Youth-led Participatory Budgeting in North Ayrshire

What is youth-led participatory budgeting?

Similar to participatory budgeting in the classic sense  (where there is a democratic process which can include activities such as idea generation, deliberation and final decision making typically through a vote or consensus over how a budget is spent in a local area), youth-led participatory budgeting is becoming more popular with young people and children at the heart of it. This means young people being part of the decision making process but what this looks like can vary depending on the design of the process and whether young people have been included from the outset. 

Participatory budgeting (PB) came about in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 1989, and is defined as a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend public budgets. Ironically, a huge demographic were and are often missed out of the design and inclusion of PB - young people - the very people that some of these decisions impact and will impact for a longer time. Youth involvement in community decision-making is a key part of youth advocacy and progressive democratic decision making. 

Some examples of Youth PB have included New York where they simply reduced the age for participating in PB led initiatives and in Boston and Seattle they have led specific youth-focussed programmes. For instance, Boston’s Youth Lead the Change, 2014 - where the process was focussed around recreation and safety and included young people as ‘change agents’ to develop the ideas for projects. The aim for this was to bring about long-term improvements to make the city a better place for young people to live.  

“Learn democracy by doing” 

Participatory budgeting with young people can have many benefits both for the local area but also for the young people themselves. PB has an educative component which can help young people ‘learn democracy by doing’ and support the community through young people becoming more active members of their communities by coming together, sharing ideas, designing, planning, deliberating and prioritising ideas for the benefit of the community. Including young people, can help build social cohesion through developing shared visions and aspirations, can deliver increased transparency on local decision making and can enhance local participation in these decision-making activities whilst also helping to shape a genuine shift in power to the people that these decisions directly impact. Bringing local people together with local authority employees can help develop more effective partnerships building a genuine sense of ownership and control over their lives and decisions.

Case study: Youth PB in North Ayrshire

We spoke to Donna Anderson, Participation and Democracy Officer and Youth Work Lead for North Ayrshire Council about the youth-led PB processes happening in North Ayrshire. 

You can listen to the podcast with Donna here and/or read below 

Youth PB in North Ayrshire podcast

North Ayrshire council covers six localities working with young people usually between the ages of 12-25 but also with young people as young as 8 years old to get them involved with PB and decisions around budgeting across the council. North Ayrshire is part of the mainstreaming PB journey in Scotland and are looking at different ways of increasing participatory decision making with people through running PB with young people and looking towards doing a lot more PB processes with schools in the future. 

Youth PB has taken on different forms in North Ayrshire; when it first started it consisted of get-togethers where young people could come and go around different stalls to decide on where money was going to be spent using tokens. Now PB has evolved with it being done fully online using digital tools, and with the shift to online, there has been increased engagement, voting numbers and proposal applications from young people. 

North Ayrshire pride themselves on being a child-centred council, this means any organisation or department working with the council are thinking about young people from the outset and this is the approach North Ayrshire have taken with PB. Currently in North Ayrshire, young people can be involved in both the Youth PB process (ages 8-25) which is a ‘ring-fenced’ budget that is just for young people but they can also get involved in the wider community PB processes as well which is for anyone aged 8 years or older. There is a very strong citizenship and participation structure in North Ayrshire and they have a slogan “nothing about us without us” (the slogan originating from the international day of disabled persons) to ensure that young people are involved in the decisions impacting them. 

“Nothing about us without us”

This means it is not just the council that does all the groundwork who decides on the design, themes and voting approach but instead it is a process of co-design, co-production and co-delivery with young people. Through various working groups, young people design and decide at each stage, for example they design and decide on the application forms and on how they promote the PB and help create the application forms and social media content. Typically there would be an application shortlisting group consisting of members of council staff and people from the third sector but now this consists of young people who ensure and decide the themes and essential criteria are being met. Young people are supported by council staff to get the packs together and send the information out but the young people are the ones that decide which proposals go onto the live vote. This also means there is a decision making component by young people before the wider vote.

Structure and recruitment

In North Ayrshire, there are six localities and through the citizen and participation structure, they recruit young people through and in each locality. Each locality has their own youth forum where young people are recruited from between the ages of 11 to early 20s and the aim is to make the recruitment process as representative of that locality as possible. The youth PB votes and processes are broken down into each locality as “no one knows those particular areas better than the young people who live in them”. There is also an overarching North Ayrshire youth council executive committee which is made up of representatives from each of these localities, youth forums and Scottish Youth Parliament with young people with different backgrounds and seldom heard voices. Although these young people are recruited from different areas and part of different youth forums and groups, if a young person wanted to get involved in the youth forum, they would never turn a young person away. 

Making PB relatable to young people

“Participatory budgeting means nothing so don’t use that term with young people”

To make PB resonate and approachable with young people, North Ayrshire has a strong brand Shaping North Ayrshire” and messaging “you get to decide what happens on your doorstep”. This brand is pushed out across social media including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tiktok, Youtube and communications chat channels such as Discord so it is reaching different age groups. North Ayrshire starts engagement early with exploring ‘what is PB?’ by starting with primary 4’s and familiarising them with the brand “Shaping North Ayrshire” so that it becomes a common language and it also becomes part of the school curriculum. Through working with young people, peer-mentoring and using young people’s language by getting rid of the jargon, North Ayrshire has seen young people more likely to get involved and be engaged. 

“If you want to engage young people in PB, take them on the journey with you”

Working with the schools has been useful for North Ayrshire council because they can get young people all in the one place and also work with various teaching departments to engage young people into PB. What is really important is the young people have the understanding around what PB is and what impact it is having. For example, it is not just about voting on something you don’t know about- “being told ‘go vote’ doesn’t tell you anything about PB”. To mitigate this, pre-covid, North Ayrshire would allocate a week or two for a schools approach, which means sending a support team into the schools to tell them about Youth PB and run them through all the applications (100 word snapshot bio from each of the applicants) they could vote on and speaking to young people about it so they have an understanding going into the process. “Young people are switched on and involved in their schools and communities so it is really important that the process is meaningful.” To do this, North Ayrshire shares the results and successes with young people because it is crucial that they can see what difference their voting has made, for instance reflecting after a year down the line “has it made a difference?” 

By running the vote online has also meant there has been a high percentage of young people voting; on average through online voting North Ayrshire were getting 6500-7000 votes per Youth PB process which is a huge amount considering there are only 9 secondary schools. 

Youth PB engagement during Covid

Engagement with young people through Covid times has been much more difficult for North Ayrshire to encourage them to come online and get involved in the process- it is completely different not having face-to-face engagement. Fortunately, within the council the departments cross-cut with education and communities and there is buy-in for PB, which means they had to just be smart with how they were going to engage with young people to ensure the same level of information and understanding. 

North Ayrshire created a digital pack for home learning which included a presentation that could be used by the school and put on the home learning platform which ran them through how to do the digital vote, told them a bit about PB and that 100 word bio on each application so they could go on and vote. “That package of information is important to have for young people to feel informed and not just vote because they've been told to. You have to give them an opportunity but it’s their decision whether they want to take part in it.” 

Online PB process during the pandemic

North Ayrshire ran their youth PB process alongside the community PB so there were overall twelve PB votes within the one period and it was all done completely online. Young people could vote in both the Youth PB and the wider community PB processes. The Youth PB themes were taken through key themes that came out through consultations; health & wellbeing, mental health, poverty & inequality, young persons voice & rights & digital connectivity. 

To ensure people weren’t excluded from the online process, for instance-if they didn’t have a device or weren’t digitally confident-  North Ayrshire created a helpline with designated staff being able to support people to complete an application form. There was a huge communications campaign created through social media, local press and utilising local relationships throughout the community such as third sector organisations so these people and groups could help get the word out. For shortlisting they sent out packs to young people and ran this phase on Zoom and although this “took more work it was important for young people that we didn’t miss a step for true participation”. They usually used a voting platform called the Young Scot platform, however because of the temporary number in schools that they would have had to print off to allocate to young people it would have been too challenging with schools being overwhelmed during the pandemic so they looked at options and decided on a combined approach; Menti-meter for young people in schools and the Young Scot platform for young people outside of school through a single transferable vote. 

The biggest challenge doing the process online was the lack of face-to-face engagement and having the space to create partnerships and opportunities for similar project proposals to work together, however not doing events live has seen an increase in participation; North Ayrshire has a lot of rural areas including islands and for young people this means they can vote online anywhere and at any time when it suits them. 

What is really key to any successful PB project is planning everything well in advance, starting 4-5 months beforehand to develop the timeline, and ensure there is enough time to shortlist, time for mistakes as there can times when there is a need for a lot of admin support, for example, application forms and getting packs ready. 

Partnerships for Youth-Led PB

“The more people you can get on board the wider your reach is”

North Ayrshire has strong national partnerships with Youthlink, Youngscot, Scottish Youth Parliament where they have built up these relationships over time and through working together they all know what works and what does not work. However, without local partnerships the PB processes would not be successful. For instance, having good working relationships with locality coordinators in each locality that look after each area, partnerships with the schools, buy-in and knowledge with the teachers and third sector organisations are also important; for example, schools can’t apply to funding but smaller groups such as activity groups or parent councils can and so these local partnerships and trust are built up through time. It is also really important to have leadership and partnership buy-in within the local authority itself (i.e through buy-in from chief executives and cabinet secretaries) to make the change happen. 

North Ayrshire’s youth PB Co-design tips 

  1. Key theme selection. For key themes around what the money should be spent on- that needs to be as large and inclusive of young people as possible to ensure you’re representing the views of young people in that area. It is important to use what you have around you whether that be through engaging the schools or youth groups to find out the themes from young people and what they want to have their applications based on. 
  2. Shortlisting working group. When it comes to specific tasks like shortlisting, you can’t have a large group of young people because of the amount of admin around getting the applications in, however, if you have a core group of young people involved that night be involved in other areas in their locality and know what is going on i.e they might be involved in Youth forums, community planning or cost of the school day working groups, Scottish Youth Parliament or other projects around the needs and wants of young people; involving these young people that want to be involved can be great for spreading the messages such as getting them to go out and have further conversations with their friends. 
  3. Peer-led approach. As part of the co-design process, young people can be expected or encouraged to have conversations with other young people in schools, at youth groups or their friends about their needs and wants for their area ensuring that further young people’s views are captured before they make any decisions. 
  4. Education. Similarly young people in North Ayrshire are asked to declare an interest i.e if an application form is in their area and be fair as possible and be mindful of others perspectives and priorities before they make a decision. This means that when young people are shortlisting application forms they are not taking a personal approach. 

Useful resources & the future of North Ayrshire Youth PB

Donna would like to see Youth PB becoming part of the school curriculum as part of citizenship and democracy, whether it is something that could be done through their modern studies class as young people at the moment are aware of voting age at 16+ but at 8+ they also have the choice to vote on projects and services in North Ayrshire. 

North Ayrshire also has a new Youth Participation and Citizenship Strategy for 2021-2025 which has been refreshed to reflect the learning from young people and youth activities.  

The Pan-Ayrshire toolkit has been useful in providing a structure of how you can run a successful PB and how you can be engaging people, which is opening up the doors beyond local authorities and encouraging third sector organisations to explore running a PB process in how their funds are spent. This is something North Ayrshire are going to keep and build upon. 

Other resources:

With special thanks to Donna Anderson for sharing her expertise and experiences on Youth PB in North Ayrshire. 

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