Participatory budgeting is democracy in action
By Doug Hamilton
Much ink has been spilled regarding the rancor and (un)civil discourse of the last election, and, with the huge cuts to our local services and the glacial pace of restoring those services, there is a great cynicism of our local government among the community. Psychologists and social scientists tell us that the only way to heal division among people and communities is through connection and relationship. Participatory municipal budgeting provides some of that connection and relationship to heal our community.
What is Participatory Budgeting (PB)? PB is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. It gives people real power over real money. The people decide and the government executes. When the process is designed correctly, PB is equitable across areas, classes, genders, and ethnicities. With PB, decisions aren’t made by politically appointed boards or advisory committees, they are made by community assemblies of neighbors connecting and debating with one another. It is real democracy, down to the neighborhood and street level, in action.
PB started in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, as an anti-poverty measure where it helped reduce child mortality by nearly 20%. Since then PB has spread to thousands of cities around the world, and has been used to decide budgets from states, counties, cities, housing authorities, schools, and other institutions. PB is a great way to empower citizens to participate in their community with some cities allowing all residents (including undocumented residents and children over the age of 12) and even people working in the community to participate and vote. Because these votes aren’t “official” votes, cities can deploy much cheaper and secure methods of paper, internet, and mobile voting to ensure equitable representation.
PB also avoids complaints about how government spends money because it is the PEOPLE who decide. In the current system our city, city staff and elected officials create lists of projects and services they want to offer or build. These lists are internally filtered in a hierarchical city structure and presented to the public to rank and prioritize (non binding prioritization, of course). After staff prioritizes based on public input, money is allotted – perhaps taking into account public input, perhaps not. This process is inherently inequitable because internal staff politics, bargaining positions of internal groups, and powerful insiders taint the overall result. This is the essence of the people’s dissatisfaction with the process.
PB flips this paradigm on its head because the projects are generated by and the priority comes from the People. They are vetted, weighed against each other, and voted on by the people in community assemblies. The government becomes the mere executioner of the people’s will. In fact, all of the heavy (political) lifting of allocating budget needs, the stuff that causes so much discord within the community, is done by the People.
Denver has dedicated $1.7 million to PB this year and next, and, is in the process of launching their program. New York City allocates $40 million to PB. This is roughly 0.2% of their general budget. A similar allocation in Boulder would be between $300,000 and $500,000, and some of it could come from already dedicated sources like the sugary drink tax (which is currently allocated by city staff).
The right of the people to make decisions and bind government officials regarding the amount of tax dollars collected and their subsequent allocation and expenditure is a fundamental principle upon which this nation was founded. PB is a fundamentally democratic form of directing our government to work for us and truly creating a system by, for, and of the People.
Doug Hamilton is a member of the Community Editorial Board, a lawyer, engineer, and human who cares about democratic ideals and public spaces in the community.