Opening the Black Box in Dalmellington

IMG_0165 (002).jpg

Paul Nelis considers the importance of transparency in Participatory Budgeting (PB). Transparency in all aspects of the PB process is vital if communities are to trust the approach and be certain that the voting is fair and honest. He found that the Dalmellington (East Ayrshire) PB process provides a master class in transparency which we can all learn from.

Have you ever wondered who makes the decisions about how small grants money is spent in your community? Small grants have traditionally been dispersed by a committee which is made up of 5 worthies (often older men) who consider which projects will get funded in the area and which will not, no one outside the committee fully knows how the decisions are made. This ‘black box’ approach to decision making can often leave community group wondering why their projects weren’t funded or what information was used to make the decision. As we know Participatory Budgeting is an alternative to this approach, it regards the whole community as decision makers and provides the opportunity for them to express their priorities through the ballot box. For this to work it relies on clarity throughout the process for a range of participants.

The road to Dalmellington is one of the best drives in Ayrshire, it sweeps in every direction and each turn offers stunning views. My route took me past the outskirts of Ayr, beyond Ailsa Hospital, past Patna and St Francis Xavier’s Church to a long straight road. This unusually straight road points directly to the heart of Dalmellington which you can see for a good two miles before you arrive. The beautiful small town comes into view low and clear in the landscape and is framed by a rugged forest and mine scarred hills. The Dalmellington Community Centre itself is easily found as it is one of the first buildings you see as you approach the town. It is a substantial building which is low and squat but easily accessible, within sight of the main road as you enter the town.

I went along to the Dalmellington PB voting event to see what transparency looks like in practice. I found out that transparency starts from the first meeting of the PB steering group who are responsible for setting the fund criteria and carries on through the process to the award of the cheques and beyond.

The clever voting form was designed by the PB Steering Group to have coloured sticky dots for each category of vote; for small projects under £1000, red dots; for medium size projects £1,000 - £5,000, yellow dots and for large projects £500 - £20,000, green dots. Voters had the exact number of sticky dots stapled to the form that they would need to vote on the day – this was my first lesson in transparency – a simple voting form with clear instructions for voters, this suited both young and old.

This clever idea ensured that everyone knew what to do and that very few of the 409 voting forms were spoiled. The clarity of the process is also demonstrated by the feedback forms (collated after the event) which showed that a massive 97% (296 people) said that they understood the voting process.

Again, with transparency in mind, the voting count was managed by East Ayrshire Council staff from Business Support.

Two staff members spent 5 unenviable hours in a back room entering voting data into spreadsheets and this was overseen by a local councilor on the day.

Each project that was bidding for funding were given the same space in the hall floor regardless of the size of the organisation and the results of the vote were announced at 3pm and posted on facebook that evening for all to see…transparent!

Dalmellington 1.jpg

As well as the Steering Group it was also important for local groups applying for funding to be transparent on the voting day, there were plenty of opportunities for people to quiz them about their project idea and how it will benefit the wider community. 

Doon Valley Amateur Boxing Club were bidding for £5,434 for a community Defibrillator and new boxing/fitness equipment.  Commenting on the PB process Carlyn from the club said:

“It’s been an excellent opportunity to talk to people, there are lots of great projects here and we all need the money to progress. Within the Club we are finding that there are only so many times that we can keep going back to mums and dads for financial contributions and that’s why we’re here.”

Moyra Reid was looking for funding to support the Chalmerston Rescue/Therapy Ponies, she said:

“We have never received funding before and were hoping that we could get some money to continue to work with the horses locally and extend opportunities for young people to get involved….Its more than just the money it’s the recognition and opportunity to talk about what we do.”

dalmellington3 (002).jpg

The new PB Charter for Scotland (which will be launched next month) has a whole section on transparency. The document says that ‘Everyone involved in a PB process should be able to see why and how decisions are taken, and what impact those decisions have’. 

It’s clear that Dalmellington Steering Group ran a transparent process from the establishment of the steering group to the announcement of the funded groups. But more than that the group worked hard for their community to produce a PB event which has created a buzz in the community. The evidence for this comes from the 299 feedback forms from the event detailed below:

1.  Did you enjoy the Event? – 98% said yes (294 people)

2. Did you feel that you had an opportunity to vote for the projects you preferred? – 99% said yes (296 people)

3.  Did you have enough information to make your decision - e.g. displays, leaflets etc?- 95% said yes (284 people)

4. Did you understand the voting process? – 97% said yes (289 people)

5.  Did you have the support you need to participate? - 95% said yes (285 people)

6.  Would you come along to another Event next year? – 98% said yes (294 people)


Dalmellington lifted the lid on the black box and showed us all how to run a transparent PB process, I’m confident they will continue to run PB events in the future and with such positive responses from the community it’s clear that this was one of the best PB events in Scotland and Dalmellington resident know it!

P.S I haven’t ever mentioned the fantastic Brass Band that played ‘Baggy Trousers’ during the count, the great catering, the school voting and the warmth of the community.

For more information on Dalmellington and the event, go to: Facebook - Developing Dalmellington Parish