Case study: Ovar municipality reached a mind-blowing 25% participation

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Ovar had 13598 votes in their first year of participatory budgeting. This massive participation rate was due to a gamification strategy, and the use of technology that allowed offline and online channels to interlink in a transparent way.

Ovar is a 55398 citizen’s municipality on center Portugal seashore. About 60% of the population is 25 or older. It’s one of the oldest municipalities in Portugal with over 760 years of history related to sea activities and to wine barrels production. Nowadays it has several transformation industries and it’s also known by its Carnival and surf beaches.

Its current mayor Salvador Malheiro as part of his electoral program pointed participatory budgeting as one essential way to better connect with the population. So in his first year of leadership, Ovar had its first participatory budgeting process with 100.000€ allocated.

I interviewed Salvador Malheiro, Ovar mayor and main sponsor of the Participatory Budgeting, in order to get his point of view on what worked and what is still to improve.

César: Can you describe your participatory budgeting model?
Salvador Malheiro: We used a deliberative model, based on the standard 5 steps, preparation, proposal gathering, proposal technical evaluation, voting and process evaluation.

In the preparation phase, after studying several different regulations we decided to have a process open to everyone with any emotional link to the municipality over 16, either it is a resident, worker, student or native.

The proposals presented could be related to any subject as long as the proponent is an individual citizen, proposals would not benefit someone or an institution specifically, and the implementation period should be under one year.

After setting the regulations we organized several in-person presentation sessions as well as it was widely publicized in the local press.

For the proposal gathering phase we decided that although the proposals could be submitted online, there would be one in-person meeting by each of the 8 parishes and that only the 5 top ideas would go to the final voting stage. That way we expected to gather not many ideas, but the best ones, and those that could really get the population engaged and not confused.

Also, if someone had an idea and really wanted it to get to voting phase that person would mobilize his fellow citizens to support it right from the start in the in-person meetings.

We took advantage of local media as well as social media to promote the participation in each parish, promoting a little competition to see which would have more citizens.

We also involved several municipal technicians in order to assure that proposals were feasible and complied with the regulations.

In the technical evaluation phase we involved the proponents in order to make sure the project was fully understood by the municipality and that no change was made to the initial ideas that undertakes proponent’s initial meaning.

All the proposals were published in a specific website for the participatory budgeting process, which promoted general knowledge and social media sharing.

During voting, we allowed people to vote either using paper ballots or the website.

We distributed paper ballots by mail to every home with a no stamp envelope so that people only needed to fill in their personal data and vote, and post it back with no costs.

To overcome houses with more than one person allowed to vote by regulation, we also authorized people to print the ballot from our website, as long as it was delivered in a closed envelope.

At the municipality we had a committee that opened the paper votes, made sure they were properly filled and registered them in our participatory budgeting platform.

This central registration made sure that a person only accounted for one vote. Either it had voted online or by paper ballot, or even if it had sent several votes by paper. We would only consider the first one.

During voting we also made publicly available, and in real time, the proposal leader-board with explicit indication of the number of votes.

The final result was not a surprise, as everyone could see the whole evolution along the process, but the gamification was essential for the heavy engagement we achieved.

We organized a final awards’ session where we summed up the experience, and reinforced proponent’s recognition by giving all of them a participation diploma. A small reward we’re sure to have raised their trust. The local press and social media were involved in order to assure impact was as big as possible.

By now we have already evaluated this first year of participatory budgeting and set new goals.

Getting the active forces of civil society involved in the dissemination of the participatory budgeting was the key factor for our success.

César: What was the impact?
Salvador Malheiro: We can measure impact using many indicators, both quantitative and qualitative.
We organized 36 in-person meetings for dissemination and proposal gathering, which brought together over 1000 citizens.

From the 38 proposals that reached voting, 5 got more than 1500 votes and were mainly related to social and sports.

We got 13.598 votes which correspond to 25% of the population.

30% of the votes were made online.

This means that 1 in each 4 citizens of Ovar contributed to the participatory budgeting process, and mostly due to direct community engagement and mobilization.

Our goal of community engagement was achieved.

Being more among the population was achieved.

Making our citizens more aware of each parish’s needs was achieved. People started thinking less about their belly button and more on the global needs.

César: What would you highlight as good practice?
Salvador Malheiro: Getting the active forces of civil society involved in the dissemination of the participatory budgeting was the key factor for our success.

Having them as important stakeholders and active participants assured us momentum that otherwise would take us longer and/or with more costs.

They organized themselves around projects they liked and used all the tools we put at proponents’ disposal to promote, and actively gather votes. They went to their families or to people in the streets and talked about participatory budgeting, about the projects and asked support… asked for votes. And they got them!

That is public participation!

César: What was the role of the participatory budgeting platform?
Salvador Malheiro: It had a major role in terms of organization, methodical, systematical and real-time monitoring of the process.

It also made a strong basis for trust building, as we had a tool that helped us make sure identity and voting issues were taken care of and in a very transparent way for citizens.

We also had different participation channels, so having only one central place to cross-reference was a key issue.

César: What are Ovar’s next goals for participatory budgeting?
Salvador Malheiro: We have made a few small changes to the process in order to reach to more specific audiences, and are dividing it into two. One specific for those registered as Ovar’s voters, and another specific for youth.

We reduced the maximum amount of budget per proposal to 50.000€ in order to have more than one proposal approved.

We also reduced the number of projects approved in each of the in-person meetings from 5 to 2, in order to have even more focus and reinforce the importance of this first stage of selection.

Writen by César Silva @ ChangeTomorrow

You can reach me at cesar@changetomorrow.io

This blog is a place of experience and thoughts sharing around democracy, participatory initiatives and citizen engagement.

This blog reflects the thoughts of ChangeTomorrow team, its guest bloggers or interviewers.

ChangeTomorrow is a provider of Participatory Budgeting solution called Participare and a spinoff of portuguese market leader WireMaze.

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