Case study: know how Odemira conquered its citizens!

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Odemira has conquered its citizens over the last 5 years with participatory budgeting. They achieved an average 12% participation rate and 1/3 of the population as contributors to at least one process. This lasting success has been due to the continuity work made by the municipality.

Odemira is a 26.000 citizen municipality on south Portugal sea-shore. It’s now half the population it was 50 years ago, and most of it is 25 or older.

It’s the biggest municipality in area with 1 720,60 km², divided in 13 parish’s. All with low population density. This is more than half the size of Luxembourg but only 4% of the population.

As a curiosity, Pedro Damião from Odemira wrote one of the first books about chess in the world back in 1450.

I interviewed Ricardo Cardoso, city deputy in charge of participatory budgeting. He gave me his feedback from their 4 year experience.

Odemira started PB in 2011. Along with Cascais, they’re the second Portuguese municipality to launch deliberative PB. Just one year after Lisbon.

Since 2009 the municipality has endured severe cuts due to national crisis. Among other aspects it led to an employee decrease of 200 out of 630.

César: Can you describe your participatory budgeting model?

Ricardo: We used a deliberative model with 5 steps, evaluation and preparation (1st trimester), proposals gathering (2nd trimester), technical evaluation (July through September), voting (October and November) and results dissemination (December).

We take advantage of the first step to try to correct small aspects that not have been so good the year before. Participatory budgeting is constant learning for us.

To maximize citizen’s engagement we organize in-person meetings in each one of the parish’s. As Odemira is a rural and spread municipality close contact is even more important.

We accept proposal submission online or in person. This way we allow participation from introverts and citizens with low public speaking skills. But the public speaker who likes it’s 5 minutes of fame also has it. Above all, we lowered transportation costs which can limit participation.

We limit only one proposal per citizen to keep focus.

We also set a limit of 125K€ for each proposal. This way we make sure at least 4 win up to total 5% (500K€) of investment budget allocated to PB.

This proposal budget limit has decreased since first edition. Apart from more proposals approved we also avoid big and complex projects. This means less implementation problems and a higher success rate for PB trust.

All projects must start being executed in the following 2 years after the wining year. This allows for implementation of small and medium scale projects. We keep the time frame short enough for people to follow execution, trust the system and accommodate legal bureaucracy.

Media also play an important role in PB promotion. We use online and offline channels to promote PB during all steps.

On voting, citizens must use 2 votes, they cannot be in the same project or in projects located in the same parish.

This way we influence citizens’ to think about their surroundings, but also in the overall population well-being around the municipality.

We are allowing (and promoting) citizens to vote with their heart but also with logic.

In the beginning we had regulations to avoid winner parish from winning in consecutive years. We later introduced multiple votes to avoid this problems without “excluding winner” citizens from participating the following year.

Voting is all done through the platform, either online or in-person.

In the in-person voting, citizens can go to official places where there is a delegate from the municipality. After validating them in the platform, he hands them a tablet interface to vote. This helps building trust as no paper ballot is used.

We also supplied an itinerary ballot box. It will go to each parish twice and to all secondary schools.

We didn’t wait for people to engage. We looked them up, working close to them, cutting distances.

This “full digital” method was introduced last year to mitigate some doubts about the paper ballots counting. It also reduced administrative work.

It’s a perfect example of the kind of upgrades and improvements we make to entire participatory budgeting process.

César: What was the impact?

Ricardo: We have had big positive impact on our citizens. They feel they can choose how a percentage of the municipal budget will be spent. They feel as a part of the process and the community.

In quantitative terms, about one third of our population already engaged on the participatory budgeting process. We also achieved high (over 10%) participation rates each year.

We had social, economical and cultural increments because the projects targeted population benefits.

We focus on having the projects executed on-schedule and we widely disclose the results. Our population appreciates that.

César: What would you highlight as a good practice?

Ricardo: I would emphasize annual process evaluation. Identifying problems about the previous year process and making changes or adding rules is a maturity sign. We are that way more prepared and improving the process.

César: What was the role of the participatory budgeting platform?

Ricardo: The platform is a key factor as it’s our work foundation, both for management and participation.

We continue to work closely with the supplier to improve it and fine tune it.

César: What are Odemira next goals for participatory budgeting?

Ricardo: We aim to reach 10.000 registered users, which is the equivalent to 40% of Odemira population.

We also want to increase in-person participation, as it has decreased on the last years. We think that most of this decline is due to a more mature and informed population. Either way we are trying revert this to improve quality of discussion.

Keeping both hard and soft participation rates high is challenging.

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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