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Budget monitoring in an Amsterdam neighborhood

Graphics: Merijn Bram Rutgers

The Centre for Budget Monitoring and Citizen Participation is a Dutch organization founded in December 2011. The foundation is the result of a co-operation between active citizens and social workers from the Netherlands and INESC from Brazil, the expert on budget monitoring. The collaboration is supported by Oxfam Novib through E-Motive.The Centre is rooted in the Dutch social movement and implements budget monitoring as a tool to enable citizen’s access to financial information, to promote social participation in public policy making and to monitor the spending of determined budgets of various governmental organizations. The main aim of the Centre is to strengthen civil society and enhance social participation.

In 2012 we started the pilot project on budget monitoring in one of the neighborhoods in Amsterdam called the Indische Buurt. Many active citizen groups, called communities, are active within the Indische Buurt. They aim to improve the livability of their neighbourhood and develop participation tools to foster the citizen’s right on ambition. It has been convenient to experiment with budget monitoring in collaboration with these active groups because budget monitoring cannot be implemented as an instrument on its own. It has to be rooted in social movement and implemented by citizens.

To start the experiment on budget monitoring, it was necessary to translate the methodology of INESC into a roadmap that would fit the context of the Netherlands. The roadmap was created by the University of Applied Sciences of Amsterdam, after discussions with the communities in the Indische Buurt on necessary adjustments. In comparison to the methodology of INESC, the roadmap places the emphasis on social justice and civic participation and less on human rights. The roadmap of budget monitoring comprises of steps, which were implemented during the experiment in the Indische Buurt.

First we tried to localize public budgets. This was not easy because budgets and information about spending are not (yet) transparent in the Netherlands. We had to search for information on the website of the municipality and local city district. Once found the annual reports, budgets and other financial documents, we were confronted with another difficulty: information on budgets was presented in complicated PDF files, thousands of pages full of jargon, which made them practically inaccessible for citizens.

After a lot of research, we built a simple database with information on the budget of 2009, 2010, and 2011. This database also included projects of various kinds in the city of Amsterdam, concentrating on neighborhoods.

In the next step we analyzed the database to understand the budget for the Indische Buurt. We were unable to find all the budgets that were spent in the neighborhood. This turned out to be a common problem that we shared with civil servants. As a civil servant working at the local city district told us in January 2012: “even we don’t know exactly the total budget of the Indische Buurt. Civil servants only know the budget that they are responsible for.”

During the next step we organized, together with INESC, a training. The participants of the training were spokespersons of communities and other community members. The subject matters were: budget cycle, annual report, annual budget, neighborhood agenda, and strategies of influencing politics. Part of the training was the practice and theory of budget monitoring in Brazil, by trainers of INESC who showed the group the emphasis on political influence and advocacy. During the training we started to analyze the data available on budgets. For example, we compared the budget of the local district 2011 with the budget of 2013. We also studied a list of subsidies  for the Indische Buurt from the municipality of Amsterdam and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

In the meantime, we asked the local district to give us more information. The district, also began to conduct research. The first result of our request was a short version of the annual report 2011. This report was innovative because the budget was portrayed with info graphics, which provided a clear overview of the budget in comparison to the long and complicated PDF files. It made the report accessible for citizens with a non-economic background.

To make a proper agenda for the neighborhood the group decided that they had to know the priorities of the citizens. What do citizens want for their neighborhood? A questionnaire was made based on the results of several participation events in the Indische Buurt. After detecting the priorities of the citizens, we re-monitored the budget of the local district and re-analyzed the annual report of 2011. We did this by comparing the figures, the local district published. We noticed, for example, that in 2011, there was a big difference between the allocated budget and the spending of this budget on education, youth, and welfare.

On the basis of the findings during the training and questionnaire, the community members decided to write a perspective paper, with a long-term policy, instead of making an agenda for the neighborhood. The training group used the financial data and went to the political board of the local district to ask questions about the budget and its allocation.

The report of this experiment and the questions the communities asked can be seen at: http://www.budgetmonitoring.nl/english/downloads/Brochure%20Budgetmonitoring%20(ENG).pdf.

The experiment in the Indische Buurt ended in December 2012. But, the communities and the Centre for Budget monitoring will keep working with budget monitoring. In the past 3 months things changed a lot. For example, the local district made a website containing facts and figures per neighborhood. And the communities really influenced the spending of money in their neighborhood.

Next months the perspective-paper of the citizens, also containing the budgets according to the communities, will be presented at the local district. This paper will also be the base for budget monitoring by the communities.