 6). In 2016, the total budget reached a 100 million euros (compared to Paris’ overall budget of close to 10 billion euros). An innovative aspect of the Paris participatory budgeting project is that an overall value of 500 million euros for the whole 2014–2020 period was announced; that way trying to help to build confidence between the city and the citizens of Paris.
Participants can propose their ideas on the BP website. When submitted, proposals are available for comment and support by participants. A permanent team of nine people conducts day-to-day activities of the participation process. This team also connects with many other employees of the city of Paris administration, which help out in different ways. There are different commissions at the district and city levels that are responsible for the preselection of the proposals; they evaluate all the proposals on cost, feasibility and eligibility. Both commissions are composed of an elected body and a citizen body. There are four criteria for selection (decided by the City, not by citizens): the project needs to (1) be proposed by a Parisian, meaning a resident, (2) satisfy general interest, (3) be part of the city’s responsibility and (4) the running costs of the investments related to projects need to be limited and primarily should not imply generating a public job (Cabannes 2017). After the selected projects are published online, candidates can run promotional campaigns for their ideas. The city provides an online toolkit to make flyers, posters, social media posts and organizes in-person workshops to help the candidates. Each project is presented during city sponsored events. In the end, the proposals are put to a public vote on the BP website as well as on paper ballots. Participants have 10 votes, from which they can assign five to city-level proposals and five to district level (interview with an organizer). Following the final selection, citizens can monitor the implementation of winning projects on the website.
The participatory process is closely tied to the political and administrative institutions of Paris. First, online participation takes place on the city’s web platform. The city is obliged to process citizen proposals and to follow the results of the voting processes. Following the first PB—presented by Mayor Anne Hidalgo in 2014—the application of participatory budgeting was approved by the Paris Assembly as a rule of law. This means that the next mayor of Paris cannot reverse the process of participatory budgeting unless the Paris Assembly does so (Napolitano 2015). In this way, Paris is legally committed to budget participative “every year until 2020. And if we get a new mayor, the new mayor [must] still ask the council to vote on the cancellation of the participatory budget” (interview with an organizer). This legal framework is especially relevant as it depoliticizes the use of Budget Participatif and commits the city to its outcome. As the interviewed journalist points out: “So now that it’s a rule of law, the next mayor cannot just decide to scrap the participatory budgeting. It has to go through the assembly of the city again. (…) Now, it’s a thing of the city and not just of the mayor. (…) I think it contributed very positively in this sense.”
Procedures and responsibilities are formalized and communicated by the City, often on the website. As Paris is divided in 20 local districts (arrondissements), a lot of the groundwork to engage the public is delegated to districts. The district mayors are not all a member of the Socialist Party of Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and could thus be thought to be less enthusiastic about the participatory budget. The Hidalgo administration solved this by financial motivation: “We actually made a very interesting deal with them, at the very beginning, which was that any district that would get into the game will have their local budget doubled… So they’re all playing the game, and are actually very involved” (interview with an organizer).
Budget Participatif as a participatory tool targets all residents of Paris. Anyone can participate by way of self-selection—regardless of age and nationality. There seems to be an acceptance that not all citizens have access to the Internet or are comfortable using the platform for one reason or another. Some district city halls and public buildings have offered personal help and/or workshops (Napolitano 2015).
And Parisians do participate. Around 40,000 citizens participated by voting in 2014 and around 67,000 voted in 2015 (Joignot 2016) and 92,809 in 2016, which represent 5% of the total urban population of Paris (Cabannes 2017). This “is a lot compared to other cities but not that much compared to the entire Parisian population” (interview with an organizer). To put it in perspective, 1,018,280 Parisians registered to vote for the local elections in 2014, of which close to 600,000 voted.
5.2.1 Communication and Mobilization Strategies
The tool is marketed broadly and has seen a lot of media attention, especially in its first year. “We do have a lot of press, but it’s a concept that seems to be hard to explain. So, it’s not that easy” (interview with an organizer). The advertisement from the city’s hand has focused on visibility on city streets and online, as the interviewed organizer points out: “[We use] big advertisements and posters in the streets, because the city controls that. So, we use it a lot, and it’s a big, big budget. […] We started to buy some online advertisement which is quite new for the city” (interview with an organizer).
In 2014 and 2015, around 60% of the voters choose to use the online tool (Napolitano 2015 and interview with a journalist). “For me, that’s still a lot of people voting offline” (interview with an organizer). The backup of an offline voting method, our expert interviewee believes, prevented critique on the web solution: “Probably, if it had been only an online vote, there could have been some kind of [public] discussion, but the fact there was also a paper ballot meant also that the people that didn’t feel safe, instead of complaining, they said ‘okay I’m just going to vote on paper’” (interview with a journalist).
It is an explicit goal of the tool to involve participants beyond the political or participatory elite. It seems to succeed in doing so. Whether this is caused by advertising the process and tool, by design characteristics or other factors is arguable. Some design characteristics that lead to more inclusion can be pointed out. First of all, the parallel process of physical voting and project submission is implemented to prevent a digital divide. The initiative to offer advice and support could qualify layman participation in comparison to that of elite actors. The same applies to the organization of project workshops. Finally, registration is kept very easy: “We don’t want any obstacle on the participation and we know that the more detailed the form is… Like to register to vote… The less votes we’re getting” (interview with an organizer). In fact, identification is so limited that “you just have to declare on your personal honour, when you say that you live in Paris. And you give an address, but it’s fully possible to fake it” (interview with an organizer). Combined, these and potentially other characteristics seem to lower the barrier of participation, promoting broader involvement—as well as empowerment—of ordinary citizens.
No specific mechanisms have been implemented to ensure representativeness, and it does not seem a primary focus. “In my perspective, the participants are representative in the view that, like, all those people were allowed to vote and all those people were involved. Of course, I don’t know the people who voted… Nobody knows” (interview with a journalist). Little data is collected to pursue or assess the representativeness of participants, due to legal constraints and considerations towards participation barriers: “Because the French law is very strict, we cannot ask questions about for instance race. (…) it would be interesting to target minorities, but we cannot do that” (interview with an organizer). Officials do have some general ideas of socio-economic and demographic characteristics, although the basis of this is limited: “You can tell from the part of Paris where they live, what kind of social [level] it is. (…) Where there is more poverty or young people, [people] participate a lot. But surprisingly, the conservative areas and very family working areas are also very involved… Like in the 15th district” (interview with an organizer).
5.3 Participatory Process
On budgetparticipatif.paris.fr, participants can submit proposals on city level as well as on arrondissement level. These proposals are featured on the website, where participants can then offer their comment and/or support. At a fixed deadline, the City collects the proposals and assesses them with regard to technical and legal feasibility. Participants can vote on all the accepted projects either online or on paper ballots. Ten votes can be cast, divided in city level and arrondissement level: “You can choose five projects in the whole Paris area and five projects in one particular district that you get to choose, like wherever, where you live or you can choose the district where you work…” (interview with an organizer).
The participatory process has changed already in its first years. In 2014, all proposed projects were designed by the City. A year later, in 2015, the proposals came from the citizens and 10 million euros was earmarked for projects concerning schools. This, however, did not stop participants from focusing on another topic: “one thing we were not happy about last year was that a lot of projects were addressing the same topic. (…) Anything green, which is good, but we have a lot of money already dedicated on green in the regular budget, so it was actually too much” (interview with an organizer).
In 2015, when citizens were encouraged to submit their own ideas, 5.115 proposals came in. Around half of these were rejected by the administration due to technical, legal and social criteria. A total of 71% of these proposals were sent in by individuals and 29% by associations, companies, etc. (Budget Participatif 2016). A lot of effort has been put into teaching participants the formalities of proposing projects, and the 2016 process has seen a greater success rate in meeting the criteria (interview with an organizer). Lessons from the 2015 process may have been illustrative in this regard. “One of the main difficulties in (…) involving citizens in the process is that people usually—because it’s not their job—don’t know about feasibility of projects, they don’t know what the city can do, what the local council can do, and also what the city cannot do, because sometimes it’s a competence of the county or the region” (interview with a journalist).
The input of participants is aggregated in at least two ways. First and foremost, the process of voting is one of aggregating support for citizen projects to decide which to implement. In the phase of project assessment, there is also room for the City to combine, pair and interpret proposals, being another form of weighing and aggregating citizen input. In 2016, this phase was opened up for citizen involvement. “We made a big effort to involve citizens into the merging phase and really encourage them to come and defend the project together. First of all, that way we have less projects to deal with, but also, we will have more comprehensive projects. And finally, because we need people to get more involved in the campaigning phase” (interview with an organizer).
Interaction and exchange of views between participants is encouraged by the design (e.g. comment and support options). Between participants and political decision-makers, the exchange of views is arranged indirectly. The participants’ proposals (including qualifying comments, etc.) are not given to the decision-makers, but to the broader population of Parisians to vote upon (albeit after being processed by the City Administration). The results (representing the aggregated views of the citizens) are given to the political decision-makers after the vote, who are obliged to adopt the results as policy measures under the constraints of the budget (Plesse 2014).
5.3.3 Information on the Process
Information is provided by the City of Paris in several phases of the BP process. First, the website provides a fair share of infographics, FAQs and information, which explain the process of BP and how to participate. In the proposal submission phase, information regarding the legal framework and support for financial approximations is provided by the administration to the submitting participant(s). After the submission of proposals, the reasons of rejection are explicitly explained to the owner of the project by the administration.
Furthermore, distribution of decision-making responsibilities is clarified in the thorough information material on the website and the different phases of the decision process are documented on the website. Participants and other interested readers can also monitor winning projects on a devoted section of the BP website, where progress is reported. Throughout the process, participants can give feedback on the result and impact of their contributions. Participants who have submitted proposals are informed by email about acceptance, changes, regrouping, rejections and the reasoning or regulation behind it that may be relevant to the proposal (Budget Participatif 2016). “We’ve done a lot of data visualization, videos, there is this chart where the rules are written… There is a big part of the website doing pédagogie. (…) We do a lot of meetings, explanations, drawings and everything” (interview with an organizer).
In the first phase of public participation, citizens contribute to the proposals, from which the acceptable ones (with regards to technical and legal feasibilities) are selected and put to a public vote. In the second phase of participation, the participating citizens fully decide by way of voting what is to be the political output of the process. Voting results on city level and for the arrondissements are communicated publicly shortly after the vote.
Most of the proposals concern quality of life (like renovating micro public spaces like a street corner, a garden or a wall), transportation and mobility (like safety of pedestrians and alternative forms of transportation to cars) and the environment (like green energy, educational programmes on recycling, etc.). In 2017, the city started to encourage development of projects around less popular topics like sport, cleanliness, security, housing, solidarity, cleanliness, new technology, economy and citizen participation.
Citizens are not generally involved in the implementation and thus can merely monitor outcomes: “It’s the city that’s going to do the projects” (interview with a journalist). This is also reflected in the distribution of funds to winner projects. The city has pre-set a budget for each project and pre-distributed funds to the different arrondissements dependent on the number of inhabitants (interview with organizer) and on social development: “They didn’t give the same amount of money to every local council, to every arrondissement. They gave more money to the underdeveloped areas, so the richest part, the central part, they get very little money comparatively” (interview with journalist). This priority is surely an expression of a social political position but can also be seen as a means to gain higher effect on development—or incremental value—of public investments.
The BP is not only thought of as a tool of ideation and voting—another level of abstraction is apparent: “For us, participatory budgeting is just a tool of trust, and a symbol and a demonstration of a new way to do politics. So that’s something we don’t measure. I mean, we measure the trust people have in [Paris Mayor] Anne Hidalgo and it’s working well, but we don’t know if it’s related to the participatory budget” (interview with an organizer). Thus, institutional and incumbent trust is a key consideration. But the attraction of the process as well as the (digital) tool towards younger citizens is highlighted: “The main strength for me is transparency and also reaching a new audience for democracy and renew the population, that is a success for sure. If you go to a traditional local meeting with only retired old people, and you compare it now to the number of children who participated at public schools, it’s striking, so that’s an amazing success” (interview with an organizer).