Rethinking Local Budget to Rebuild Trust

Francesco Saija (Parliament Watch Italy) reports about WE.BUDGET prototype meeting in Budapest.

During our second CitizensLab Network Meeting in Brussels, we divided into groups in order to think about possibilities and develop prototypes to take action on common goals in various local contexts throughout Europe. Our group was temporarily named ‘Transparent Local Budget’. The aim was to give a hand to a pivotal transition: increase budgets’ transparency and face the common corruption problems that affect the impact of public spending at the local level in the territories we are based in. We organised our first group meeting in Budapest hosted by K-Monitor whose president Sandor Lederer is one of the promoters of this initiative. Beside Hungary, six other EU countries were represented: Iva Cukic for the Serbian Civil Society Organisation Ministarstvo Prostora (Ministry of Space), Branko Stanic for Croatia (Ministry of Public Finance), Francesco Saija for Parliament Watch Italy, Serban Oncescu for Civicus Romania, Ale Gonzalez for the Spanish, and Lisa Schulze for the German NGO MitOst, coordinating the CitizensLab. The meeting was hosted in a beautiful art nouveau style building that is now the Milestone Institute. Milestone Institute was founded as a national centre of advanced education with the aim of inspiring gifted students in their quest for academic excellence, their pursuit of scholarly curiosity and their passion for leadership. Located in the heart of Budapest, the Institute’s principal aim is to create a community of intellectuals, scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs who are ready to act as catalysts of change along democratic and egalitarian principles.

Branko Stanic, Michelangelo Secchi and Sandor Lederer are discussing budget issues

Our meeting started acknowledging the difficulties that the Hungarian Civil Society ecosystem is facing. Sandor, who spent years of his work implementing a web platform promoting a control system for public procurements and worked as local research country correspondent for the EU’s anti-corruption report, expressed his concerns about a law that was about to be discussed in the Hungarian Parliament the next day.

During the first day we carefully analysed various examples of local budgets visualisations already existing in our countries and all over the world. There is a wide range and different levels of complexity in those tools. We clearly focused on the tool we want to develop to be suitable to accompany the non-expert user in the complex world of public spending, starting from simple steps and preparing the precondition for citizens to advocate for more complex data. This, in our mind, could open the online visualisation to an offline process that could lead to forms of agreement between the municipality and the citizens to implement participatory budgets. Thus, the debate and the brainstorming of the group was centred on how to keep a simple user experience without losing the complexity of the data which should be guaranteed by some sophisticated analytic functions. We closed this very intense first day with a traditional Hungarian dinner and we started to get acquainted with this warm and fascinating city.

Iva Cukic is presenting the geolocalisation of abandoned public areas restored to a public funcion in Belgrad by Ministry of Space

The second day started with the bitter news that after two postponed votes, the Hungarian Parliament finally adopted the Law on the Transparency of Foreign Funded Organisations. The law requires NGOs to register as foreign funded groups if they receive more than 24k EUR a year from abroad, including the EU or EU countries. Moreover, NGOs will be obliged to put a pledge on all of their publications and web presences that they are foreign-funded. Hundreds of NGOs have protested against the law that is considered unconstitutional and against international rules and standards. Sandor’s NGO K-Monitor decided not to comply with the regulation.

Nonetheless, we do what we do with the awareness that there is a certain direction that history has taken leaning towards the openness and collaboration among governments and citizens and we know also that little and big obstacles cannot turn the clock back. It is a matter of time and patience: governments change, the needs and instances of civil society stay put, waiting for answers.

Serban Oncescu is thinking a way for data visualization

So, we focused on existing participatory budget projects and tools guided by the voice of Michelangelo Secchi, one of the Italian pioneers of this practice. Michelangelo explained to us the state of the art based on more than ten years of his on-field experiences and then illustrated Empatia, his ongoing project funded by EU’s Horizon2020 programme.

Logic behind ‘Empatia’, the Horizon 2020 participatory budget project

This was an insightful moment that made us focus on the final outcome of the whole process, which started to be clearer in our mind. The big issue consisted in considering and trying to merge two visions: the first that looks at civic engagement and transfer of competences citizens need starting gradually from data visualisation, gamification and advocacy on more complex datasets to assess the impact of public spending. The other vision that aims to engage citizens raising awareness through a ‘learning by doing’ process coming from the concrete attempt to intervene on the city’s public spending. Then we had a focus group on the way to involve citizens used in Belgrad’s urban intervention. At the end of the second day we had a wonderful dinner in a garden-bar near the city centre, with cold beers and good conversation, and a lovely walk in the city, guided by Sandor.

Michelangelo Secchi and Francesco Saija are showing possibilities for the participatory module of the tool

During the third morning we got into the tool design and everything we spoke about in the former two days moved in place and into a synthesis. In every creative process there is a precise moment in which chaos disappears and something clear is revealing itself. The final explanation of the first stage tool was quite satisfactory. We established next steps and shared duties. During the night, celebrating our friendship and the beautiful experiences shared we realised that we forgot to choose a name for the project. A couple of local ‘palinka’ each and we came up with ‘WEBUDGET’. Something probably is born, now it has to be fed.

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