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How Participatory Budgeting Shapes Communities in Lithuania

As you think about where your tax payers‘ money go, spare a thought whether you have a say in it. One of the ways to do so is participatory budgeting.

For over thirty years now, participatory budgeting has been used as a way to actively include citizens into decision–making on how to spend public funds, with everyone invited to propose ideas to a municipality, school or organization and vote for the best ones. Today, it is regarded as one of the most innovative methods to promote participatory democracy, and increase citizens’ knowledge of how public budgets work

During the last couple of years, participatory budgeting has caught hold in Lithuania too. Currently, two thirds of municipalities, compared to one tenth in 2020, proactively implement participatory budgeting, allocating up to 350,000 euros each year for citizens to decide upon. Over four percent of schools have also tried participatory budgeting at least once, with students suggesting to have better sports equipment, improving schools’ environment with resting spaces and outdoor “gazebos” as well as recycling bins amongst others. 

Thus, let us offer you a closer look at what we have learnt so far from Lithuanian participatory budgets. Here’s a list of recommendations and tips: 

  • Build a network interested in sharing participatory budgeting experience and making the way forward. Creating opportunities to share good case examples and lessons learned is key for the sustainability of such initiatives. We need to make participation a habit by creating opportunities to share good case examples and lessons learned. To do so, in 2019 together with partners we launched an annual “Participatory Budgeting Forum” in Lithuania that has now been attended by the representatives from almost every municipality, leaders of national institutions, schools and local communities.  Based on participants’ insights, the idea to carry out municipalities’ exchanges for better quality participatory budgeting was born following the evaluation of potential opportunities and challenges involved in participatory budgeting implementation.
  • Encourage communication and cooperation between local level decision-makers and school representatives. For resilient and inclusive democracy, we want to grow a civic-minded society from a young age. Participatory budgeting  in schools can serve as a springboard for individuals to be more active in decision-making processes later on. In 2020, a growing number of municipalities started allocating a part of the budget for schools’ participatory budgeting process as well. Municipal leaders say that it empowers young people to be more active in shaping their communities, and brings more diversity into local-level decision-making. 
  • Measure success of participatory budgeting to learn what works, what doesn’t and what impact participatory budgeting creates. It can be as simple as doing surveys before and after the participatory budgeting. To our knowledge, two schools in Lithuania with the help of our organization were one of the first ones ever to measure the impact of participatory budgeting in this way, more specifically, learning whether PB fosters students’ engagement in school activities, and increases understanding of finances. After the initiative, nearly eight times more students understood how their school budgets work, while three times more students knew better how to engage in decision-making processes in their school. We witnessed similar results during the pandemic when participatory budgeting was implemented online.
  • Expand civic space beyond borders. Participatory budgeting can also be a tool to empower citizens across countries by sharing the learnings and best practices. We have already seen Latvia and Estonia kick off participatory budgeting initiatives in schools based on Lithuania’s experience and joint initiatives as well as Sweden to lead the way in Baltics on how to involve vulnerable groups into the process. To drive the change, we need a daily exercise in democracy and cross-border cooperation. 

What does the future  hold? 

As we move forward and try to ensure more inclusive, transparent and innovative participatory processes, we need to introduce civic tech initiatives in municipalities. In other words,  implement IT tools that would enable greater participation in decision-making and diminish knowledge asymmetry between the government and citizens. Civic Tech has already proved to be useful in Madrid and Paris by creating online tools that allow citizens to submit and vote on proposals, to track the implementation of the projects, by receiving real-time updates. 

To reach the full potential of participatory budgeting, such tools could also be used to publish the implementation progress of the winning projects connecting it with public procurement data, measure success of participatory budgeting and quality of municipalities’ services. 

More on the participatory budgeting experience in Lithuania: 

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