How journalists can use participatory budgeting to better serve their communities
The business model is a journalist’s first editor. How a news organization makes and spends money creates just as many boundaries as the editorial strategy that dictates what and how to report. That’s why engaged journalism shouldn’t be limited to an organization’s editorial approach. Engagement should be a central part of the business of journalism.
In some ways it is. Direct public offerings, membership, cooperative structures, and new public funding models are ways journalists are already centering their businesses around the communities they serve. But in order to maintain this foothold, engaged journalism cannot be stagnant. It must continue to innovate. Participatory budgeting is one way to do that.
Participatory budgeting is a way for community members to directly determine how to spend a given budget. It was first used in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 in order to renew trust in government after decades of authoritarian rule. Today, participatory budgeting has been used over 3,000 times in cities across Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America and South America.
In New York City, 31 of the city’s 51 council districts use participatory budgeting to allocate tens of millions of dollars of the city’s discretionary budget.
In Boston, what started as an experiment is now a core part of the city’s youth engagement efforts. Every year, anyone between the ages of 12 and 25 who lives, works, or plays in Boston gets to decide on how the city spends $1 million.
In 2015, Toronto’s public housing agency allocated $1.8 million to 37 community-elected projects.
The results are stronger, more informed communities.
There is an association between participatory budgeting and rising social equity. And the process enables better governance by improving information exchange, leading to more effective public services and reduced corruption.
This is not a new idea. This is a tried and true way to build trust. That’s what should make it so palatable to newsrooms. And it cultivates the local democratic culture that news organizations need to thrive.
Here are a few ways you might use participatory budgeting in your newsroom:
- You’ve received a grant to serve a marginalized community. You can use participatory budgeting to let that community decide what they need from you.
- You’re looking for an exciting way to launch or promote membership. You can make participatory budgeting a benefit for members.
- You need to address a major organizational impropriety. You can ask the community you’ve wronged to help you decide how your reporting resources should be allocated to make your organization more inclusive.
- You want to bridge divides between local institutions and underserved communities. You can collaborate with local government or civic institutions to facilitate a participatory budgeting process on their behalf.
Participatory budgeting might take longer than one or two people making decisions about where to allocate resources. But the process results in more accountability and transparency while simultaneously improving the outcome of the decision. It’s a win-win-win.
The Community Information Cooperative was launched to build and support publicly funded local news and information projects through the establishment of community information districts. Info districts are a type of special service district that are designed by communities and funded by fees charged to residents and businesses. You can read more about info districts here.