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Making Democracy Work

Editor’s note: This is what I like to see, and hope others will emulate: concrete action to bring about organised, localised change. Some subscribe to free market magical thinking — that self-interest combined with market mechanisms will somehow automatically harmonise our social, and even environmental problems. But, permaculture is not about blind hope and trust in disorder. In contrast, it’s all about intelligent design — not just of food forests, raised beds, and passive solar natural buildings, etc., but also the ‘invisible structures’ that can be either a significant impediment to their implementation, or a positive incubator of the same. Go Marcin!

Something extraordinary happened in our city, Sopot in Poland: four out of five candidates for city mayor declared that they would like to introduce participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting means that citizens are directly involved in deciding what the funds from the city budget are spent on. It is a great opportunity to make a turn towards sustainability, and for Transition initiatives or permaculture groups it is a tool to suggest concrete projects to achieve it. The whole process is not just about money, it is also a starting point for the residents to meet, to discuss city matters, to learn about transport policies, designing parks or harvesting rainwater, it is an opportunity to make friends and to build a sense of a real local community.

Introducing the idea

Support for participatory budgeting in Sopot didn’t appear by itself. We have introduced this concept. It is not difficult. You see, at least some politicians want to do something good — they care about people — and if you meet them and explain to them what participatory budgeting is and how it works you may be surprised to learn that they are open to the idea. Certainly, if you talk to someone who wants to be the king ruling his city as he pleases, you’ll learn that he is less enthusiastic, because participatory budgeting means taking away his toys. Nevertheless, the awareness-raising part is not just about meeting with politicians, it is the citizens who are most important.

We have distributed in Sopot more than 10 thousands leaflets explaining what democracy is about and what participatory budgeting is (our city has around 37,000 residents). Why explain democracy? If you wish to encourage citizens to support participatory budgeting it is useful to explain first that it is their money that is in the bank account of the city hall. It does not belong to the mayor or to the city council. It is a common property of all residents. In a democratic country “public money” means money that belongs to the people, not to the local government. Government is only the administrator. The power that the government has is a reflected power. The source of this power are ordinary people and we lend this power to the government to make decisions on our behalf. When the mayor or the city council decides something, this decision is made not in the name of the mayor or the city council, it is made in the name of the people. The city mayor is not a king, but our employee. That’s the idea behind representative democracy.

We have contacted the media as well and the idea of participatory budgeting was presented on the radio, in local newspaper and on the popular local news website (quite a good article in fact). We have also made a short film for the internet explaining the concept, we have posted articles on our website and made posters encouraging residents to vote for participatory budgeting.

Beech in Grodowy Park, Sopot.

Using the elections: the citizens’ way

Our strategy to jumpstart citizen budgeting in Sopot was to use local elections. It works like this: you identify candidates who support participatory budgeting and then you encourage your fellow residents to vote for them. How do you know which candidates are for participatory budgeting and which are against it? What we prepared was a questionnaire for the candidates for local councillors. Easy. It was filled by 25% of all 189 candidates. 96% of the candidates indicated support for participatory budgeting. However, according to Polish law it is the mayor who prepares the outline of the budget for the coming year, so our main focus was on the candidates for the mayor.

There were only 5 candidates for the mayor, so it was possible to conduct radio-style interviews with all of them. We met with all of them and the interviews were posted on our website (divided into shorter thematic parts for easy listening). We asked about other issues other than democracy as well. I was keen to learn, for example, if they think that global warming is man-made (most of the candidates were somewhat skeptical), and whether they would like to promote the use of renewable energy (yes). For the convenience of voters a short comparison of the candidates views was also prepared in a practical table.

When speaking with candidates you could hear that some of them were genuinely interested in democracy and cooperation with citizens. I’m pretty sure you could find pro-democracy candidates in almost every city around the world. Many politicians just don’t realize that cities can be managed in a cooperative way. So, why not meet them and talk about it?

To promote the results of our survey we arranged a press conference with our partners from neighbouring cities who also have done a similar survey. The press conference was our first, but it went well and news got to the local media. As far as I know, the interviews did influence the decisions of some of the voters.

Wooden pier in Sopot

Voting time

Although Sopot is a small city, it is one of the most popular summer resorts in Poland, and due to a corruption scandal that was revealed a couple of years ago, elections in our city were covered by the national media. Was the participatory budgeting discussed as well? Hmm…, no. Strange. I honestly thought it would make it into the national news, because it is a huge change in the way cities are managed. Anyway, did I mention that four out of five candidates expressed their support for participatory budgeting? Obviously, it means that one candidate did not. That’s Jacek Karnowski, mayor of Sopot, 12 years in the seat, running for re-election (and charged with corruption). The bad news is that even though he favours autocratic style of management he was likely to win and he had support from some of the mainstream media, even at the national level. Can you believe that support for this candidate was expressed by the Polish prime minister himself during the press conference and it was reported in the evening news?

What made the situation more interesting is that the Polish prime minister actually comes from Sopot himself. He votes here in local elections and his political party supported Jacek Karnowski as well. For some reason they didn’t want to lose him in Sopot and support for Jacek Karnowski even came from the president of the European Parliament (also a member of the same party) and you could see them together on the posters.

So, how did it go? A little background first. We have a two-round voting system, which means that if in the first round one of candidates does not receive more than 50% of the votes, there is a runoff two weeks later with only the two candidates who received most of the votes. Jacek Karnowski came out first with just 20 votes ahead of the second candidate — Wojciech Fulek (his former deputy). It was expected that there will be a runoff and that these two candidates will meet in the second round. No one expected, I guess, that the results will be so close.

Things were looking optimistic for the candidate who supported participatory budgeting, that being Wojciech Fulek, because the third candidate, Piotr Meler, received more than 2000 votes and it was expected that his supporters will back Wojciech Fulek instead of Jacek Karnowski. The question was, however, will they go to vote? Despite our campaign not everyone in Sopot realized the difference between these two candidates and what the final result will mean for local democracy. One of the obstacles was the idea that “Nothing will change, anyway”. That’s pretty amazing, because the first round showed that just a handful of votes could set the result and participatory budgeting means that citizens gain a say in city matters.

Campaign posters on the pedestrian mall

After two long weeks came the second round. The polling stations were closing at 10 PM. We went in the evening to the campaign office of Wojciech Fulek (the only pro-democracy candidate left in the elections). The results from the constituencies started to come in. The first ones were encouraging. Wojciech Fulek was winning. Cheers of joy in the office. But then the results from other constituencies came in. This time it was Jacek Karnowski who received more votes. In Poland votes are counted by hand and people from each polling station were calling the campaign office to say what the result was. The situation didn’t look good. Jacek Karnowski was leading with more than one hundred votes and his advantage kept rising. There are 21 constituencies in Sopot and when the results from 19 constituencies came in the result was already clear. Jacek Karnowski won. As I read the next day, he was dancing on the table with joy, hugging with his supporters, tears in his eyes. The final result was: 9387 votes for Jacek Karnowski (51.44%) and 8863 votes Wojciech Fulek (48.56%). The difference was just 524 votes.

That day a friend of mine didn’t vote. She said she was buying a washing machine, so she didn’t have time. More than 14,000 more Sopot residents didn’t vote either.

Through the back door

Do these results mean that the hope for participatory budgeting over this new political term has vanished? Not so fast, we won’t give up that easily. What I didn’t tell you about yet is the results of the elections to the city council. Yes, it is the mayor who is preparing the outline for the budget and he is the natural choice for introducing participatory budgeting in Poland. However, it is the city council that votes for the budget. And… the councillors can submit their proposal for changes in the budget. Aha! So, can they consult with citizens over their proposals? Sure they can. It means that if there are 11 councillors (minimum majority) who would like to introduce participatory budgeting we can still do it.

Two candidates for the mayor who declared support for participatory budgeting were elected as councillors. Their clubs in the city council have 11 seats and they have declared to start cooperating. So, yes, it looks good — participatory budgeting here we come!

The talks have already started and there is good will. Hopefully, within the next few months, we will have the whole process designed. Although participatory budgeting works in around 1000 cities around the world, including 150 cities in Europe, there is no single model of doing it and it will be custom-designed specifically for Sopot. And none of this would be possible if the citizens of Sopot had not changed some members of the city council in the elections.

Further reading:


  1. “This is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.” –Hayek

    The classic “I, Pencil” essay explains how the Invisible Hand works: “…millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human masterminding…”

  2. Marcin, I’m sure you’ll like this book: “Unplanning:
    Livable Cities and Political Choices,” by Charles Siegel. It’s downloadable both in HTML and PDF:

    I also want to remember about the Pattern Language, which is the antithesis of the Invisible Hand, and is how all cultures have worked for thousands of years. The Invisible Hand describes in the contrary how things work when there is no culture at all. Well, study the Pattern language, the essence of all culture of all times:

  3. Øyvind,

    interesting idea, “The Invisible Hand describes in the contrary how things work when there is no culture at all.”

    I sometimes wonder whether we may read the energy hunger of our present economic system as indicative of it all being a gigantic mistake. You know, you can stabilize pretty much any bad design as long as you throw sufficiently much energy at it…

  4. Yes, and as I understand it this is why Nikos Salingaros is so furious about today’s energy hungry cities. This, and in addition the completely absence of natural geometry.

    You might say that today’s cities are enormously energy hungry, but in the same time they empty the human mind or psychology of energy because of the lack of natural form and systems, which mimic nature.

    This way they consume energy but oppress human energy.

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