Tuesday, October 14, 2008

THE IDEA MILL: PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING

Josh Lerner, Grassroots Economic Organizing - Low-income residents and activists in hundreds of cities around the world have designed a different way of managing public money: participatory budgeting. This is a process in which people who are impacted by a budget directly and democratically decide how it is spent. The most famous example is the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, where residents decide on municipal spending in an annual cycle of assemblies and meetings. Since Porto Alegre pioneered participatory budgeting in 1989, however, it has spread throughout the world. Most of these experiences share a common process: diagnosis, discussion, decision-making, implementation, and monitoring. First, at neighborhood assemblies, residents identify local priority needs, generate ideas to respond to these needs, and elect delegates to represent each community. These delegates then discuss the local priorities and develop concrete projects that address them, together with experts. Next, residents vote for which of these projects to fund. Finally, the government implements the chosen projects, and residents monitor this implementation. For example, if neighborhood residents identify access to medical care as a priority, their delegates might develop a proposal for a new community health clinic. If the residents approve the proposal, the city funds it. The next year, a new health clinic is built.

Roughly 1,200 cities have participatory budgets already. Several countries have passed laws making participatory budgeting mandatory for local governments. The UN and other international organizations have actively promoted it. Even the Church of England is a fan.

Why such broad support? Probably because participatory budgeting offers something for everyone. It gives residents a forum to voice their demands and resources to satisfy many of those demands. They feel more connected to their city and better able to improve their environment, and they learn a lot in the process. Low-income and marginalized residents gain the most, thanks to their high rates of participation (unlike in most consultations) and 'pro-poor' spending criteria that redistribute funds to those with the greatest needs. Social movements and community organizations get to spend less time pressuring policy-makers and more time deciding policies themselves. Regular budget assemblies even help them recruit members and build stronger community networks. For bureaucrats and economists, participatory budgeting is a way to get better information on public needs and minimize corruption. For politicians, it can provide closer links with constituents and increase their popularity.

But participatory budgeting does not always have these effects. When politicians control decision-making and use it to support their own agendas, participatory budgeting can become disempowering. This danger of co-optation is particularly strong in the US. New York, Los Angeles, and other municipalities are increasingly holding consultations on city priorities, but not giving these consultations much power. Politicians and bureaucrats set the agendas, and although residents can share their opinions, they cannot make decisions. This controlled participation may look good for the city, but it rarely changes government spending. In the long run, it shows people that getting involved isn't worth the bother.

Co-optation is not the only challenge. Compared with Brazil, US cities have less urgent needs, more linguistic diversity, and fewer leftists in power. Experiences with participatory budgeting in developed countries, however, suggest strategies for adapting it to the US. Start small, with a pilot project in one neighborhood, agency, or program. So far, participatory budgeting has not caught hold in the US, but some cities are heading towards it. Seattle and Burlington, for example, have like-minded participatory grant-making programs, in which boards of residents help decide how city grants are awarded to community groups.

Some activists are also working to start participatory budgeting in public housing and schools, based on successful processes in Canada. A US participatory budgeting network recently formed to build on these experiences.

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