Citizen budgets in the smart city – a good idea?

Opinion by Joachim Van den Bergh, Senior Research Associate at Vlerick Business School

A few weeks ago the City of Ghent, Belgium, launched its own version of the participatory initiative called ‘Citizens’ budget’ (Het Burgerbudget). In short, the City reserves a budget of 1.5M Euro to subsidise the execution of selected projects with a clear public utility value proposition. In a first phase citizens and associations are invited to post ideas (and corresponding budget need), to comment on proposals, or to simply like an idea. At first sight a promising attempt to active citizen participation. Let’s take a closer look.

Citizen participation is essential to many smart city ambitions. Smart cities are supposed to be resourceful in using and harvesting scarce resources, including ‘ideas’. In this sense the ‘Citizen Budget’ is a great idea. By committing financial means, and at the same time exposing project ideas, the city attracts bottom-up ideas that could prove to be attractive to realise the city vision. Typically these ideas have a high local embeddedness and touch upon real needs of citizens. Moreover, they are complementary to many top-down smart city projects, which are often infrastructure-focused or technology-centric.

At the same time the initiative contributes to a higher form of citizen participation, as the city does not limit itself to listening to citizen’s needs, but commits to the execution of a selection of these ideas. The winning projects will ultimately be decided upon by a committee and will be - to a certain extent – influenced by a public vote later this year. Citizens are invited to comment upon ideas, which might lead to further refinement of the projects. Even if they are not selected, the proposals and comments form a rich source of insight for the city administration.

Ghent is not first to come up with a ‘Citizen Budget’. Similar initiatives can be found in Reykjavik (Iceland) and Cracow (Poland) to name just two examples. The case of Reykjavík (Better Reykjavik) has visibly served as an inspiration for Ghent. It is known as a true success story in citizen participation with a reported number of over 100 ideas that have been accepted and implemented, as it continues to exist. Cracow has also established the citizen budget since a few years, and is in the process of executing some of the projects.

So the citizen budget is a good idea? Here are a couple of caveats to that notion or at least some attention points for a city that wishes to engage in this type of citizen participation:

  • A public voting is hardly representative if the population is skewed in the participants’ sample. Possibly, it becomes just another channel to engage with the same people that are already heavily involved in citizen participation.
  • Public voting could be subject to unethical strategies to ‘play’ the system, by parties aiming to push a specific initiative, for individual, commercial or political reasons. (cfr. reported influencing of the votes in an incident in Cracow)
  • Controversy is just around the corner, when a particular idea is funded with tax payers’ money, as some of the comments on the platform will show.
  • Reserving a specific budget is perhaps not necessary. Even if they are not selected through the regular process, or out of budgetary range, ideas might be worthy of execution.

So, it will be interesting to observe how the initiative will unfold in Ghent, a city that has a solid citizen participation tradition. For sure, the engaged citizen will find a new way to have a conversation with the city hall and fellow citizens, and the city will build experience on its path towards becoming a citizen-centric smart city.

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