Participatory Budgeting: Understanding residents’ service priorities and making the council’s money go further

Councils up and down the country are struggling to meet the financial challenges brought about by continuing central Government grant funding cuts and budget shortfalls. This is being compounded by the backdrop of increasing need and use of services by a growing and ageing population, and the wider impacts of welfare reform on some of the most vulnerable in society.

Paired with residents’ limited awareness and understanding of statutory and discretionary services, this has led to a need for more focussed research, such as Participatory Budgeting Support, Priorities and Budget Consultations and Brand and Commercialisation Research.

While much progress has been made through efficiency measures, collaboration and partnership working and transformation programmes, balancing the books is becoming harder. Councils are having to weigh up the difficult choices of increasing council tax, raising additional revenue or using reserves, reducing or redesigning services, or cutting some services altogether.

News stories on the financial viability of councils across the country continue to make headlines; so now, more than ever, understanding residents’ and service user priorities are critical in informing decision-making and assessing potential wider impacts.

Most commonly we see residents being asked about their views and priorities for different service areas as part of wider residents’ satisfaction and benchmark surveys. Research shows that residents do not really understand how councils are funded nor the full range of services they provide – this is even more problematic in two-tier authorities, with very few residents understanding who provides what.

We have seen that changes, reductions, or in some cases the total removal of some discretionary services has had an impact on resident satisfaction scores. From our discussions with residents, it is obvious that they are struggling to understand why levels and quality of service are falling, yet their council tax is rising.

How can M·E·L Research help?
As an independent social research agency, we can advise on how best to engage with local communities and residents so that councils can make choices from an informed view. 

Brand and commercialisation research
Many local authorities are looking at selling services to generate revenue. We were commissioned by a Borough Council to undertake research to identify its ‘brand’ value and its wider credentials as a supplier of ‘paid for services’ to local residents and businesses (and potentially other customers outside of the Borough).  The council also wanted to explore whether there were any enablers or barriers if services where provided under its existing ‘brand’ (i.e. using the council logo) or whether a standalone brand/company would be better suited.

To identify perceptions and attitudes to buying from the council, we ran five focus groups with differing life-stage participants which included both a projective exercise using personification to establish the council’s brand position and a brand mapping exercise to understand the qualities required from a credible paid for supplier.

Participatory budgeting
Commissioned by a County Council, one of our recent large-scale participatory budgeting exercises involved designing, recruiting and running two large workshop events to identify and understand residents’ service priority areas and gather views on the council’s draft Vision for the next 10 years. After discussing a range of key services and the pressures currently faced by councils, the events culminated in a trade-off style exercise where participants expressed their preferences on the allocation of financial resources to these council services (the participatory budgeting exercise).  The key topics under discussion as part of these events were Health and Care (Adult Social Care), Children and Families, Environment (including Highways, Transport, Waste and Communities), Property/Estates and Customer Experience (including digital and channel shift). The findings from the workshops are being used to design a robust quantitative survey to be undertaken door-to-door with a representative sample of county residents. This will also include a participatory budgeting exercise and the findings will then be used to refine the Vision and the setting of future budgets.

Budget consultation
In late 2017 we undertook a budget consultation exercise to feed into priority setting and budget planning for the financial year 2018/19. Over the past six years, the Council has successfully delivered £215million of savings, but with increasing demand, it faces a further £100m of pressure on budgets over the next five years. Demand is increasing from older people living longer with complex needs, and more children needing to be looked after by the Council.

We therefore designed a two-stage process to gather important feedback from residents. Stage One involved five workshops across the county. These provided contextual information on the different services provided by the county and district councils, as well as background information on the removal of the Revenue Support Grant after 2019-20. This allowed residents to consider a range of proposed options and solutions for delivering services in the future, including revenue raising and trading. The findings fed in to the design of Stage Two, aimed at robustly quantifying support for the proposals through a door-to-door survey, with a representative sample of 1,000 members of the public.

In recent years, we have included questions on service priorities in both doorstep face-to-face Residents’ Surveys, as well as in telephone surveys for a wide range of councils across England.

If you would like more information or an informal chat about how we might be able to help, contact David Chong Ping at M·E·L Research on 0121 333 1965 or