By Hollie Russon-Gilman, Senior Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation
There’s no denying that millions of Americans feel deeply alienated from government. It’s a difficult problem to solve, because any individual person does not have much say over what happens in Washington. That’s why a key to fighting this deep mistrust and cynicism is to give citizens a bigger voice in local government, where it’s much easier for an ordinary person to have an impact.
One promising approach is something called participatory budgeting. Here’s how it works: neighborhood residents identify local spending priorities, sign up (or are elected) to craft viable budget proposals, and turn the proposals over to the community for a vote. Elected officials, in turn, pledge to implement the projects that the people have chosen. The project could be a community arts center designed by constituents, or funding for a park, or new computers for the local high school.
That may sound like small-scale policy change, but there’s a lot of power in giving people control over how money is spent in their immediate communities. In the spring of 2014, in a school gymnasium in East Boston, I watched young people aged 12–25 vote in a participatory budgeting decision. For many, this was their first vote. Some had heard about it from a flyer offering free pizza and democracy. While the pizza may have lured them in, many continued coming back to meetings because they were excited by meeting and working with members of their community to exercise genuine civic power. I heard teens incredulously ask a city official, “Do we really have say over $1 million dollars?” The city staff had to keep reassuring them: Yes, these are real taxpayer dollars and you have power over them! The Boston vote — the first youth-driven participatory budgeting exercise in the U.S. — resulted in funding for seven projects, including a playground upgrade, Chromebooks for three high schools, and security cameras for a park.
Participatory budgeting began in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, after a 20-year military dictatorship. Since then, it has spread to thousands of local governments around the world. (The non-profit Participatory Budgeting Project has been pushing for its adoption across the United States.) The process has proven to engage traditionally marginalized communities. It also produces good results. For example, Brian Wampler and Mike Touchton, political scientists at Boise State University, found that in Brazil, municipal governments that adopted participatory budgeting ended up spending more on education and sanitation and saw infant mortality decrease.
But apart from whether participatory budgeting leads to wise government expenditures, the process provides several important and potentially transformative impacts for civic life. One of the most powerful motifs in the “government elites ignore the people” narrative is the idea that a central government sucks up taxes and then spends it on things that don’t help the people who paid them. (Katherine J. Cramer documents this phenomenon in The Politics of Resentment.) By letting ordinary people set binding spending decisions, not merely advisory input that legislators can choose to ignore, participatory budgeting makes it harder for people to say that government is simply ignoring them. And letting people learn firsthand how governmental decisions get made can begin to repair institutional mistrust.
In the U.S., the largest participatory budgeting experiment so far has been in New York City. Starting in 2009 with a bipartisan group of four City Council members, the process in 2016 involved 28 (of the 51) council members and has a centralized support structure in the Speaker of the City Council’s office. The Community Development Project at the Urban Justice Center reports that in 2015, 51,362 New Yorkers allocated nearly $32 million in public dollars. More broadly, the Obama Administration incorporated commitments to support participatory budgeting through federal community development block grants given out by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. (I served as an advisor in the Obama White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to help spread the use of participatory budgeting and other community-led civic interventions.)
Perhaps the most important aspect of participatory budgeting in the U.S. has been the dialogue and deliberation that it forces people to engage in. Conversations with different members of the community enable people to engage first hand with their neighbors and public officials. In hundreds of interviews that I conducted while researching my book, people cited the ability to converse as crucial. People get to know their neighbors, often for the first time. They also get to know their elected officials and public servants. By coming together, weighing trade offs and learning about how much things cost people receive civic education in the most literal, hands-on sense: they learn what it actually takes to decide how the government should spend its money. They find out, for example, that their dream parks project costs much more than they imagined, or that it involves complex coordination across five agencies, or that the city is already working on similar improvements.
As you would expect, research has shown that participatory budgeting tends to lead to policies that voters prefer. But participatory budgeting isn’t merely a technocratic, good-government innovation. By including ordinary people in the core function of government — deciding how to spend money — it represents one of the most direct ways of making government literally of the people, by the people, and for the people.