Dreaming Democracy in Dundee

Annie Cook from The Democratic Society chats to John Alexander, the current Leader of Dundee City Council, about all things Dundee, participatory budgeting, the role of elected members, and Scotland. 

John was part of Dundee Decides, Dundee’s participatory budgeting process that brought people together to decide how a £1.2 million budget across eight local community areas was spent by also using a digital tool for citizens to vote. 

Listen to the podcast below or on Spotify via The Democratic Society…

Here are 7 things we learned about PB from Dundee’s John Alexander: 

  1. By involving more people in decisions through PB this means more people can understand how decisions are made. 

A perk of the John’s job is seeing the benefit of decisions that are made. John says “everybody knows that not all decisions you make are positive ones sometimes necessary ones, but they’re not always well received.” 

We also asked John about decision making and the role of elected members: 

“I don’t think it’s as black and white, perhaps as it can be portrayed. I think it’s really good for people to get an understanding of how this process (participatory budgeting) works… I think there’s always a balance to be struck between making sure that counsellors are held to account for the decisions that we make, also giving people the opportunity to inform those decisions… So I think it’s not having your cake and eating it, but certainly being reflective and being flexible about who we make those decisions for and listening at the bottom line.” 

  1. Making things inclusive means taking the vote to people.

Dundee Decides meant bringing people together in deciding how a 1.2 million pound budget across eight local community areas, was spent. This was a process that ran on a very local level, where people could have input and see the benefits quite quickly of their decision. 

In order to involve people John says “we had a widespread participation from skills from community groups, and we didn’t just expect people to log on to the website. We took the vote to people….It was a hugely successful exercise. Over 11,000 people participated in the actual vote and exercise of Dundee Decides, which was more than 10% of those eligible eligible to vote. We made sure that it was as inclusive as possible. So the limit, I suppose… was that you had to be over the age of 11. So being quite liberal and making sure young people had the opportunity to fit in as well.”

  1. PB is worth it.

“I think PB is fantastic. I really wish we had been doing it for a lot longer” 

After having done a process with a 1.2 million pound budget, John sees a huge benefit in involving people in decision making. 

A decade ago, we could have been having a discussion about how we deliver services, not just how we deliver them individually. Projects have a capital nature, we could be looking at revenue funding, etc. So, I think it would have completely changed the dynamic in the way that cities work more generally because, you know…it’s power to the people, isn’t it? And I don’t think anybody could see that as a bad thing.” 

  1. Getting different people to work together . 

The council’s efforts to engage with communities involved people from across the local authority, who would not normally work together. This included professions, such as engineers and others from different services departments. John said it helped people with different backgrounds in the council to work together and listen to different points of view.

  1. Money matters but not for the reason you might think…

 “You get what you put in is what I would say, we put in quite a sizable budget at you know, in the current financial climate particularly. And that was deliberate because in order to make it…real in order to get people to buy in, they need to believe that there’s real impetus behind it…And they have an ability to use some significant funds to change their community. Now, if what you do is a token gesture of £10,000, it’s not going to go very far. It’s not going to tell about multiple projects across the world. And so I think you’ve got to mean it, it’s kind of bottom line for me.”

  1. While some councillors may worry about PB John says he doesn’t see how it could negatively affect elected members. “we should never be in this kind of mental state of thinking that we’ve got all the solutions and all the answers because we don’t.”

“For all democrats, there is no better argument for PB and enhancing democracy because that’s what you’re doing and councillors will form views, they’ll have their opinions and that’s all well and good. But, you know, power to the people… I don’t think any of us should lose perspective at the fact that actually the power does lie with people we’re elected for a set period of time… If we don’t deliver, then we’ll be out on our backsides. And that’s right but people should have the ability to formulate plans for their own local areas. Because no matter what councillor, you speak to what party they are from, they do not speak for every single constituent. They represent both their own views the views of their party in which they are elected on and on a subset of their constituents, I’m very conscious that I represent- if you’re considering how many people vote for me over the potential electorate- less than 10% of the electorate voted for me, of those that participated”

There is a real value in engaging with people on their own terms on a daily basis, on projects they are really passionate about. John argues “there is so much to be gained from going out and speaking to people and finding out what their challenges are and ideas, actually, because we should never be in this kind of mental state of thinking that we’ve got all the solutions and all the answers because we don’t…The end result is a more engaged population, who respects what you’ve done, who is engaged in a process of participation, and ultimately, you’ve improved the community in one way, shape or form from the projects that have been voted for. So, I see far more positives than I do pitfalls, from a counsillor perspective”

7.) Jonn says people need ‘guts’ to make PB a mainstream activity for Scottish democracy

“People can see it as passing on potential decisions, and that’s never what it is about. It’s about enhancing democracy, enhancing people’s input. One of the kickbacks I’ve heard from colleagues that I’ve spoken to, is about how do we do this when our budgets are already tight? And what I’ve said to them is just what I would say to you right now is if you are absolutely engaged and participate in the budget, if you believe it, then you just make it work. You make a decision, you do it. There is no kind of grey space, if you are really passionate about delivering something, you’ll find a way of delivering it. And that’s how we’ve delivered projects like the VNA. We didn’t have all the money when we came up with the idea, but we delivered it…if there’s a will there’s a way!”