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Bringing Democracy to Public Budgets

by Anna Pollard:

Since 2009, participatory budgeting has been sweeping the country as an alternative method for managing public money. Participatory budgeting involves community members directly engaging in a democratic process of how to spend part of a public budget. It’s an empowering public engagement technique as  citizens can help make budget decisions that will affect their lives. Participatory budgeting is a practice that has been used in Brazil for over thirty years. It has more recently spread to the US and has helped citizens in cities across the country take part in the allocation of roughly $170 million public dollars.

Matthew Slaats, Creative Director at PauseLab and Maria Hadden, Project Manager at Participatory Budgeting Project weigh in on the rising use of this method of community engagement and funds allocation. They both joined in to lead a conversation on this topic at the 2017 Tom Tom Founders Festival Hometown Summit.

According to Slaats and Hadden, there are over a dozen ongoing participatory budgeting projects in the US at this time. Normally these projects occur at the municipal and local level, although participatory budgeting has been effective at the state level as well. Although only small portions of public budgets are up for participatory debates, areas that use participatory budgeting see a revitalization of community participation in an era when civic engagement tends to be fairly low. Areas with public housing are often sites of the greatest engagement in participatory budgeting initiatives, as these projects work to construct and strengthen public trust.

In Charlottesville, VA, BeCville is an example of participatory budgeting working in the community to allocate funds according to residents’ input. BeCville annually allocates $15,000 towards public arts projects of the community’s choice. Communities with existing infrastructures of engagement have particularly seen the benefits of participatory budgeting, as the initiative has minimal costs and high returns regarding feedback from citizens. However, it is also easy to construct these pathways of participation where they don’t already exist. For example by combining online resources with in-person relationships to create a community of trust and honest feedback.This is something BeCville has worked to build. They have created an online platform for feedback and proposals and hired local teenagers to go door-to-door to promote participatory budgeting in Charlottesville.

Hadden and Slaats admit that turnout can be low for certain participatory projects, and although they are striving to drive higher rates of engagement, the primary point of this kind of budgeting is to make individuals feel heard and to open up a direct line of communication with residents in the community. While the idea and practice of participatory budgeting is still making a name for itself as a successful democratic tool in the budgeting process, Hadden and Slaats say that a poor budgeting decision has never been made by those participating. Residents involved are given figures and prices at every step and the process facilitators bring in experts to assess feasibility before any votes are cast.

Although participatory budgeting still accounts for only a small fraction of decisions regarding allocation of public funds, it is on the rise as an instrument for democracy. Hopefully this practice will spread to more communities as a method for bolstering community engagement, better representing the needs and desires of residents, and strengthening the public’s trust in their local government.


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