Tunisia is the first Arab country to implement participatory budgeting. In this conversation Bedis Bouziri explains how the enthusiasm from the 2011 revolution was translated into participatory action in the municipality of La Marsa. Daniel Schugurensky talked to him in Tunis during the 2015 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy.

Mr Bouziri, how did you become involved with the participatory budget of La Marsa?

I have been actively involved in local civil society since the beginning of the 2011 revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Ben Ali. I am a member of a local association that is devoted to improving the quality of life in our neighborhood. This association is called Action Citoyenne Marsa-Corniche (ACMC), because Marsa-Corniche is the name of our neighborhood. Our association was selected and then invited, along with other associations of other districts, to be part of the first four Participatory Budgeting processes in Tunisia.

Who invited your neighborhood association?

It was a local NGO [non-governmental organization) called Action Associative. This NGO is new. It started in 2012, after the revolution. Its main mission is to promote local development, increase capacity building efforts, and contribute to improve the relationships between citizens and the state, all within a general framework of a defense human rights values. This NGO was in charge of introducing the PB process in La Marsa and in three other cities. I was part of the team of facilitators that worked in La Marsa.

How many facilitators worked in La Marsa?

There were seven of us.

Did you and the other PB facilitators receive any training?

Yes, we were trained by Action Associative to be able to accompany the process with the citizens of La Marsa.

How long was this training?

There were three sessions that usually lasted half a day, sometimes the entire day, and then we were put into action, to continue developing our skills in the PB process itself, learning by doing.

What was the training about?

We started with general information about participatory budgeting, starting with historical background: how it was born in Brazil in the late 1980s, how it spread to Latin America, Asia, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. We also watched a video on the Bolivian experience. This film was very inspiring. We watched common citizens -most of them members of indigenous communities- talking about their experience in the PB process. They explained how they were marginalized in the past and how with PB they felt respected by the municipality and included in the national community. Another topic of the training was how to cope with uncivil behavior that could prevent good deliberation, such as people speaking loudly on their phones during the meetings. A related topic was how to deal with conflict situations, tense moments that you could experience when citizens are angry against the municipality.

Were there other elements in your training?

We made several role-playing exercises in which we were put in real situations like we are members of the municipality and then some citizens accuse some of us of having been part of the ancient regime, the old nomenklatura.

Do you mean part of the Ben Ali government?

Exactly. Things like that, or as I just said, playing with the phone, and we had to learn how to address those situations to reduce the tension and keep the meeting flowing. Another theme was how to organize the structure of the ideas for projects proposed by citizens in order to avoid duplication of projects and how to present the projects in a way that everybody could see. They also explained to us how citizens were going to elect their representatives to the municipal council. They told us that each neighborhood was going to be three delegates to monitor the implementation of PB decisions: one youth representative, who could be male or female, one representative for women, and one representative for the adults.

What age was considered youth in this process?

From 18 to 30 years old.

Did you feel ready to facilitate the process after the training?

Well, at the beginning we did not act as facilitators. Once the training was completed we started the process and the folks from the Action Associative facilitated the meetings and we helped as assistants to them, progressively taking more autonomous roles as the process moved forward. Now we are in the second year and we carry out the entire PB process ourselves, because the no longer have the support of the NGO.

Why don´t you have the support of the NGO nowadays?

Because the role of Action Associative is to start PB processes and support them for the first year, and after that we are expected to continue on our own. This way, the NGO can spread PB in other places. In fact, this year Action Associative went to initiate PB processes in three other cities. One of them, Sfax, is the second largest city in Tunisia. That is going to be a big project and they will need to put lots of time and energy there.

Let´s talk about the process. How was the first meeting with the community?

It was held on a Saturday. Citizens gathered in a space of the municipality to listen to the technical explanation about the city budget: how it works, the difference between the investment budget and the operational budget, and how the budget is divided among different items like roads, lights, parks, rainwater, and so on. Then, we explained that for participatory budgeting we were going to focus on public lighting.

Why did you focus on public lighting?

Because the municipality decided that this was the first item to be discussed in PB. Given that this was the first experiment, they thought that this was the easiest topic for the citizens to understand and to manage.

Was this the biggest priority in the community?

Not really. The biggest one - especially in the poorer areas - is sewage, but for some strange reason sewage is not part of the responsibilities of the municipalities. Sewage is the responsibility of a national agency that is under the Ministry of the Environment.

Bedis Bouziri, are you saying municipalities in Tunisia cannot make decisions on sewage? This is unusual.

Yes, sewage is out of bounds. The same happens with the seashore. Municipalities cannot intervene because it is the responsibility of a national agency of protection and management of coasts. And there is more. Municipalities cannot deal with woods and forests, because this is the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Agriculture. I can give you other examples: municipalities have no say on major highways, because they belong to the Ministry of Infrastructure. They have no say on building codes, because this is the prerogative of the Ministry of Interior. Municipalities cannot build new schools, because this is the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. Even speed bumps are beyond the control of municipalities; they belong to the Ministry of Infrastructure. For this reason we have a saying in Tunisia that goes "municipalities are good for collecting garbage".

This saying is telling. Seriously, can municipalities do something else beyond collecting garbage?

They are authorized to do a few more things, but not much. In addition to garbage they can do public lights and minor roads. The truth is that municipalities in Tunisia have little power.

Why is that?

We were a French colony from 1881 to 1956, and we are modeled after the French model that is highly centralized. In the French tradition Paris dominates everything. Since independence, authority in Tunisia has been centralized as well. It was done in purpose, to limit the power of the rank and file. Dictatorships tend to favor authority and control in their governance models.

So, in retrospect, do you thing that lighting was a good choice for the first PB?

Yes, I think so. There were no many other options.

What was the priority for the second year?

Roads, and in this case the citizens themselves chose this theme. The second year, the municipal government decided to leave to citizens the choice of the second cycle.

How did the process work in La Marsa?

We met during weekends, in the afternoon. The meetings were three to four hours long. The Saturday meetings were more technical and informative. The Sunday meetings were more deliberative and decision-oriented. In the Saturday meetings people learned about the issues that would be going to be discussed on Sunday. It was like an introduction to the subject. On Sunday participants proposed, discussed and chose concrete projects for their communities.

What is the general profile of the participants, considering factors like gender, age and social class?

In terms of gender, we have an even participation of men and women. In terms of age, young people are usually underrepresented, and retired people are overrepresented, probably because they have more spare time. In terms of social class, it depends on the district. In the poorer districts we have a majority of low-income participants, and in more prosperous districts the majority of participants could be characterized as middle class.

How were the first meetings? I ask because it is my understanding that due to the history of authoritarian regimes Tunisia does not have a strong deliberative tradition.

Yes, the first meetings were tense because people did not come to discuss peacefully and engage in public deliberation. They came to complain against the municipality and to attack municipal staff.

What were the criticisms about?

They accused the municipality of mismanagement, of patterns of discrimination in resource allocations that reinforced existing inequalities, and so on.

From your perspective, were those criticisms legitimate?

Yes, because historically the government has tended to favor the wealthier neighborhoods where the affluent people and the businesses are located.

So, the Saturday meetings were originally intended for information but ended up being more confrontational than expected?

Yes, particularly in poor neighborhoods. Instead of focusing on technical information about budgets or about lighting the meetings became a space for citizens to voice their discontent about issues of unfairness and mismanagement, and not feeling being respected by authorities.

Were the Sunday meetings different?

For the most part, the Sunday meetings were more peaceful, collaborative and solution-oriented.

At the Sunday meetings the municipality was not supposed to be present - or at least actively present - because it was expected to be a safe space for the community to deliberate and make decisions. Sometimes there were some members of the municipality, be they elected or appointed officials, but they were in the background, in case there was any question. Occasionally we had some problems when some residents who came to the Sunday meetings had not attended the Saturday meeting and lacked basic information about the rules of the game. For instance, these residents complained to us: "Why are you choosing lighting as a priority when our main problem is sewage?" They didn´t know that the municipality had no jurisdiction over sewage because they had not attended the Saturday meeting, so we had to explain our institutional constraints again. Sometimes residents attacked facilitators, accusing us of not being members of the local community; they didn´t know some of us because we live in different neighborhoods. Over time, they started to trust us and learn that we were genuinely interested in helping the community, without any further political or economic interest.

Did this increase in trust translate in more participation as time passed by?

Yes. During the first year we had relatively smaller meetings, with an average of 30 people per session. This year, which is our second cycle, we have larger meetings, ranging from 40 to 150 participants per meeting.

It seems that many citizens used the rare opportunity of meeting with the municipality to raise their grievances about perceived injustices and vent their anger about unresolved issues. How did you deal with this situation as a facilitator?

It was not easy, but we tended to use the Saturday meetings for the citizens to express all their frustrations, to channel their anger. It was much like going to therapy. Once they had expressed their frustration and conveyed their criticisms, on Sunday we tried to build something. Our line at the beginning of the Sunday meetings was something like this: "Yesterday we dealt with the past, today let´s start to build together our future".

How did participants respond to that call?

Well, this is an interesting point. Because we have been under a dictatorship for over 50 years, and before that we were a colony, we are not used to make decisions in an associative way. Here in Tunisia we are used to a top-down model of decision-making in which others make decisions for us. Then, suddenly people were invited by the municipal government to decide which projects should be implemented in their district, and at the beginning it was difficult for people to realize that it was even possible, because it was not part of our past experience in this country. On Sundays we asked them to gather in small groups and propose projects that would be good for their communities, and at the beginning they were confused because they were not used to this type of situation. This was all new for them.

What was the size of the small groups, and what did they do?

Every circle had 5 or 6 people; they discussed different possible projects and then a spokesperson presented their 3 or 4 top projects to the assembly and explained why they believed that those projects were important. Once the small groups presented their proposed projects to the rest of the group, all the citizens who were present at the meeting were invited to vote for the top projects.

What types of projects were proposed, and which ones were the most voted ones? 

Although some people proposed lighting projects that would benefit only a few residents in one street, most participants proposed projects that were more oriented towards the common good. One project, for instance, was about lighting in a street near a school building, because children need to walk safely from school when it is dark. Another project proposed to put lights in a park that was unsafe in the evening because there was some drinking and criminal activity going on. Another project was to illuminate a major avenue that had intense traffic and regular pedestrian accidents. I remember another lighting project proposed by a neighborhood that is located in a hill and has long stairs that were dangerous in the darkness. Another group proposed to put lights outside a public bath that women use some evenings. Overall, all of the 15 projects that were approved in La Marsa were common interest projects. Very few people proposed private interest projects, and very few people voted for them.

What did they do after they voted for the different projects?

Then each district voted for three delegates to follow up on the implementation. This process was similar in each one of the five districts of La Marsa, which means that there are 15 delegates.

Are the delegates there to address issues of mistrust?

To a large extent, yes. The main role of the delegates is to scrutinize that the projects that were approved by the citizens´ assembly are really implemented. This is important because it increases transparency and accountability. In addition, the delegates have other roles, like acting as a link between the municipality and the community, making sure that there is a good flow of communication between them during the implementation phase.

What were some of the main challenges you faced as a facilitator?

I remember a very bad experience in a poor neighborhood where the police killed some residents in 2011 during the uprising against Ben Ali. Our meetings were disturbed by people who come as provocateurs to reject us and to attack us. They were only four or five of them, but they were very angry and very loud. They said that we had a political agenda. They were very confrontational. We let them vent for twenty minutes, and at that time we realized that we needed to come up soon with a creative solution to diffuse the conflict because it could have escalated and turned violent. There was a lot of screaming in that room, and the meeting was jeopardized because some participants who wanted to contribute to the process and improve their communities started to leave the room. It was a difficult situation for us as facilitators.

And what did you do?

We took a stance and said to the assembly that if that dynamic continued we would have to cancel not only the meeting but also the entire process for that district, and that meant that they could not select any project and could not send any representatives to the municipal council, unlike the other four districts which were selecting projects and representatives. After we made that statement, we explained that we as facilitators had nothing to lose, that they were the ones who were going to lose, not us, and that we could continue the process with the other four districts. Then, we did something that proved to be very effective. We started to ask individually each participant who was listening patiently to all this screaming: do you want to work on this? If they said "yes", we asked them to start forming a circle and begin to work, and then several circles were formed. Once the circles started to work, those who were shouting joined the circles, and after that the process move forward very well, and at the end they selected their top projects and elected their representatives.

How was the voting process?

The vote was secret. We had ballots for the different projects, and a ballot box. Only the people who participated in the meeting were allowed to vote.

What are, in your view, the main accomplishments of this initial PB process in Tunisia?

In my opinion, the first one is the feeling of citizenship, the feeling that your voice counts. At the meetings we had poor people without formal education, we had young people without an understanding of what is a community, suddenly becoming involved in the management of their neighborhood. You see, nobody before asked for their opinion, nobody asked them before to be involved in a decision-making process. They never had any decision-making power about their local community. I think that we initiated a change in mentality and in our culture. We are seeing people becoming involved in the public life of their communities, they not only feel concerned about problems, but they also feel that they are part of the solution. We are sparking more interest in public affairs. This is an important issue, because we had high rates of abstentionism in our last elections.

A second important accomplishment was that the process of choosing the projects and selecting the delegates was predicated on a democratic process. This is important because it demonstrates that democracy is not an abstract concept but something that can be implemented everyday and everywhere. It also shows that democracy is not anymore the privilege of the elites. Participatory budgeting was an exercise that helped people become more familiar with the idea of democracy. If we think in terms of Tunisia, where democracy just started in 2011, this is a significant contribution. Participatory budgeting is a plus for the idea of democracy because it becomes very practical, as it relates to everyday life. The challenge now is how to make a democracy more sustainable, because citizens are experiencing it first hand.

A third accomplishment is that people are developing a feeling of empowerment because now they know that they can make a difference. They chose the projects and the delegates, and they are following with attention the implementation of the approved projects on the ground. Eventually they can transfer this sense of empowerment to other topics and other settings. I believe that participatory democracy is the best way to institutionalize democracy because it is a bottom up process that starts with the people.

A fourth good outcome is that participatory budgeting is bridging the gap between citizens and the administration. Now there is a more regular and fluid flow of information in both directions. I should clarify that this is happening now, in the second year, but did not happen before, in the first year of PB, because at that time the technical staff was missing, and people did not have the chance to interact with them.

Were only politicians at the meetings representing the municipality?

Yes, usually designated officials attended the PB meetings, normally the mayor and vice-mayor. Their presence was important because it showed the political will of the government to support the process, but during the meetings we noticed the need to have technical staff at hand when people had specific questions about issues like regulations, legislation, or the feasibility of some projects.

Do you have an example to illustrate the contribution made by technical staff?

Sure. Before the technical staff came, citizens chose their projects without any knowledge of technical, legal or institutional impediments. The mayor and vice mayor were there to represent the municipality, but they hold political and administrative positions, not technical positions, and don´t have specific knowledge about potential problems that some projects may face. Now the technical staff participate in the process and advice on whether projects are feasible or not. When the technical staff says that a project cannot be done, the delegates engage with them. An example was a proposal to asphalt a road in an area where there is no sewage network. It was not advisable to pave that road because later on we would need to break the road to bring the sewage and pave it again, so it would be double work, and it would be a waste time and money. So the community decided to wait for the sewage before paving, and to make pressure on the federal agency to put the sewage network. The information provided by the technical staff help the citizens to understand the situation and to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts. The delegates learn why some projects are not feasible and they inform their communities, and that will reduce frustration and anger. People are becoming more informed and understand better the real cost of projects. I will give you another example. One road that was selected for pavement is in very bad conditions because it is close to a construction company and it suffers the impact of heavy trucks, cement mixers, and construction machinery. Through PB we learned that normally a paved road lasts approximately 6 years but in this case after only one year it needs to be repaved again. So, in that road we will need to put more asphalt so it can last longer. The implication is that it will be more expensive to pave this street than other streets, and now people know about these issues. People were surprised about the cost of projects. Well, to summarize my point, PB makes people more knowledgeable and brings closer together citizens and government.

Are there instances in which knowledge flows in the other direction, that is, when government learn new things from the citizens?

Yes, sometimes it happens. One day we invited to the PB meeting some experts on solar energy to explain the benefits of solar energy. The citizens at the meeting learned that the energy that comes from the sun is free, and we all knew that sunlight is abundant in Tunisia, so solar energy seemed like a desirable option to pursue to public lighting. And here is something interesting: at that meeting we learned from the experts that the national office in charge of promoting renewable energy provides incentives for solar energy. This agency subsidizes up to 20% of the projects. This means that the municipality would only pay for 80% of the total costs. I said that this is interesting because the people at the municipality did not even know about the existence of these incentives. So now several projects of public lighting are going to use solar energy.

This example suggests that PB can bring new ideas to the table, ideas that can provide more creative and efficient solutions to community problems. Could this be considered as another accomplishment of PB?

Yes, this can be seen as another accomplishment of PB. City officials themselves have limited information and knowledge, and civil society can make important contributions if we establish the proper channels. The city officials didn´t know about the incentives from the national office, and they learned about them from PB. We never had any project of solar lighting in La Marsa before, and now, thanks to PB, we are going to have some. This is good for the government of La Marsa, good for the people of La Marsa, and good for the environment.

Would you say that now citizens have more trust of the municipal government?

Not yet. Building trust takes time, especially after many decades of mistrust. This will be a long process. This year is the time of implementing the decisions made at last year´s PB. Delegates are checking that the approved projects are under implementation. Trust will increase when people see the real projects on the ground. Until then, people are waiting to see if this is for real. There have been many promises that were not delivered and many funds that have been misappropriated in the past, so it will take time to build trust.

Do you think that the delegates who monitor the implementation phase play a key role in building this trust?

Yes, they do, but the problem is that the administration is not always open to them. For the most part it is impermeable to the delegates. According to the rules of PB there is an expectation that delegates are integrated into the teams responsible for the projects, but many times they are not included in those teams. It may be due to tradition or to other reasons, but the technical process is still controlled by the municipality without much involvement by the delegates. Hopefully this will change in the future.

How are you doing on your own these days, without the support of the NGO?

Well, in the second year we learned to be autonomous, to use the lessons learned during the first year. Now we are on our own, and the success or failure depends on us. We are all volunteers, but we are really committed. Fortunately now the municipality has appointed a woman in the area of communications who is in charge of coordinating the PB processes in the different districts of La Marsa. She is our channel of communication with the municipality, and in the second round there is a good collaborative relationship between the municipality, the facilitators and the delegates. We have an ad hoc committee formed by this woman representing the municipality, some facilitators, and some delegates. This ad hoc committee has a weekly meeting every Wednesday afternoon. At this meeting we make operational decisions and solve basic problems like printing flyers or plan a community outreach with loudspeakers. The nice thing about this collaborative space is that it is horizontal. There is no leader, and we rotate responsibilities.

Any plans for the near future regarding PB?

From a local perspective, we would like to spread PB to other municipalities near to La Marsa. We could invite representatives from the other cities to come to La Marsa to observe our process, and we could also go to those cities to provide advice during the initial stages. From a larger picture perspective, we want to operationalize article 139 of the new national constitution. This article says that all local authorities must implement participatory democracy processes. In addition, in 2013 the ministry of interior circulated a memorandum to all municipalities encouraging them to engage with citizens through participatory initiatives. We would like to have a law based on article 139 to make participatory budgeting compulsory in all municipalities. Now PB is not mandatory; it is up to each municipality to do it or not. Our idea is to convince the assembly of representatives in the parliament that a law for making PB compulsory would be a positive development. They need to understand that citizens are not a problem; they are part of the solution.

Daniel Schugurensky has a joint appointment in the School of Public Affairs and the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. He is the founder and director of the Participatory Governance Initiative at Arizona State University and the coordinator of the 2015 Democracy Governance “By the People” in Phoenix/Arizona.