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Cologne - Particapatory Budgeting (Cologne-PB)

Published on: 25/05/2009

Cologne was the first major city in Germany to implement a citizens' budget based on Neues Kommunales Finanzmanagement (NKF) [new local finance management]. The pilot project for the 2008 citizens' budget saw the simultaneous launch by the city council of a new "e-participation" service, which aims to support the involvement of citizens by means of the internet in a way that is effective, transparent and activity-oriented. The e-participation approach used in Cologne goes beyond the somewhat more selective methods of participation practised in other local authorities to date. With political backing, Cologne city council is travelling a new, far-reaching road in terms of the direction and involvement of its citizens, as the intention is to transfer the system of participation to be tested in the citizens' budget to all specialised procedures coming under public scrutiny.

In this way, e-participation will be developed into a service provided as standard by the local authority for its citizens. The product areas chosen for this first Cologne citizens' budget were "highways/byways/public spaces", "green spaces" and "sport", with a total budget of €311m. In future, the plan is to extend citizen participation to further areas of budgeting.

The website provides the city of Cologne with an information tool for its citizens. With assistance from the Fraunhofer Institute IAIS a new procedure for participation has been launched and a special, software-supported system installed; this means that proposals from citizens can be submitted, discussed and ranked, whilst ensuring that public knowledge and opinion on the budget is now obtained by electronic means and used in preparation for planning and decision-making purposes. The internet-based participation platform is the centrepiece of a multi-channel provision that also incorporates the channels of telephone (call centre), letter and personal contact.

The four-week online dialogue for the 2008 Cologne citizens' budget was held during the period from 22.10 to 19.11.2007 and was extremely successful: with very high participation figures, the Cologne citizens' budget significantly exceeds similar online systems in Germany and perhaps even all of Europe. There has also been high media coverage of the project.

In the meantime Cologne city council has decided to implement the best 300 ideas, for which it has approved additional resources to the tune of €8.2m for 2008/2009. These proposals were limited to those for which it was possible to determine the costs. Further resources are due to be made available in the 2010 budget.

In 2009 a new participation system on the themes of education/training and protection of the environment will be in place for the 2010 budget. An online workflow system is to be additionally integrated into the platform for this procedure. In this way the whole process chain of "citizen participation > political acceptance > decision-making and accountability > monitoring of rulings" will be integrated and publicly mapped by the city of Cologne in a professional, complete, IT-supported budgeting system.

Policy Context

The UN, OECD and EU consider e-participation to be an essential factor in the success of e-government. The Cologne budget project is in line with the strategic focus of the German Government's "E-Government 2.0" programme. The aims of the Federal Government in this include the following:  

-          E-participation as a communication channel for the federal administration and all other administrations in Germany

-          To encourage direct citizen participation

-          To incorporate more of the wishes and experience of the professional public

-          To provide greater opportunities of participation in Germany

On a local level the project supports the strategic focus of "Vision Cologne 2020":

-          Direct remit from Vision Cologne 2020: “to aspire to a leading role in the use of modern communications and information systems”

-          Objectives of the city council: We want better customer orientation and better communication, both internally and externally. At the same time, we want to be competent, reliable and effective communicators and service providers in our contacts with citizens and businesses

As part of the modernisation of local authority administration, the citizens' budget is being formulated in line with the following projects and measures:

-          Expansion of the citizens' service

-          Implementation of the EU services directive with agreement on targets/undertaking to perform

-          Regional implementation of the German Online Initiative D115 (Cologne as model region in NRW)

-          Development of multi-level administration

-          Comprehensive implementation of multi-channel communication with standardised business processes

-          Development of shared services

-     Introduction and permanent establishment of e-participation

Description of target users and groups

The participatory budget  enables the citizens to participate in the preparation of the municipal budget: the citizens have a great need for information about the budget and there is a great willingness to participate in its preparation.

But the participatory budget is not only a service to the public of Cologne, it is open to everyone. To make proposals, you don’t have to register and even if you register to take part in the discussions and voting, you just have to name your email-address. Further information like address, name, age or gender is optional. So everyone is welcome to set their ideas.

For four weeks the citizens had the opportunity to participate in planning the budget. During this time 10,231 participants registered on the Internet platform. The 4,973 submitted proposals received 9,184 comments, and a total of 52,746 assessments (votes for or against) were entered. The proposals were called up about 464,000 times and the web pages of the participation platform were visited exactly 873,476 times. About 120,000 unique visitors were counted.

The great majority of the proposals were submitted online via the Internet (85%). This shows the great acceptance this medium found in the participation procedure. But the 448 written proposals and the 184 proposals received via the call-center also show that it was right to make the project accessible for citizens who don’t have access to the Internet or would rather communicate in other ways.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

The participatory budget 2008 is the pilot project for a comprehensive initiative to introduce e-participation in the City of Cologne. The office for e-government and online services is responsible for the development of e-participation in the City of Cologne. On behalf of the office, the Fraunhofer Institute AIS accompanied the project by providing conceptual and technical support. In addition to the high-profile public phase the implementation of the participation platform was of special importance. Here the interactive software had to offer more than the usual range of functions for newsgroups or discussion forums. Requirements were delineated that had to be borne in mind if one wants to implement online consultation beyond a "flood of contributions" in a targeted and result-driven way: Discussion forums or newsgroups merely offer simple threads of answers. The representation of the content and documentation of the discussion therefore consists of discussion threads grown over time that more often than not do not follow the line of arguments inherent in the discussion. Interactive software should therefore offer functions that allow incoming contributions to be enhanced with further information, for example by means of labeling the contributions, providing key words or links. Interactive software should not only allow for the enhancement of contributions, but also for the processing of the discussion documents. Furthermore, there had to be functions to control the discussion to be able to establish and adjust any number of forums and sub-forums. Interactive software should also allow for the integration of further communication channels and tools: one should therefore not only be able to submit contributions via the WWW, but also via e-mail, fax or telephone. One should also make sure if the asynchronous discussion can be expanded through integrated 22 modules, like chat or survey and voting tools, for the different phases of the discussion. It should also be possible to embed notes in the topics of discussion in order to annotate documents or maps, for example. Electronic discussion platforms should also support public hearings, so that local discussions can be watched by means of special user interfaces and later continued in Web forums. The 2008 budget will be the first to be prepared according to the guidelines of the new communal financial management. This is the first time that citizens have a chance to participate in the preparation of the budget in select fields. With regard to the "participatory budget / citizen participation", a steering committee and an advisory council were established on the recommendation of the finance committee. These committees took up their work in 2006 in preparation of a symposium and accompanied the development of a participatory budget. To inform and activate the citizens and get them to participate, the use of the Internet and the possibilities of online media was discussed in depth in the third meeting of the advisory council on 25.01.2007. This meeting brought a consensus to develop a specific approach for the City of Cologne. On 19.06.2007 City Council asked for the introduction of an electronic participation platform (e-participation) to "implement the participatory budget and introduce an e-participation platform". This process was to be supported by the renowned Fraunhofer Institute IAIS. In addition to further planned access channels (letters, public hearing, call center) it is the Internet that represents the main channel for the participation procedure. The platform was used in a productive environment in October 2007. Starting with the participatory budget 2009, e-participation is to become a standard procedure of budgeting and is to be transferred to other public administrative procedures.

Technology solution

The e-participation platform is based on the discourse machine, a Web 2.0 platform. However, adjustments and upgrades were and are necessary to meet the requirements of this e-participation project.

The first step here was to focus on the optimisation of the front end in order to make it as simple as possible for citizens to use the platform.

The second step of development is now to focus on the back end. The program items used by editors and moderators are being improved and adapted for this purpose.

In addition a new workflow (in-house development) has been introduced in order to further process the best-ideas lists, obtain opinions from expert agencies and bodies, prepare council decisions and finally to use the internet for accountability.

Transferability (both organisational and technical) and sustainability are of key significance, as the city of Cologne will use the e-participation platform not only for the citizens' budget but also for e-participation projects in the future. The system can be transferred to any local authority e-participation projects, e.g. in the spheres of urban development, protection of the environment, demography and social issues.

A guide is being drawn up for the citywide introduction of e-participation, which shows how a suitable project is set up. To this end, e-government and online services will act as service providers in conjunction with the office for data processing, with the relevant specialist agency being the contracting body.

Technology choice: Proprietary technology

Main results, benefits and impacts

One important result of the project is the fact that the citizens now have the opportunity to participate in the preparation of the municipal budget. 

The very successful participation phase of Cologne’s first participatory budget ended on Monday, November 19 at 12 a.m. sharp. For four weeks the citizens of Cologne had the opportunity to participate in planning the budget by submitting proposals, comments and assessments in the fields of “roads, lanes and public squares”, “public green spaces” and “sports”, which they did with great interest and enthusiasm.

The large number of registered participants (10,231), submitted proposals (4,973), received comments (9,184) and assessments (52,746) clearly surpass comparable online procedures in Germany and throughout Europe. The media also covered the project extensively. The participatory budget became the “talk of the town” during these four weeks – which was due to the city’s PR work on the one hand, but also because of the very constructive and extensive media coverage about the procedure.

One essential aspect for a successful participation of citizens during the entire phase of the participatory budget was to represent the complex – and for many citizens often non-transparent – material of a municipal budget in an understandable and transparent form.

Aside from public hearings and the possibility of sending letters, submissions via the award-winning call center of the City of Cologne were made possible for the first time and pooled in the Internet platform to be put up for discussion. Though the great majority of the proposals - 85% - were submitted online via the Internet. This platform is of special significance, because it can also be used to put up the respective evaluations at the conclusion of the online phase.

Internet-based discussion forums allowing for time-independent communication on the basis of written messages allow citizens to participate from various locations at any time. Citizens are therefore no longer reliant on participating in a (single) event, but instead have enough time to write and make contributions to the forum discussion from their home or workplace.

Furthermore, electronically supported participation procedures make it easier for newcomers to enter the discussion, since the entire course of the discussion up to that point has been documented in writing. For citizens, who otherwise have difficulties speaking in front of a great number of people or speaking up in the heat of the debate, it is also easier to participate in discussions via the Internet.

The use of the Internet also holds advantages for politicians and administrators, since they don’t only benefit from the quality of the discussion and the results: the fact that Internet-based discussions are documented in writing makes it easier for them to use and process the material as an aid in the further planning process.

Return on investment

Return on investment: Not applicable / Not available

Track record of sharing

The Cologne citizens' budget has aroused lively interest at both national and international level on the subject of citizens' budgets and e-participation in general.

In order to cater for this interest and to enable other authorities, national organisations and other interested parties to become involved, the city of Cologne has various ways of communicating and presenting the project.

Some examples are its participation in a variety of conferences serving the transfer of know-how, such as the eGovernment Academy which is supported by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, the Inwent citizens' budget network, presentations at congresses in Leipzig and Paris, involvement in the eGovernment Award NRW and presentations at trade fairs, e.g. Cebit as part of the NRW joint stand.

Furthermore, during the last few months delegations from different German cities and international delegations, from Africa and Sweden for example, have taken the opportunity to find out about the citizens' budget at first hand.

An example of a powerpoint presentation used for this cases is added as an additional document.

There are plans in the future to extend the system for further use in cooperation with the Fraunhofer Institute, e.g. via the KDN or the German Association of Cities.

Lessons learnt

The main challenge of the participatory budget project was to reach and activate as much of the public as possible with the resources at hand:
Reaching the public - citizens - activating the target groups
- Generating public attention
- Activating many different citizens
- Addressing the target groups in the best possible way
- Designing interactive web pages to be user-friendly
- Guaranteeing transparent processes
- Generating lots of contributions - selecting good proposals
- Securing the future
- Long-term embedding in politics and administration
- Establishing a new culture of participation

The success is surely due to the extensive PR work in mobilizing the public and to the structure of the procedure. Access barriers were set very low, allowing citizens to submit contributions not only via the Internet, but also by mail and via the call center. In addition, the participation platform was designed to be easy and self-evident and access criteria were set quite low. Another criterion is also the promise of politicians to deal intensively with the proposals of the citizens.

It soon turned out that the discussion took place on a very constructive level concerning everyday problems. The subject areas drawing the most attention, such as traffic lights, street lighting, bicycle lanes and networks, a bike-friendly city, dogs, dog droppings, dogging, teenagers and children, garbage, cleanliness, public pools, safety, playgrounds, road repair, traffic and traffic safety, in other words subjects that everyone encounters every day, were evidence of this. These subjects were a recurrent theme throughout the entire procedure, and it turned out that 4 weeks of active participation had been sufficient.

Proposals that were only submitted towards the end had no chance of gaining sufficient votes to make it onto the list of best ideas.

The next participatory budgeting, scheduled to take place in November/December 2009, will run for five weeks, divided into two parts. During the first three weeks, citizens will be able to submit proposals, comment and vote, for the following two weeks the platform will be closed for new proposals, but will still be opened for comments and votes.

This should ensure that proposals only submitted towards the end still have enough time to be ranked high if they are considered sufficiently good.

It also turned out that the kind and scope of the Internet service was very well received by the citizens. An attempt was made to promptly clear up questions and react to suggestions, and the users were not given much "rein". Whenever discussions were on the verge of getting out of hand or there were problems with the behavior of some, a reaction followed immediately. This was helpful in preventing discussions from running out of control and politically incorrect opinions being disseminated.

Scope: Local (city or municipality)