“Decide 4 your school”: how Italian students improve their school through participatory budgeting

Irene Dominioni, EUth journalist


Take 1,500 high school students, give them a budget of 10,000 euros, tell them to spend it collectively and see what happens. Realistically, most people would tear their hair out at such a thought - teenagers are not usually known for being very wise spenders.


But this is not the end of the story that we want to tell here. This is a different story, one that tells instead how 1,500 high school students in Milan were given a budget of 10,000 euros to improve their school and how, through a process called participatory budgeting, they proposed, discussed and voted on a number of cool ideas which will soon bring them renovated sports courts for their physical education class and a brand new music studio.


How did this happen? It’s the story of one of the first 10 pilot projects that EUth project, supported by the EU research and innovation programme “Horizon 2020”, subcontracted over the theme of eParticipation in Europe, which you can also find fully documented on the dedicated website, Decide4yourschool.


Everything began about a year ago, when the Centro Studi per la Democrazia Partecipativa, a participatory democracy association in Milan, applied for the EUth Open call to carry out an online participatory project involving local youth. The Cremona-Zappa institute, a high school comprising a technical and a scientific specialism, agreed on implementing a participatory budgeting program for their students, something which, according to all those who were involved, was a successful experience.


“See[ing] the participatory budgeting experience of the city of Milan last year, I thought it would be an interesting way of getting the students involved in the school’s life and activities” says Bruna Baggio, headmaster of the institute. “Very often, school staffs have ideas and vision, but there are no opportunities to listen to the voices of those who actually live in the school, the students. So, I really believed this was an opportunity to do so”.


But what exactly is participatory budgeting? In short, it is a way of directly involving citizens in the decision-making process, through public discussion and voting, in order to decide how to use one part of the public budget. Participatory budgeting normally involves four main steps: the identification of the spending priorities and the selection of budget delegates by the community members; the development of specific funding proposals; the voting by the community; and finally, the implementation of the top proposals by the administration.


This is, in general terms, what happened at the Cremona-Zappa institute. First of all, a set of rules and the phases of the project were outlined. These entailed, among others, the presence of moderators for discussion (identified in the student representatives), the possibility to propose projects in groups of three students, and the chance to express one’s vote on several proposals, without limitations. Secondly, moderated discussion took place in the various classrooms, thanks to the help of the student representatives/project leaders and the school representatives as organizing committee, following which the proposals were uploaded on the OPIN.me platform, according to the main criteria (maximum two proposals per classroom, with a clear idea and a preliminary outline of the costs). On the platform, the proposals could be commented and “liked”, and the 10 most supported ideas, evaluated by a dedicated committee, translated into actual projects.


For those of you who understand Italian, you can watch and have a laugh with the promotional videos of the students proposals on the YouTube channel of the Centro Studi per la Democrazia Partecipativa, the body who coordinated the participatory process in the school, advancing ideas such as the renovation of the library, a cinema club and a school radio channel.


The crucial moment came when the students presented their projects in front of the entire school, with booths and posters organized as a fair, which allowed direct exchange with the promoters of the various proposals: according to the headmaster Baggio, it was the time when everybody experienced the true meaning of participation. After that, a second and final vote took place, first in class on printed ballots, and then on the OPIN platform, where the students were allowed to express one extra vote for their preferred project.


Riccardo Spreafico, the student who promoted the project for the sports courts renovation and won the competition, says: “I didn’t know what participatory budgeting was in the beginning, but after the first introduction I immediately realised its usefulness and committed myself to proposing an idea for something that could really be useful”. Riccardo is 15 years old, he just started his second year in high school and says he doesn’t yet know what he wants to be when he grows up, but this project definitely got him into ‘politics’: “I like participatory budgeting, because it gets us students involved to improve the environment that we live in almost every day, spending money based on our own projects. I believe it made me grow wiser, helped me reflect about the needs of the students community in my school, and gave me a more complete view of the world”.


While most of the students were enthusiastic to discuss ideas and elaborate proposals, Riccardo reports that some of them did not see it as an opportunity, but rather as a loss of time, a kind of childish game. As a matter of fact, this is one of the main obstacles to overcome when it comes to participatory practices, and it is only with patience and consistency that it is possible to convince also the most cynical: “participatory budgeting is a cyclic process, it cannot be done only once and then forgotten about, because otherwise it creates a boomerang effect,” states Stefano Stortone, head of the Centro Studi per la Democrazia Partecipativa. “One of the risks of ending the participatory project after the first edition means to give credit to these people’s skepticism, because they will not have the opportunity to see things improved”.


Yet, the results were positive: during the first phase of the project, that was carried out on the platform, 446 students (about one third) joined the platform to vote the project ideas, and this was regarded as an essential step to also stimulate offline participation, especially during the open day at school, when the student teams were given the chance to present their projects in person. “We thought this would be easier on the internet, but actually it was during the moment when the students confronted each other that we registered the highest level of participation” adds Stortone. This suggests that a hybrid type of activity, involving both online and offline procedures, is the most impactful.


What mattered to us was to hear their voice, and by combining online and offline activities we managed to hear everybody’s opinion, so eventually we knew that the most voted project was really the one that was the most supported among the community of the students, not only by the most ‘tech-savvy’” points out Ms. Baggio.


In the end, everybody appears committed to continue the participatory budgeting practice in the future, and the Centro Studi per la Democrazia Partecipativa is in fact already working on a similar project, this time to be carried out in the detention centre of Bollate, in the Milan area.


Wherever it is implemented, participatory budgeting can be a constructive activity. How far can it get, how big the community it involves? “It is entirely a matter of experimentation” concludes Stortone. “People normally think that it can only be done in small towns, but if one considers that it was actually born in Porto Alegre, a city of 1,5 million inhabitants in Brazil, this tells you something. Paris has been doing participatory budgeting for the last three years, for Milan this is the second year, while Lisbon is already at its 10th…”. Very often, he explains, it is only seen as a service on a small part of the budget, but nowadays technologies allow us to make a big jump forward, enabling new forms of democracy. After all, it is only a matter of establishing what the goal should be: “do we want to focus on an efficient answer on how to use the budget, or on creating relations, building deliberative processes where different realities meet and dialogue, trying to find alternative solutions when public resources are scarce?”. This is, in the end, what participatory budgeting - and, by extension, participatory democracy - is all about.


This article is a result of a cooperation between European Youth Press and the project “EUth - Tools and Tips for Mobile and Digital Youth Participation in and across Europe”. This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 649594. This article reflects only the author's view and the Research Executive Agency or European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.