Ali: I started leading the Udecide programme in 2009, and up until 2009 we had experimented with various types of community kitty. From 2009 we became more focused, did a lot more issue-based work, and introduced more deliberation into the process.
That’s really where we are, still developing, trying to bend what we do to include more co-production and co-design of interventions, more partnership work and cross-sector approaches. However we are still at the point where we’re not able to access mainline funding, so we’re using pots of money that are put together from various parts of Newcastle City Council, or from partners, or experimental-type money from the UK government.
The next Udecide project that I’m embarking on is using neighbourhood community budgets money under the Our Place programme, and that’s really where a lot of our money comes from. It’s not that we’ve turned over mainline budgets in the city council to decisions made by local people yet, but it’s a step on the journey for the Council
Hilde: Give us a couple of examples of the types of projects that you run?
Ali: The Our Place Udecide which is coming up will be the twenty-fourth Udecide project that we’ve run in the city. In the early days, we worked a lot with community kitties, where we had community groups showcasing their group and their work and bidding for funding to do more of what they already did. We then did a huge project with our Children’s Fund, where children and young people got involved in commissioning children’s services. That was a £2.5 million programme. We’ve spent as little as £15,000 and as much as £2.5 million using Udecide, but to focus on this would be missing the point – it’s about people making decisions. We’ve done geographical programmes about improvements to public open space; we’ve worked on crime and community safety; the Clean and Green agenda; neighbourhood alcohol issues; activities for children with disabilities; carers’ interventions; and many similar themes.
Hilde: What are the aims of these Udecide projects?
Ali: Well, the benefits that we always cite in Newcastle are about increasing confidence and trust between public service providers and citizens. We look at the transparency of the decision making, and we look for the creativity, because putting citizens and service providers together to look at issues and interventions through a different lens has generated some really innovative ideas in terms of bids. These are the main benefits for us: much better working relationships emerge between service providers and citizens; there is more trust and accountability. And sustainability as well, I think. Increasingly, as the local authorities’ budgets diminish, communities are recognising their skills and coming together to do more for themselves. That includes defining what their needs are, not just what the interventions are.
Hilde: Who are you seeking to involve in these projects?
Ali: In terms of making the decisions on the funding, it’s the public, and the beneficiaries of whatever the themed project is about. In terms of designing the interventions and creating bids, the stakeholder group is different in that we look for constituted community and voluntary sector organisations and public service providers to bid. So the bidders, if you like, are a different group to the voters. And of course we also look for people to be involved in the management of the project and steering group. So there are several strands of engagement and involvement that need to happen.
Voting processes aren’t always the same, but usually they will involve some kind of community event. We’ll produce a voting brochure that outlines what the project is about and what kind of interventions we’re seeking. We’ll do a summary of all the bids, which goes out with invitations to attend the event. At the event the bids are presented; people have to stand up and pitch what their idea is. This is scrutinised by the audience through open questions. Then the key questions like value for money and the quality of the bid are discussed around the tables, and then people vote on how well they score that bid.
The people in that room will have responded to local publicity in the shape of direct invitations. All the bidding groups will get around four tickets each so they can invite their supporters and groups along. We’ll spend a good couple of months raising awareness about the voting event. Sometimes we use other voting processes as well. Alongside the event we might have made a DVD of the bids, which is shown in different places. We might have a voting road show. We’ve gone out with a bus and invited people on the bus to come and vote. We’ve had polling stations. It depends who we’re trying to engage. Sometimes our projects may be only on one estate, so choosing a voting process for a community as small as that is quite different from choosing a voting process for a city-wide project where we might look to online voting.
Hilde: Do you have particular ways of ensuring that people who attend are in some way representative of a wider public?
Ali: No, I can’t ensure representation, I wouldn't even pretend to. But it depends how broadly we’re defining the people who are participating. For us, it’s about people choosing to come and get involved, and we will make people as welcome as we possibly can, but we can’t drag people along to a voting process or exclude people. We have to appreciate that people have busy lives and the time they give up means that their lives get that much busier – it’s important that we give people a platform which enables them to come and go if they need to.
Hilde: Would you say that the process that people go through when participating in these events is more important than the outcome of the decision that they’re making?
Ali: I don’t think one is more important than the other; the interventions that follow on are incredibly important and make a real difference. People go along and participate in the projects that they’ve funded as well. I think the sense of satisfaction that comes from having scrutinised something in its development stage, decided that it’s worthwhile and voted for it, and then taking part in it makes it more special than something that has just been provided for your community. I think you've got more of a stake in it.
Hilde: Are Udecide underpinned by any particular political values or ideals?
Ali: At the time that participatory budgeting first became popular in the UK we had a Labour government which was pushing participatory budgeting and had this vision of all local authorities in England having some kind of participatory budgeting programme. But at that time Newcastle was a Lib Dem authority and it was the Liberal Democrat leadership in our council that was taking participatory budgeting forward.
We now have a Labour leadership and the technique fits very well with their aspirations in terms of devolution and community involvement and a cooperative council. So I think it is the kind of technique that any political movement could find helpful; it serves their causes well. Empowerment and local decision-making appear to be important for all parties now. Our council is really committed and has been for many years to revitalising and renewing local democracy and giving people more of a say and choice about their neighbourhood and the services that they receive.
Hilde: How do you see Udecide as positioned in relation to more mainstream or established ways of doing politics?
Ali: It’s completely different from the ways that we have traditionally made decisions about funding in Newcastle. Up until the introduction of Udecide, to my knowledge we had never given citizens the power to make decisions about how public money was spent. Our decision-making was always made by officers of the local authority and by elected members, and decisions over a certain amount of money, if they were made by officers, then had to be ratified by council members. Each ward has a budget and the decisions that members made about how their ward budgets were spent could only be made by elected members, and although they might be made in public and witnessed by the public there was no real direct involvement in either approving or rejecting those bids for funding. So in that sense Udecide was absolutely radical.
Hilde: And to what extent are Udecide projects led by the local authority? To what extent are others able to shape the projects?
Ali: The first thing that determines the shape and scope of a project is where the money is coming from and what the aspirations of the funder are. So for example, does the spending have some limits on it because it’s about a certain issue? Do the outcomes have to be for a certain group of people, a certain geographical location, or about a certain issue? That’s the first kind of squeeze around it.
In the past we’ve had some projects where an amount of money has been identified and the decision about what the funding is used for has been left to communities as well, but generally the funding comes with strings. These strings determine how you might do the project, who you would like to be involved in the steering group.
We’ve honed a process that’s got some fairly clear stages, but within that there’s lots of local choice about how the engagement work is done, the length of the process, whether or not there needs to be some original research. All the benefits and all the understanding and learning from the 23 projects that we've already done are at the disposal of that next steering group.
But there are some basic things that we wouldn't want to change: recruiting the local steering group, developing a project brief, launching the project with some information and the stages about filling in application forms and expression of interest, organising a voting process and the monitoring and evaluation that we do.
Hilde: Could say a bit more about what kind of outcomes or results you've seen from these projects?
Ali: We’ve seen some really creative relationships develop. For example, we did a Udecide that was about creating interventions that would support carers in their caring role. On the actual voting day young carers from a Barnado’s project were sitting at the same table as some carers from the Dementia Care Partnership, and they started to talk to each other and they decided to go off and do a piece of work together. That wasn’t designed by us at all, it was just a happy outcome of being able to put people together who may never have met each other otherwise.
Those kinds of unexpected consequences and that relationship-building are really important to us, so we want to try and build that in a bit more. We want to do more relationship-building between grassroots organisations and the more sophisticated community voluntary sector.
It’s also really important for us that there’s a relationship between participatory democracy and representative democracy, we don’t want to see them in isolation. For our elected members – we always have elected members involved in our steering groups – it’s a good platform. I think elected members who are involved get a great kick out of seeing their communities take decisions. I think it also builds an enormous amount of trust and confidence between officers and communities.
We’ve broken down all sorts of professional barriers where some officers feel that they’re the only people who are actually qualified to make these decisions and they’re surprised and enlightened by how well communities make decisions and how thoughtful their decision-making is. And we see a great deal of benefit as well in people feeling part of their communities, feeling they have more of a say, that they become involved in other aspects of community life as well and build relationships and capacity in the community.
Hilde: What would count as a success for you?
Ali: I would like to see more mainstreaming. We are now eight years on from Udecide being formally adopted as a way of doing business, but we’re still kind of tinkering at the edges really – although the ambition of the Council is now very much about communities getting active and involved and us enabling that to happen.
If we could see annual cycles of communities making decisions, reassessing, evaluating the success of those interventions, reassessing their priorities and then allocating funding again, year on year - those annual cycles would be really important to realise a lot of the benefits that we hope and assume are happening in one-off programmes. To really maximise such benefits it needs to be regular, and, although we are slowly getting there, we don’t have that yet.
Hilde: What are the main challenges you face?
Ali: We work and exist in an environment in a local authority that is contracting massively year on year, so there’s a constant loss, a brain drain of people on senior management level who have been convinced and are great advocates for the process. That’s happening constantly, year on year. There’s a real polarisation and focus of funding on people who are most at need, and Udecide sits in an area of the council’s work and approach to its work that’s quite discretionary.