Evaluating the impact of participatory budgeting

29 August 2018

Participatory budgeting (PB) is taking root within Scotland’s democratic structures, but how do we evaluate its impact?

Over the past decade I have been both impressed and heartened by the way in which participatory budgeting (PB) has come to the fore in Scotland and hopefully, in time, it will become a central way of doing things within public service delivery. PB involves local residents deciding how to spend public money, and at its core, about local people shaping local services to more effectively meet local priorities. PB has the potential to empower and energise communities and to transform and strengthen the relationship between citizens, communities, third sector organisations and all levels of government and public service. This is dependent on the support for PB and the ambition and scale with which it is implemented. In Scotland at present, PB is at an important juncture, as it transitions from being grassroots and peripheral towards becoming mainstreamed within public service delivery.

I was fortunate enough to become involved in one of the first grassroots forays into PB in Scotland, within Govanhill, on Glasgow’s Southside. Back in 2010 it felt like only a few of us involved in the Govanhill pilot had even heard of PB and its potential benefits for society; we really did feel like we were innovating on the periphery.

Key partners involved in the Govanhill PB pilot were Govanhill Housing Association, the then South Glasgow NHS Community Health Partnership and Oxfam UK. Together we worked with a newly established community group, Govanhill Community Action (GoCA) to implement a PB process. Four important projects were funded, the legacy of which, can still be seen and felt within the area. Did we get our trial of PB in Govanhill 100% perfect? Absolutely not, we were learning and I remember long, difficult conversations and heated dialogue at times. As an evaluator, however, the learning opportunity was massive, and our report was one of the first evaluations of PB in Scotland, laying the foundations for our current briefing paper which aims to support community members and community practitioners involved in designing and implementing PB with their own evaluation and monitoring.

Back in 2010 I did not want the Govanhill PB pilot to be seen as ‘another nice piece of community engagement’ – it was, and PB is, something different. It involves a new power dynamic and the transition towards new, deeper, relationships between residents, local elected members and the public and third sector professionals involved.

Cross-party support for PB has helped shield it from politically motivated agendas and short-termism. Recent increases in voter turnout and engagement in politics demonstrated in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, has, I believe, sparked the current emphasis on participatory democracy and democratic renewal. Other recent political milestones such as the 2015 UK general election and 2016 European Union ‘Brexit’ referendum have been described as an undemocratic representation of Scotland’s political views; with the majority in Scotland voting to remain in the European Union. These developments have contributed to ignite issues of political sovereignty –vocalising dissatisfaction with Westminster politics and current democratic structures. The increasing profile of PB is perhaps symbolic of a national drive towards deepening democratic processes and increasing opportunities for Scottish citizens to participate in local decision making.

The profile of PB has never been higher nor the opportunity greater. With the Community Empowerment (2015) Act representing a fertile legislative landscape for PB, alongside support from all levels of government and within Scotland’s communities, we must take the opportunities these favourable conditions provide.

How the impacts of PB investment are reported is crucial to ensure that PB is here to stay. Our latest publication on PB provides a framework for evaluation and monitoring and is designed to support community members and community practitioners involved in designing and implementing PB. The paper is based around a ‘logic model’ or flow diagram which unpacks the key sequence of events and activities in a PB process. Aligned with the diagram are realistic and actionable suggestions concerning how to evaluate the process and the types of impacts we might expect to see. The paper and the diagram are not presented as a panacea to the complexity of evaluating PB but I hope are a good starting point for practitioners and residents on the ground. I very much welcome and look forward to any feedback and debate on the paper.

Access Briefing Paper 53: Community-based evaluations of participatory budgeting


About the author

Chris Harkins Public Health Programme Manager


Chris’ role contributes to several of the Centre’s areas of work and involves taking forward research within community-based settings. In particular Chris leads on evaluating the impacts of community-based programmes and interventions; including assessing their contributions to addressing health and other inequalities. Chris is leading the evaluation of Sistema Scotland. He is also responsible for research and evaluation concerning approaches to community engagement, empowerment, participation and local democratic processes including participatory budgeting. Since Summer 2020 Chris has been supporting evidence-based pandemic community recovery efforts, as a member of Glasgow City Council's Social Recovery Task Force

Chris has published a variety of reports and outputs concerning community-based partnership approaches and social regeneration. He also contributes to the Centre’s inequalities across the life course theme and has published work relating to the population health impacts of in-work poverty and payday loans, moving forward within this theme Chris is conducting research into unsecure debt, health and wellbeing.

Chris’ background is in Social Science, Medical Science and IT; he is an experienced researcher and evaluator and has worked directly within NHS, Local Authority and academic settings. He has also worked extensively with the Scottish Government and a variety of third sector organisations over the past 20 years, not least in his contributions to adult literacy projects within Glasgow City and the evaluation of the Have a Heart Paisley National Demonstration Project. Chris lectures at Glasgow Caledonian University and is an Honorary Researcher with the University of Glasgow.

Read all articles by Chris Harkins