Dalilah Pichler and Lena Rücker, KDZ Centre for Public Administration Research Austria
Participatory budgeting is a practical tool for any governmental level to involve residents in a process of deliberation and decision-making on how public budgets should be spent. The following practice has been chosen due to its first mover role within the districts of the City of Vienna, where the concept has been extended to further districts after the pilot phase. The initiative contributed to a better understanding of the competencies of a local level by the residents, as participants aligned their suggestions to the actual competencies of the district over time. This is particularly important as residents may blame or demand solutions from local level governments in areas which are not in their legally defined competencies. Learning how to voice their ideas and engage more with their district council is a great benefit in a democratic context, as it fosters more dialogue, ownership and understanding. Furthermore, the practice presents an important enabling factor, namely the provision of an ICT infrastructure by a higher level of government. In the case of Margareten an online participatory platform provided by the City of Vienna helped facilitate digital participation and freed resources for civil servants on the district level to focus on engaging the residents, providing feedback to participants and preparing the data for the political decision-making bodies.
With over 27,500 citizens per km2, the District of Margareten is the most densely populated area of Vienna. The district representative of Margareten Susanne Schaefer-Wiery initiated the pilot project ‘Participatory Citizens’ Budget’ in 2017, inspired by the Bürgerhaushalt by the German partner district Berlin-Lichtenberg, enabling residents to have a say in the development of their district. In February 2020, the platform opened for the ideas of the Margaretners for the fourth time.
Over the course of the month of February, the residents of Margareten are invited to submit ideas and suggestions for the development and improvement of the district on an online platform or by mail. The suggestions encompass for example measures for traffic calming, improving the quality of public spaces, providing green spaces, establishing leisure spaces, playgrounds and more, which are within the competencies of the district.
After the users upload their ideas to the online platform, the office of the district representative of Margareten evaluates the individual suggestions, summarizes them in thematic clusters and checks them for their district jurisdiction. The topics which are not within the area of competence are forwarded to other entities (e.g. the public transport company) and the users informed. The structured proposals are then uploaded back onto the online platform, where any user of the platform can vote and comment on the ideas throughout the month of April. The rated ideas and comments are then submitted to the respective committees and commissions of the district council. The members of the commissions and committees prepare the basis for decision-making and possible resolutions by the district council.
There is no fixed budget amount allocated to the potential project ideas at the beginning of the process. Rather the yearly initiative aims to gather ideas by the residents which are then brought into the council rather independent of project size or possible costs. The further elaboration and evaluation of the presented ideas remains within the district council. The participants who had registered on the platform were updated on the process via e-mails. One reason for the non-binding character of the implementation of the ideas generated is the constitutional framework, which limits the participation of citizens to a consultative role in the formal decision-making processes within the council.
With Margareten being the first mover, the concept of participatory budget has now also been implemented in other Viennese districts, namely in Alsergrund, Simmering and Penzing using the same internet platform provided by the City of Vienna (which is municipal and state government at the same time).
Margareten’s participatory budget can be considered a success in terms of interest by the district residents. While in the first process around 80 ideas were presented, later in 2020 around 150 ideas were submitted and 297 residents contributed. Since there are no access restrictions, everybody who is interested in Margareten can join the project and express their ideas on the online platform, no matter which social group they belong to. The easy access and the possibility to present ideas anonymously as well as feedback to the contributors were considered relevant factors for the motivation of citizens. The only limitation is the necessary affinity to navigate online, therefore sending in ideas via postal service was included in the process but in the end hardly used. However, the downside of anonymity should also be mentioned. Residents are able to self-organize to push particular interests especially in the voting process, where a simple ‘thumbs-up’ or ‘thumbs-down’ was used to rate a proposal. The commenting was optional. As the access to the platform is open, i.e. no official identification is needed to register, the system is vulnerable to manipulation.
A key factor for the implementation was the provision of the online platform by the City of Vienna. The district was able to tap into existing resources of a larger entity and could therefore focus on the communication and content rather than technical implementation. However, even with this technical support, human resources were still very limited within the district administration, as the workforce each council is entitled to is regulated by law. The implementation of this participatory processes was possible due to the commitment of civil servants with the political backing across all parties of the district council.
Although the initiative was titled ‘participatory budget’, the way it was executed does not align with the broader scientific term. Criteria for participatory budgeting are the discussion of the budgetary dimension, involvement of the city level, a repeating process, public deliberation and some accountability for the output. In Margareten, the main process was the gathering of ideas with a voting process. In general, participatory budgets are still rare in Austrian municipalities, but the concept has gained importance in recent years. For example, the City of Eisenstadt has introduced participatory budgeting in 2018, and the municipal council of the City of Graz has adopted a respective resolution in February 2020.
However, participatory budgeting appears to be less attractive for municipalities in rural areas. So far, only one rural municipality has introduced such a mechanism. The small Municipality of Vorderstoder in Upper Austria was, in fact, the first Austrian municipality to initiate a participatory budget in 2012. The local government´s primary motive was not the overarching aspiration to encourage and enable participation, but simply the necessity to select the financially feasible projects within the municipality’s limited financial scope and furthermore, support the realization of the projects through voluntary work. Despite active participation, Vorderstoder’s mayor has criticized the lack of support from the Land, which reduced its subsidies in response to the achieved savings on the local level.
Just like there is not one single form of political participation, there is not a single participatory budgeting method or instrument. Participation methods and instruments vary between urban and rural regions due to the different nature of their structure, especially the proximity between citizens and local government. A tightly knit community and increased face-to-face contact with residents in smaller municipalities might reduce the need for a specific participation tool. To some extent, the individual citizen naturally is more likely to participate in local decision-making in a small municipality, which may be one of the reasons for the lower appeal of specific participatory budgeting instruments for smaller, rural municipalities. However, proximity does not automatically mean participation. Therefore, modern and more inclusive instruments such as online public budgeting platforms could constitute a valuable expansion beyond the ‘usual suspects’. As it was the case in Margareten, the provision of a participatory online platform by higher levels of government could facilitate such processes and enable local level governments with limited resources to focus on content, communication and engagement.
—— ‘Partizipatives Budget in Margareten’ (City of Vienna, undated) <https://www.wien.gv.at/bezirke/margareten/politik/partizipatives-budget.html>
Bayrhammer B and Kainz J‚ ‘Wenn der Bürger beim Budget mitredet‘ Die Presse (Vienna, 27 July 2014) <https://www.diepresse.com/3844931/wenn-der-burger-beim-budget-mitredet>
Interview with Astrid Böhme, Head of Office of the District Representative, District Währing (Vienna, 22 March 2021)
Sintomer Y, Herzberg C and Röcke A, ‘Participatory Budgeting in Europe: Potentials and Challenges’ (2008) 32 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 164
Participation platform of the City of Vienna, <https://www.partizipation.wien.at/>
 For more detail, see the Introduction to People’s Participation in Local Decision-Making, report section 6.1.
 —— ‘Partizipatives Budget in Margareten’ (City of Vienna, undated) <https://www.wien.gv.at/bezirke/margareten/politik/partizipatives-budget.html> accessed 24 March 2021.
 Interview with Astrid Böhme, Head of Office of the District Representative, District Währing (Vienna, 22 March 2021).
 Yves Sintomer, Carsten Herzberg and Anja Röcke, ‘Participatory Budgeting in Europe: Potentials and Challenges’ (2008) 32 International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 164.
 Bernadette Bayrhammer and Johanna Kainz, ‘Wenn der Bürger beim Budget mitredet‘, Die Presse (Vienna, 27 July 2014).