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by Hollie Russon Gilman
It was raining on an end of summer night. I contemplated taking the longest subway ride I had ever taken to attend an “information session for Participatory Budgeting in New York.” The rain almost dissuaded me. I ended up getting on the subway, and left feeling so inspired I knew I had to write my dissertation on this new pilot project: the largest participatory budgeting process to ever be conducted in the United States. This was all happening in my city. A few mere blocks from where I grew up democratic innovation was being birthed.
As the Republican and Democratic conventions unfolded, the ever-partisan nature of American politics was evidenced. Electoral politics represent the existing paradigm for how American citizenry engagement with their governments: electing representatives. What if there was an alternative relationship between citizens and their government? Participatory Budgeting reimagines the relationship between citizens and the State to involve citizens more robustly in governance beyond the ballot.
Participatory budgeting, first springing up after a 19 year military dictatorship in Brazil in 1989, has been instituted in various flavors all around the world from Latin American to Africa. The World Bank and U.N. have hailed it a best practice. Yet, Participatory Budgeting has yet to take hold in the U.S .- until 2009 when Chicago Alderman Joe Moore implemented it in Chicago’s 49th Ward. This past year the largest implementation of Participatory Budgeting in the U.S. took place in New York City with four Council members pledging at least $1.3 million of their discretionary funds to this process. The Council members pledged capital funds: money for infrastructure (as opposed to programs) such as parks, schools, and repairs. (embed links to my articles and new york times) http://pbnyc.org/. Citizens opt in to generate ideas about best places to create projects in their community then work for months to create budget proposals. Community residents vote upon the proposals and Council members then exact proposals voted upon http://socialinnovation.ash.harvard.edu/milestone-for-nycs-experiment-in-participatory-budgeting.
Some critics contend that the money at stake in NYC is too low to be consequential. Yet this process made the cover of the New York Times metro section and while only involving a small portion of the New York City budget, the process shed light on the non-transparent nature of City budgets. The Speaker of City Council has discretion over Council members funds in a range from $3 to $11 million dollars. Many New York residents actively engaged in civic life for decades often described Participatory Budgeting as the single most meaningful civic engagement of their life. Amongst the reasons cited are the unprecedented opportunities for citizens to engage directly with elected officials and city agencies to create proposals that become implemented into policy.
Unlike other forms of engagement, Participatory Budgeting creates binding results. The proposals voted upon are implemented into action. The concrete nature of Participatory Budgeting inspires citizens to put in the time required over a seven-month period. Despite the countless volunteer hours required, citizens continue to stay engaged in the process because they forge meaningful ties with their neighbors and community. Through this process ordinary citizens did the extraordinary. The citizens involved in Participatory Budgeting are sending a signal to elected officials: we desire more of civic engagement than simply voting in elections every two or four year years. Participatory Budgeting forces even the most cynical amongst us to reexamine the opportunities for citizens to re-engage as community stakeholders and continually push for democratic innovation in the United States. This is a message both political candidates ought to listen to.
Photo courtesy of St. Peter's Community News, via Creative Commons license.
Hollie Russon Gilman is a PhD Candidate at Harvard University's Department of Government and a Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Innovation and Governance and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at the Kennedy School of Government. She works on transparency, democratic innovation, and participatory budgeting for the World Bank Institute and Open Society Foundation.