Participatory Budgeting Returns Power To The Taxpayers

If you're unhappy with budget cuts for schools and libraries, fire fighters and social services in your community, and think you could do a better job managing your town's money, participatory budgeting might be the answer.

Citizen Participation In Budgeting
One of the chief grievances of those involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement is that they no longer have a say in how tax revenue is put to use in their own communities.

This was vividly demonstrated by the billions (and possibly trillions) paid to bail out the Big Banks that caused the credit and mortgage crisis in the first place. It is further demonstrated by the current suggestion to raise taxes on the middle and lower classes while subsequently cutting funding the the public programs they most rely on for survival.

There might not be much we can do to force changes to the federal tax code or spending cuts, but things are much more accessible at the local level. If you’re unhappy with budget cuts for schools and libraries, fire fighters and social services in your community, and think you could do a better job managing your town’s money, participatory budgeting might be the answer.

On the following pages are excerpts from an article about participatory budgeting by our friends at Shareable Magazine. Residents of over 1,000 cities are already using aspects of this process to re-involve citizens in creating and balancing municipal budgets. This article offers some initial tips for how you could start participatory budgeting in your city.

>>Up Next: What is Participatory Budgeting?

What is Participatory Budgeting?

In 1989, the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre developed a new model of democratic participation, which has become known internationally as “participatory budgeting” (PB). Through this process, community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. In other words, the people who pay taxes (all of us) decide how they get spent.

This sounds simple, but it is not. Budgets are complex creatures, and it takes a lot of time and support for ordinary people to make wise spending decisions. For this reason, PB generally involves a year-long cycle of public meetings. Community members discuss local needs and develop project proposals to meet these needs, then invite the public to vote on which projects get funded.

This innovative model has become popular across Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, and the United Nations has named PB a best practice of democratic governance. Cities, counties, states, schools, and housing authorities have used it to give local people control over public spending.

Despite its widespread popularity, PB is new to North America. In 2009, our organization, The Participatory Budgeting Project(The PB Project) helped launch the first process in the US, with $1.3 million in Chicago’s 49th Ward. This Fall, we’re piloting a $6 million initiative in four New York City districts. Discussions are also underway in Providence, New Orleans, Greensboro, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

>>Up Next: Could Participatory Budgeting Work In My Community?

Could PB work in my community?

First, check if the right conditions are in place. At the most basic level, you need political will from above and community support from below. You need someone with control over budget money (an elected official, agency head, department director, etc.) to agree to let the public decide how to spend part of the budget. And you need community organizations, in particular those working with marginalized communities, to engage people and push the process forward.

At first, you may not know if you can count on the support of officials or community groups. So ask around. See if there are organizations or decision-makers who might be sympathetic. If so, start organizing.

How do I put PB on the agenda?

To start gathering support, organize a public event about PB to explain how it works, where it has worked, and what benefits it could bring to your community. The PB Project can help provide speakers and materials. Ask organizations and universities to co-sponsor the event, to build up more support and resources. Invite government officials and community leaders to respond to the presentations, to say whether and how they think PB could work locally.

You can also try proposing PB at other community meetings, writing editorials or blog posts, and asking elected officials or candidates to take a stance. Bit by bit, this public outreach can add up and spark local interest.

Who should be at the table for initial discussions?

When you begin to introduce the idea of PB to your community, talk with as many interested organizations and parties as possible. This includes government representatives and elected officials, local nonprofits, block clubs, religious institutions, political groups, foundations, universities, schools, and activists. The knowledge and relationships of these groups will determine how far your efforts will go.

>>Up Next: How Do I Generate Interest In Participatory Budgeting?

How do I pitch PB, to attract interest?

We’ve found that different people get excited about PB for different reasons, but these six angles attract the most interest:

• Democracy: Ordinary people have a real say—and they get to make real political decisions. Politicians build closer relationships with their constituents, and community members develop greater trust in government.

• Transparency: Budgets are policy without the rhetoric—what a government actually does. When community members decide spending through a public vote, there are fewer opportunities for corruption, waste, or backlash.

• Education: Participants become more active and informed citizens. Community members, staff, and officials learn democracy by doing it. They gain a deeper understanding of complex political issues and community needs.

• Efficiency: Budget decisions are better when they draw on residents’ local knowledge and oversight. Once they are invested in the process, people make sure that money is spent wisely.

• Social Justice: Everyone gets equal access to decision making, which levels the playing field. Traditionally underrepresented groups often participate more than usual in PB, which helps direct resources to communities with the greatest needs.

• Community: Through regular meetings and assemblies, people get to know their neighbors and feel more connected to their city. Local organizations spend less time lobbying, and more time deciding policies. Budget assemblies connect community groups and help them recruit members.

>>Up Next: Dealing With Resistance

How do I deal with resistance?

When government officials and other decision makers first hear about PB, they often raise the following doubts:

• That’s the Elected Official’s Job: Voters elect government officials to make the tough decisions, so shouldn’t budgeting be their responsibility?

Sure, they should be responsible. But if they share this responsibility with community members, they can better represent local needs and desires. PB helps officials do their job better, by putting them in closer touch with their constituents, and by injecting local knowledge and volunteer energy into the budget process.

• There’s No Money: Budgets are being cut across the board, so how could there be money to launch PB?

Fortunately, PB does not require a new pot of money, just a change to how existing budget funds are decided. You will need some resources to carry out the PB process, but this investment saves money down the road, as participants discover new ways to make limited budget dollars go farther.

• The Process Will Be Co-Opted: If budget decisions are opened up to the public, won’t the “usual suspects” and powerful community groups dominate?

This is a valid concern for any kind of public participation, and PB is not immune. But if you involve all segments of the community in planning the process, and reduce the barriers to participation for marginalized people, you can prevent any one sector from taking control. Regardless, when people are given real responsibility to make budget decisions, they tend to rise to the occasion, and think about the broader community.

Read the entire article at Shareable Magazine.

Do you have experience with participatory budgeting, in either a public or private capacity? Do you feel like politicians in your community ignore citizen requests for how budgets should be made? Share your thoughts in a comment!

Image Credit: Tom Wang/Shutterstock

Written by Beth Buczynski

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