Participatory budgeting, or OmaStadi, as it is called in Helsinki, is a way of bringing the development ideas of the residents into the public discussion. By joint discussion and development, a certain predefined monetary amount is spent on reforms that improve the well-being of the residents.
The willingness of the residents of Helsinki to participate in the development of the city and the decision-making was brought into focus in the management development work way back in the 1970s, when a decline in voting turnout was noticed.
– It was feared that, if the voting activity is weak and citizens no longer believe participation in social activity and political parties is worthwhile, the quality and legitimacy of the decision-making will suffer, says Olli Lahtinen, who started working as democracy secretary of Helsinki in the 1980s.
The participatory budgeting model arrived in Finland in the 2010s. Lahtinen thinks that this model and other participatory measures should not be seen as opposed to or as a replacement for the decision-making but rather complementary to it. A genuine feeling of participation might encourage more and more people to join political parties or to have an influence in another manner, according to Lahtinen.
However, people must also be able to participate in decision-making without being a part of political parties, for example via a citizens’ assembly formed from randomly selected people, Senior Planning Officer Lahtinen says decades later.
Helsinki has also experimented with new ways to develop its services in cooperation with the city’s residents. One example is from the city’s Social Services and Healthcare Division.
– A group was set up this spring to try and jointly develop the services of the Myllypuro Health and Wellbeing Centre. We’ll improve the centre together with the residents, charting their views as we go. The new angle is that the joint development work is taking place on a digital platform, said Kaisa Kutilainen, the division’s special planner.
Influencing bodies defined in the Local Government Act, including the Elderly Citizens Council, Council on Disability and Youth Council, operate in the City of Helsinki. The knowledge and expertise of these councils is utilised in city operations, for example, by requesting for their statements on current plans.
Helsinki also has a Non-Discrimination Commission tasked with promoting equality and non-discrimination in all city activities and services. The Bilingualism Committee monitors and evaluates the implementation of bilingualism in services provided by the city and among city staff.
The city also has seven Borough Liaisons and three Business Liaisons to support the involvement of city residents.
OmaStadi provides a permanent way to participate and make a difference in Helsinki
In Helsinki, participatory budgeting via OmaStadi enables the participation of all residents and allows influencing the development of their residential district and the entire city.
– It is important for us that all city residents have an equal opportunity to participate and make a difference in matters related to the city. During the second round, OmaStadi communicated in seven languages. In addition, the city co-operated with various city services and organisations to reach residents from different linguistic and cultural groups. Organisational cooperation was carried out, for example, with Somalinkieliset ry and Nicehearts, an organisation promoting the participation opportunities of girls and women. In October 2021, 47,064 residents voted in OmaStadi. This means that 8.1 per cent of those citizens entitled to vote exercised their right to vote. In Paris, approximately 6.5 per cent of city residents participated in the participatory budgeting vote in 2019, says OmaStadi’s Development Manager, Kirsi Verkka.
Helsinki will spend EUR 8.8 million implementing ideas proposed by city residents. During the second round (2020–2021), the residents of Helsinki made 1,463 proposals contributing to the functionality and habitability of the city. Of these proposals, 397 proceeded to the final vote, and 75 proposals qualified for implementation. The development and implementation of these proposals can be followed on the OmaStadi website.
Participatory budgeting has its roots in the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil. It was created to complement the ruling parties and decision-making to enable the participation of the residents in the planning of the city budget.
Drawing: Minna Alanko, City of Helsinki.