Participatory Fund in Cities

Anna Szustek, University of Warsaw

Relevance of the Practice

Urban Activisms

Contemporary social urban life has many dimensions. The space of urban activities is wide. There are forms of activity that have become a permanent part of urban life. They are, to some extent, structured, or sometimes institutionalized. Striving to create structures is a form of defense against ephemerality. A large part of urban activism is short-lived, active and temporary. Its activities focus on various topics. Activisms that aim at improving the quality of life get wider social resonance. Residents mobilize activity in order to articulate their interests related to the place of residence. The subjectivity of citizens in the local community is necessary. For a lasting revival of social life, it is important to institutionalize initiatives and activisms and to include them, somehow, in public management. It is important that social mobilization is articulated in the public-social dialogue. In the search for an ideal model of relations between the public authority and the inhabitants, forms of participatory democracy take their place. Its essence is the participation of residents in the city management. The co-deciding and co-management of the city is supposed to build a relationship between residents and local authorities, but also to foster the building of social capital and be a path to the subjectivity of citizens. In municipal self-governments, such forms of participatory democracy as e.g. public consultations (in situations of a severe conflict) or local initiatives (when introducing new legislative solutions) work well. In Poland, urban participation is different from rural participation. Urban participation in terms of organizational and legal forms is much less stable. Therefore, civic activity in cities is more ephemeral. Rural participation is based on tradition more than urban participation. For rural participation, the pillars are such organizations as, for example, Rural Women Circles (with over 150 years of tradition), Volunteer Fire Brigades (also operating for over 150 years). These organizations have well- developed and well-established structures, and they are well-embedded in the society. Volunteer Fire Brigades have more than 15,000 organizational units. Rural Women Circles have more than 10,000 organizational units. These are organizations with hundreds of thousands of members.[1] Both Rural Women Circles and Volunteer Fire Brigades have a well-regulated legal basis. Volunteer Fire Brigades operate on the basis of Prawo o stowarzyszeniach (the Law on Associations) of 1989.[2] The functioning of Rural Women Circles was regulated by a new law in 2018[3]. These organizations have a stable material basis for their activities. In Poland, a relatively new tool of participatory democracy in local government is the participatory budget.

Participatory democracy looks attractive in theoretical reflection. As the empirical research shows, ‘in social practice, participation is often illusory, and the opinions of citizens are only to legitimize the decisions that have already been made’.[4] The conclusions of the empirical research boil down to the statement that ‘the local government faces an important task consisting, on the one hand, in stimulating the social activity of residents, and, on the other hand, in further improvement and development of various forms of participatory democracy’.[5]

Description of the Practice

The development of civic activity entails an evolution in the conceptual grid. In Poland, the well-established term social worker begins to be replaced in urban areas by the one of urban activist. The term participatory budget is relatively new and it can be said to be still taking its shape. The term participatory budget is used interchangeably with the one of civic budget. There is an ongoing discussion on the semantic scope of the category of participatory budget. In practice, the term civic budget is more recognizable and more frequently used in social life. And in the scientific reflection, the category of participatory budget gains greater recognition. Since January 2018, the civic budget has been a statutory category. In legal and official transactions, the dominant concept is civic budget. In the light of the definition by Leksykon budżetowy (Budget lexicon), the civic budget is ‘an informal term describing a part of the local government budget (most often the city budget), within which the predetermined amount of expenditure is allocated to investment initiatives and projects directly submitted by the local society (individually or by organizations)’.[6] At the same time, it is emphasized that the idea of a civic budget is a component of the vision of civil society and is part of public governance, where public control and co-management are an important aspect. Sopot, where such a budget was created in 2011, is considered to be the precursor of the participatory budget in Poland. Since 2013, this way of spending public money in local governments has been gaining more and more supporters.

Legal Basis of Participatory / Civic Budget

31 January 2018 is an important time cut-off for participatory budgeting in Poland. Prior to that date, there was no direct statutory legal basis to define and regulate this type of budget. As a result of the lack of generally applicable regulations, cities determined the goals, conditions and the amount of funds allocated to projects implemented within the participatory budget on their own. Civic budgets operated mostly on the basis of the resolutions of the city councils adopted on the basis of the provisions on public consultations (the Local Government Act, Article 5(a)(1) and (2)). The draft resolutions specifying the principles and procedure for conducting public consultations with regard to these budgets were submitted for adoption by mayors and presidents of cities. Less frequently, civic budgets were created based on the mayor’s or president’s orders (based on the provisions concerning the preparation and execution of the city budget by the mayor). Generally speaking, civic budgets were most often created on the initiative of the mayors of cities themselves. It is interesting what mayors and presidents of cities were guided by in initiating civic budgets in this initial period. So far, these motives have not been subject to any in-depth research. It can be assumed that it was about winning voters. Sometimes councilors were active in this area. The exceptions included situations where the structures of the social sector, such as the Commune Council for Public Benefit Activities, initiated the creation of a civic budget.

Since 11 January 2018, the civic budget has been regulated by an act.[7] This act uses the term civic budget. In the light of the act, the civic budget is ‘a special form of public consultation. Every year, within the scope of the civic budget, residents decide by direct vote on a part of the commune’s budget expenditure. The tasks selected as part of the civic budget are included in the commune’s budget resolution. The commune’s council, in the course of the works on the draft budget resolution, may not remove or significantly change the tasks selected within the civic budget’.[8] The legislator entrusted the commune’s council with the establishment of the requirements to be met by the draft civic budget. The commune council determines the following by way of a resolution:

  • the formal requirements for submitted projects (in terms of content, you can submit any projects);
  • the number of signatures of residents supporting the project, where the limit is indicated (the number of inhabitants may not exceed 0.1 per cent of the inhabitants of the area covered by the civic budget pool where the project is submitted);
  • the rules for the evaluation of submitted projects (it is obligatory to take into account the criteria of legal compliance, technical feasibility and formal requirements);
  • the procedure for appealing against a decision not to allow a bill to be voted on;

the rules of voting, determining the results and making them public (however, in voting, it is mandatory by law to ensure equality and directness).

Equality of voting means that everyone entitled to vote has the same number of votes (for example, a voter can cast only one vote for the submitted projects; or , for example, there are 10 projects and each voter has 5 votes that they can cast for any selected projects). Directness is understood traditionally, that is, for example, a parent cannot vote instead of their underage children.

The municipal council determines in a resolution who has the right to vote to select participatory budget projects. Until now, the resolutions assumed that only residents of a local government unit who were at least 13, 16 or 18 years old, had at least limited legal capacity or were registered or entered in the permanent register of voters, can vote. It is assumed that all residents should have the right to participate in the vote, regardless of their age, provided that the voter has an understanding of his actions and is fully aware of them. This had been a practice before the entry into force of the Act of 2018. However, municipal councils enjoy a lot of discretion. Therefore, in the initial period of the operation of the Act of 2018, enhanced supervision over the activities of the local government unit in the implementation of participatory budgets is needed. This supervision is the competence of the regional audit chambers. Before the entry into force of the Act of 2018, the supervision in the field of participatory budgets had been the competence of the voivode.

In the light of the act, in ‘communes that are cities with powiat rights, establishing a civic budget is obligatory’.[9] Moreover, an indicator of the minimum financial resources that should be allocated for this purpose has been defined. The amount of the civic budget must be ‘at least 0.5 per cent of the commune’s expenditure included in the last submitted budget implementation report’.[10] The new statutory solution shows that the state is a supporter of the institution of deliberative democracy. The legislator clearly provides instruments to popularize the participatory budget. The amendment to the Local Government Act, which introduced the civic budget, entered into force on 31 January 2018. In this way, the participatory budget became stabilized.

Participatory Budget as an Innovative Form of Democracy in Local Government

The participatory budget is an institution of democracy that has been developing quite dynamically in Poland for over a decade. It allows for partial socialization of the budget policy of local government units. On the one hand, it provides the opportunity to build the social capital in local governments and shows the role of residents in the local development. On the other hand, it is a form of education of citizens and an important tool of deliberative democracy aimed at improving the quality and comfort of life in the city. A participatory budget can be created not only in cities, but also in other communes. However, so far in practice it has functioned in communes with the status of cities or communes and cities. This is due to the fact that in Poland there is a large fragmentation of local government units at the primary level. This is reflected in their finances. Rural municipalities, which are usually smaller entities, have poorer annual budgets. For these municipalities, any depletion of the annual budget is difficult.

The participatory budget has a specific procedure (taking into account the provisions of the Act of 2018 (Article 1(1)(7)) and formed as a result of the practice) which includes the following stages:

  • determination of the procedure and rules for conducting the public consultation on the participatory budget;
  • promotion of the participatory budget;
  • submission and acceptance of applications with citizens’ projects (submitted by citizens individually or by non-profit entities);
  • initial assessment and verification of submitted projects;
  • rejection of applications that do not meet the specified requirements;
  • appeals against the decisions rejecting the non-compliant applications;
  • voting on the selection of citizens’ projects;
  • implementation of civic projects selected in a vote;
  • evaluation of a participatory budget.

Participatory budgets in Polish cities are assessed both by the state and the social factor. I understand the concept of the social factor as all citizens participating in public life both individually (for example, by participating in local elections) and in organized forms (for example, in associations, foundations, housing communities, or housing cooperatives). The social factor also includes the local press or groups created in social media (such as, for example, the Facebook group Przyjaciele Dolinki (Friends of the Valley).[11] The social factor evaluates participatory budgets in the form of voting for specific projects, in the process of evaluating citizens’ budgets, and in discussions in the media. Evaluation is carried out by local governments, usually in the electronic form through electronic tools created for this purpose on websites (for example, in Gdańsk there was an evaluation survey shared at the city’s website; in Koszalin, an online evaluation survey and focus survey were used).[12] A good opportunity to articulate the assessments of civic budgets are local elections, election campaigns before local elections, and meetings of local government officials with residents. In this respect, in Poland, this practice is just being formed, with the society learning how to use participatory budgets. The state factor is understood as the Office of the President of the Republic of Poland, the Prime Minister, the Council of Ministers, ministers of individual ministries, central state offices, courts, and state control institutions (the Supreme Audit Office). This does not mean that all these entities are interested in assessing participatory budgets. So far, the Minister of the Interior and Administration has taken a position on the results of the state control of civic budgets.[13] In this short period of existence of participatory budgets in Poland, their functioning was assessed by the state factor once (in 2019). Audits of participatory budgets were carried out on the basis of the Act on the Supreme Audit Office (Article 2(2)) in terms of legality, economy and reliability (Article 5(2)).[14] They were analyzed by the Supreme Audit Office, or NIK.[15] NIK examined whether the projects were implemented ‘correctly and effectively’ within the civic budget in the period 2016-2018. The survey was conducted in 262 municipal offices (cities). It is a certain test on the basis of which one can conclude about the development of the civic budget on a national scale. In particular, it was important:

  • whether the resolutions of the commune council and orders of the head of the commune (mayor, city president) regarding the functioning of the civic budget were correct;
  • whether the selection of the civic projects was carried out in accordance with the communes’ internal law;
  • whether the implementation of tasks was correct and consistent with the assumptions.

The subject of NIK’s analysis was the variety of legal solutions in communes (cities). It assessed the regulations concerning the civic budget in the years 2016-2018, i.e. in the period when some relevant experience had already been acquired and, at the same time, when there were no specific legal bases in this matter. NIK concluded that ‘the regulations concerning the civic budgets that were in force in cities, were not correct, as they were issued in breach of Article 5a paragraph 1 and 2 of the Local Government Act’. The violations of the act occurred in all resolutions of city councils or ordinances of mayors and city presidents. They involved:

  • restricting residents’ right to participate in public consultations (the act does not define the group of people entitled to participate in this procedure);
  • imposing the obligation to provide the PESEL (Universal Electronic System for Registration of the Population) number during consultations;
  • expanding the group of entities authorized to submit applications, e.g. by including communities, housing cooperatives and non-governmental organizations;
  • defining the rules and procedure for conducting consultations in the ordinances of mayors and presidents, instead of the resolutions of municipal councils (this is the exclusive competence of municipal councils).

While NIK’s assessment of the functioning of the civic fund was unsatisfactory in legal terms, in general it is considered that ‘the results achieved by the cities in implementing the projects under civic budgets in the years 2016-2018 prove the effectiveness of this form of cooperation between residents and the authorities of local government units, even though their implementation was not always correct’.[16] According to the assessment by the state, about 85 per cent of the projects funded out of the civic budget are implemented correctly and in accordance with the assumptions. The projects were implemented by municipal offices or local government organizational units as well as external entities such as foundations and associations. These entities were awarded grants for the implementation of tasks. The civic budget covers the cost of the construction of facilities that meet the needs of residents, mainly in the field of road, recreational and sports infrastructure. A large part of them are projects in the field of municipal economy and environmental protection, culture and national heritage protection as well as education and upbringing. Typical investments within the civic budget include the construction and renovation of roads, pavements, parking lots, lighting of municipal facilities, installation of video monitoring systems, construction of sports, recreation and relaxation facilities (such as playgrounds, outdoor gyms, parks, sports fields), construction of the cycling infrastructure (e.g. bicycle paths, parking lots). Frequently, residents also choose projects that are aimed at improving the aesthetics and making the urban space more attractive. A novelty are investments such as the installation of air sensors. NIK’s report emphasizes civic budgets’ benefits in the social dimension as well. It says that ‘the existence of civic budgets allows city dwellers to directly participate in the decision-making process regarding the use of part of the budget funds of the local government units. Thanks to this social participation in the exercise of power by the municipal authorities, the civil society and the trust of the commune’s residents in the local government and its representatives, are strengthened.’

The operation of participatory budgets is, in practice, most accurately assessed by the residents themselves. In the broad sense, participatory budgets are assessed during elections of the local government bodies. The assessment is also made in a narrower sense, somehow ad hoc, and it directly concerns specific investments within the participatory budget. The projects are evaluated by the relevant units of local government bodies (in approximately 80 per cent of the cities that were audited by NIK). The evaluations are carried out with the use of tools such as evaluation questionnaires available at cities’ websites or focus research. The evaluation primarily analyzed the established procedures and the operation of civic budgets. The evaluation results were ‘taken into account’ when creating regulations for subsequent editions of the civic budget. In the practice so far, the evaluation of civic budgets carried out by local governments themselves can only be recognized as an auxiliary tool for assessing the satisfaction of residents with the operation of this new form of participatory democracy. There are social levels in the functioning of civic budgets that completely escape this method of research and evaluation. So far, no assessment has been developed that would include aspects such as the quality, efficiency and sustainability of the investment. The maintenance of the infrastructure created out of the participatory fund is not subject to project evaluation. It is assumed that these facilities are maintained by a given local government unit. Due to the fact that participatory fund investments are a new phenomenon in Poland, so far many practical aspects of their functioning have not been defined.

The civic budget finances investments that cause great conflicts between residents and the local government. A well-known Polish example of a civic budget investment that has been controversial is the project implemented in the Służewiecka Valley (in the Warsaw district of Mokotów). Despite being a local investment, thanks to the media it is well-known throughout the country and is becoming a flagship example of a bad participatory budget project. It may even be assumed – if the situation develops as dynamically and argumentatively as it has so far – that it will seriously contribute to the weakening (or perhaps even discrediting) of this new institution of participatory democracy, which is the civic budget. The project implemented in the Służewiecka Valley seems to be quite correct from the point of view of the procedures carried out. It does not raise any objections in the local government units responsible for the implementation of civic projects. However, residents do not want this investment. They clearly articulate their position towards the authorities of the City of Warsaw and the Mokotów district. It is a well-organized community that communicates excellently both in social media and in direct relations. Judging by the course of the case so far, it can be claimed that the subjectivity of the residents has been completely disregarded. It is interesting how the conflict between the residents and the local government originated and why the residents do not want this investment. The project in the Służewiecka Valley was voted for by all Warsaw residents, not only those of the Mokotów area, in which the Służewiecka Valley is located. This city-wide project received 10,751 votes and was qualified for implementation. The residents of the Służew nad Dolinką Housing Cooperative do not want this investment because it destroys a beautiful park with well-preserved nature (beautiful trees, natural small lakes). The Mokotów area council recognized their arguments. However, the City of Warsaw does not want to abandon the implementation of this investment. It claims that the project was selected in accordance with the applicable procedures and must be implemented. It refers to a legal opinion in the light of which the failure to carry out this investment will result in the Regional Chamber of Accounts not accepting the budget of the City of Warsaw. Based on the example of this investment in the Służewiecka Valley, it can be seen that in practice the participatory fund is a difficult form of democracy. There have already been articles in the press depreciating the participatory fund.[17]

Assessment of the Practice

Prospects for the Development of the Civic Budget in Poland

Will the participatory budget enrich and improve the functioning of local government, will it, in the long run, become an important tool for creating social bonds and the subjectivity of residents; or will it be a short-lived experiment?

Sceptics and open opponents of the participatory budget claim that this is an ephemeral experiment. They emphasize that in Poland, local governments need other instruments that will increase the effectiveness of local government governance and improve the quality of life of inhabitants. It is emphasized that the new direction of changes in local government should be the creation of strong local government units capable of providing high-quality services for residents, and not the atomization of its financial resources.

Participatory budgeting does not arouse such interest among municipal activists anymore. It is said to have lost its freshness effect. The enthusiasm of city dwellers is also moderate, as it has not had time to take root for good yet. It seems that the need to promote the civic budget has been underestimated so far. It seems advisable to popularize participatory budgeting in educational institutions. Establishing school budgets could, in practice, shape the civic attitudes in young people and teach them how to function in the local community.

The state factor provided an important support tool for the popularization and development of the civic budget. The new statutory solution from 2018 introduced the obligation to create a civic budget in communes that are cities with county rights and the minimum amount of funds for this purpose was indicated. Although the statutory provisions concerning the civic budget in corpore are assessed as moderately successful, this amendment to the Local Government Act stabilizes this institution of participatory democracy. However, in the long run, the legal bases of the citizens’ budget should be much more balanced. Legal solutions must be adapted to the capabilities of local governments (including small municipalities) and, on the other hand, protect the interests of local communities against abuse. The experience of using the participatory fund in the years to come will result in many new cases requiring legal regulation.

References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications

Legal Documents:

The Law of 7 April 1989 on Associations

The Act of 8 March 1990 on gmina Self-Government.

The Act of 11 January 2018 Amending Certain Acts in order to Increase the Participation of Citizens in the Process of Selecting, Functioning and Controlling Certain Public Bodie

Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:

Bureau of Research, ‘Leksykon budżetowy’ [Budget Lexicon] (Sejm, undated) <>

Lewenstein B, Górska A and Zielińska E (eds), Aktywizmy miejskie [Urban Activisims] (Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar 2020)

Supreme Audit Office, ‘Funkcjonowanie budżetów partycypacyjnych (obywatelskich). Informacja o wynikach kontroli’ [Operation of Participatory (Civic) Budgets. Information on the Audit Results] (reg no 20/2019/P/18/064/LGD, NIK 2019)

Załęski J, ‘Demokracja partycypacyjna (na przykładzie Gdańska)’ [Participatory Democracy (on the Example of Gdańsk)] (2018) 19 Miscellanea Anthropologica et Sociologica 178

[1] Current reliable data on the numbers of members is not available.

[2] The Law of 7 April 1989, Prawo o stowarzyszeniach (the Law on Associations), uniform text: Journal of Laws 2019, item 713.

[3] The Act of 9 November 2018 on rural women circles, Journal of Laws 2018, item 2212.

[4] Jarosław Załęski, ‘Demokracja partycypacyjna (na przykładzie Gdańska)’ [Participatory Democracy (on the Example of Gdańsk)] (2018) 19 Miscellanea Anthropologica et Sociologica 178, 178.

[5] ibid 191.

[6] Bureau of Research, ‘Leksykon budżetowy’ [Budget Lexicon] (Sejm, undated)    <> accessed 1 June  2021.

[7] The Act of 11 January 2018 Amending Certain Acts in order to Increase the Participation of Citizens in the Process of Selecting, Functioning and Controlling Certain Public Bodies.

[8] Article 1 clause 1.point b3, b4 of the Act of 11 January 2018 Amending Certain Acts in order to Increase the Participation of Citizens in the Process of Selecting, Functioning and Controlling Certain Public Bodies.

[9] Art 1(1)(b5) of the Act of 11 January 2018 Amending Certain Acts in order to Increase the Participation of Citizens in the Process of Selecting, Functioning and Controlling Certain Public Bodies.

[10] ibid.

[11] <https: //> accessed 1 June 2021.

[12] Supreme Audit Office, ‘Funkcjonowanie budżetów partycypacyjnych (obywatelskich). Informacja o wynikach kontroli’ [Operation of Participatory (Civic) Budgets. Information on the Audit Results] (reg no 20/2019/P/18/064/LGD, NIK 2019) 58.

[13] The Minister’s position on the information on the audit results, in Supreme Audit Office, ‘Funkcjonowanie budżetów partycypacyjnych (obywatelskich)’, above, 102-105.

[14] The Act of 23 December on the Supreme Audit Office, Journal of Laws 2019, item 489.

[15] Supreme Audit Office, ‘Funkcjonowanie budżetów partycypacyjnych (obywatelskich)’, above.

[16] Supreme Audit Office, ‘Funkcjonowanie budżetów partycypacyjnych (obywatelskich)’, above, 9.

[17] The residents protest against the construction of a playground in the Służewiecka Valley. The civic budgeting has become pathology, the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper of 5 May 2021.