In Seoul, the citizens like to spend like politicians

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In Seoul, the citizens like to spend like politicians

When Seoul’s city government decided to embrace “participatory budgeting” last year, many hailed the move as a meaningful step toward engaging the public in civic affairs and their bottom line.

A total of 250 randomly selected Seoulites were put on the civil participatory budget committee, which was asked to decide budgets for local projects worth 47 billion won ($43.7 million) last year. The amount rose to 50 billion won this year.

A year into implementation, however, the system doesn’t appear to be following rules set up to avoid reckless spending or half-baked proposals, according to a JoongAng Ilbo analysis of pre-budget consultation meetings.

In fact, it shows that ordinary citizens, like politicians, like to spend money if it’s available whether the projects are worthwhile or not.

A main rule for the committee was that at least 30 percent of the members needed to support the project in order for it to be green-lighted.

But the committee decided to OK proposals with less than 30 percent support - because it couldn’t agree on enough proposals to spend its entire 50 billion won budget.

“The selected programs totaled only 36.1 billion won, which is far less than the entire budget,” said Park Young-heon, managing director of the committee in a meeting held July 27.

“So, we decided to use all funds [by passing projects with less than 30 percent support],” Park said.

One of the schemes that got green-lighted without 30 percent support of the committee included the building of an Internet broadcasting center for teenagers. A brainchild of several Youngdeungpo District residents, the proposal is expected to cost approximately 1.8 billion won.

Although a small number of proponents said that the broadcasting center would help teens broaden their understanding of the outside world and society, the majority of committee members didn’t think the project was worth the money. In fact, only 25.6 percent of the committee members supported the program.

The idea of setting up an alternative school, which was proposed by Seongbuk District residents, was also rejected at first because a series of education programs offered by volunteers were already provided in the same building. But the 350 million won program is now on the list.

A total of 48 projects were green-lighted despite insufficient support, and they will cost 16.4 billion won.

“We acknowledge some projects might be considered bloated, but they are proposals that residents like,” said Kang Myung-ok, head of the civil participatory budget committee.

Analysts note that ignoring the well-meant rules damages the entire experiment.

“Now that Seoul city is cash-strapped, it’s nonsense that they tamper with the rules to spend all the money allocated,” said Hong Seong-geol, a public administration professor at Kookmin University.

Earlier this month, the pinched Seoul city government resorted to a municipal bond issue to keep the city’s foundering day care programs afloat. The budget for the facilities has been exhausted, and the program faces the threat of being shut down.


BY AHN HYO-SEONG, PARK EUN-JEE [ejpark@joongang.co.kr]

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