Participatory budgeting could put Bangkok’s future in hands of its residents

Bangkok’s Participatory budgeting can gives ordinary people a say in how public money is spent.(Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

With Bangkok’s budget ranging between 70 billion and 80 billion baht per year, people voting for the city’s new governor this Sunday may be keen to find out which candidate supports “participatory budgeting”.

This form of citizen participation gives ordinary people a say, via a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in how public money is spent.

This concept resonates with the “Design Your Own Budget” policy offered by Move Forward Party candidate Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn.

Sitting with locals at a community in Bangkok’s Wang Thong Lang district the other day, Wiroj asked them how they wanted to use city funds that are allocated to their area. Their answers highlighted four key demands: a roof for the community center, air conditioners for a childcare center, better roads, and jobs for the elderly.

“This budgeting system will give people a sense of ownership. With it, they will feel they own Bangkok rather than just being residents who need to beg for funds from the authorities,” Wiroj said, explaining what participatory budgeting can achieve.

Support for public participation

Wiroj has pledged, if elected, to allow Bangkokians to decide how 5 percent or about 4 billion baht of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s (BMA) annual budget is spent.

“I will do this via three mechanisms,” the Move Forward said.

Firstly, each community in the capital will be allocated an annual budget of between 500,000 and 1 million baht depending on its size, and all members of the community will have a say in how it is spent.

Secondly, each Bangkok district will be given about 50 million baht per year, which will also be allocated based on voting decisions made by the locals. Projects receiving the most votes will be included in the budget plan for the following year.

Thirdly, Bangkok will have 200 million baht at its disposal to spend on projects based on locals’ choices.

Sita Divari, Thai Sang Thai Party’s candidate, has also pledged to introduce participatory budgeting in Bangkok if elected. Sita said he hopes to be the first Bangkok governor to decentralize power by disbursing the budget via an assembly of city residents.

“My concept is to empower people through a people’s council,” he said.

As governor, Sita would push for the implementation of a new BMA regulation to allow Bangkok communities to make decisions on budget spending via the people’s council.

“This way, Bangkok’s budget will be used directly in response to people’s needs,” he said.

Chadchart Sittipunt, the independent frontrunner in most opinion polls, also vowed to back participatory budgeting with people voting for projects that will be most useful for them.

“Once the vote is held to determine which projects should go ahead, Bangkokians will become the ‘project owners’. They will work alongside BMA in implementing the project and issue progress reports to the public and the Bangkok governor,” he said.

If he wins, Chadchart also plans to raise the monthly budget for each community in Bangkok from the current level of just 5000-10,000 baht to between 100,000 and 200,000 baht.

Bangkok gubernatorial debate held ahead of Sunday’s elections

How BMA allocates its budget

BMA currently mainly allocates funds based on key problems or issues of top priority. From the massive budget it was given this year, the city’s Department of Drainage and Sewerage received 7 billion baht, the Department of Environment 6.84 billion baht, and the Department of Public Works 6.45 billion. The Medical Service and Traffic and Transport departments were allocated 4.43 billion baht and 3.87 billion baht respectively.

Meanwhile, BMA’s Finance Department got 2.99 billion baht, the Navamindradhiraj University 2.81 billion, the Health Department 2.11 billion, and the Culture, Sports and Tourism Department got 1.3 billion baht.

BMA also allocated 222 million baht for its Fire and Rescue Department, 786 million baht for its Education Department, 382 million baht for its Social Development Department, and 175 million baht for its City Law Enforcement Department.

Room for improvement

Asst Prof Dr. Tavida Kamolvej, dean of Thammasat University’s Faculty of Political Science and co-drafter of BMA’s 20-year strategy, believes that although the budgeting system is reasonably fair, there is still room for improvement.

“If we look closely, it is quite clear that BMA lacks a proactive approach in budgeting,” she said.

The Health Department, she explained, should have received a larger budget because it was not only engaged in the COVID-19 response system but also operating 69 public-healthcare units that serve Bangkok communities directly.

Tavida also said the Fire and Rescue Department deserved more attention because apart from its basic duties, it also has to come up with ways of tackling climate change issues.

“It’s about time the department evaluated safety risks in all parts of Bangkok so as to plan a proper response to disasters that may arise,” she said. “I have to say here that the BMA still does not have a comprehensive plan.”

As for the education budget, Tavida said the allocation was fairly reasonable because the money earmarked for Navamindradhiraj University also covered education.

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Tavida said the BMA still allocates funds mainly via a centralized system. Hence, district offices receive a relatively small portion even though they know best about the problems in their local jurisdictions.

For instance, she said, each district office only receives about 14 million baht for water-drainage and flood-prevention work annually because the Department of Drainage and Sewerage is allocated a whopping 7 billion baht.

She added that central authorities also tend to focus on mega projects and routines, which is why only 10-20 percent of the total budget is allocated to strategy- or development-based projects.

Tavida lamented that BMA’s budget management has lost sight of the overall picture and the future. She also pointed out that the BMA has not conducted a solid analysis to visualize what Bangkok should look like in the next three years.

“Since the situation is changing fast, BMA will need to be more proactive,” she said. “If the new governor sticks to the current budgeting approach, Bangkok will be prevented from becoming a city that is pleasant to live in.”

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk


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