Graphics by Renee Shuey

Restoring Democracy: Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting can give people real agency over how their government spends its budget.

Letting Go
Proximate
Published in
4 min readJun 30, 2021

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By Meg Massey and Ben Wrobel

In 2014, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page asked an important question: Just how much power does the average person have in setting federal policy? Their study’s introduction put it more bluntly: “Who really rules?”

Their central finding echoed at least half a dozen other studies in the past decade: middle-class Americans have essentially no influence over what their government does. When a federal policy has strong support among the wealthy, the probability of that policy becoming law roughly doubles. But strong support among the middle class has virtually no effect. “In other words,” Giles and Page wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “the well-to-do get the policy outcomes they strongly prefer far more often than do average-income Americans.”

People know when they’re not being heard. Seventy percent of Americans today believe the political system is “rigged,” a sentiment Donald Trump has regularly exploited. This messaging was effective because, in a sense, the criticism is true. Thanks to dark money, voter suppression and a general lack of transparency in the policymaking process, the rich and well connected continue to have outsized influence over our collective future.

Advocates of participatory democracy have a straightforward solution to this problem: Give people real agency over how their government spends its budget.

We talked about participatory budgeting a lot in this book. The operating philosophy behind participatory budgeting is that the best way to solve a problem is to follow the lead of the people who know it best. It narrows the distance that inevitably exists in any form of representative democracy: between mayor and citizen, federal and local, those who govern and those who are governed. According to the Participatory Budgeting Project, participatory budgeting 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.”

After its origins in Brazil in the late 1980s, participatory budgeting came to the United States in the wake of the Great Recession. The first experiments took place in Chicago in 2009, then in New York City two years later. It’s since spread to dozens of cities across the country, funding everything from park improvements and greenhouses to street safety enhancements and technology and infrastructure upgrades for underfunded schools.

Participatory budgeting has many benefits. For instance, it was adopted as an anti-poverty measure in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and ultimately helped reduce child mortality by nearly twenty percent. For the sake of this blog, though, we simply want to show that participatory budgeting is a tool to restore a sense of agency for everyday Americans. It counters the notion that the system is rigged by giving people the chance to influence the system with real teeth behind their decisions.

The cause has recently been taken up by a broader set of activists. The Movement for Black Lives, the organizing group of Black Lives Matter, included in its policy platform a call for participatory budgeting at the local, state and federal level. This framing of participatory budgeting as a racial justice issue is a major step for a policy concept that can sometimes get bogged down in the technicalities of municipal budgeting.

This renewed activism is starting to see results. In 2020, as Seattle was consumed with protests against police brutality, activists issued a demand for a participatory budgeting process alongside their calls to defund the police. In December 2020, the Seattle City Council voted to cut the police budget by eighteen percent and simultaneously to allocate $30 million to a fund that will be distributed via participatory budgeting.

The process will be developed by a Black Lives Matter-affiliated activist group called the Black Brilliance Research Project with support from the Participatory Budgeting Project. The group’s initial “needs assessment” report hints at a set of priorities that involve cutting bloated police budgets and moving resources to needs like housing and mental health support for the formerly incarcerated and treatment for substance abuse.

It’s a plan to “defund the police” that is more substance than slogan–and a way to return agency to communities that feel over-policed and underrepresented.

Fund the solution

  • The Participatory Budgeting Project is a nonprofit that promotes participatory budgeting, primarily in the United States and Canada. Since 2009, it has supported dozens of governments, public institutions, and organizations in launching and deepening participatory budgeting processes. This support ranges from technical assistance to implementing full processes. The Participatory Budgeting Project also runs the Democracy Beyond Elections project. The project maintains a running list of communities that engage in participatory budgeting and invites contributors to get engaged at the local level and with the project itself.
  • Youth Lead the Change is a participatory budgeting project run by the city of Boston that allowed middle and high school students to vote on how they wanted to spend $1 million of the city’s education budget. Youth Lead the Change incorporated young people’s voices into each stage of the decision-making process.
  • People Powered: Global Hub for Participatory Democracy is a nonprofit pushing for participatory budgeting and other democratic processes. Its founder, Josh Lerner, sees a direct parallel between his work and participatory funding in private sector altruism.

Shari Davis is head of the Participatory Budgeting Project. She has a vision, and a way to avoid an “apathetic apocalypse.” Listen to her TEDtalk on participatory budgeting, and learn why it was the way in which she saw democracy actually work for the first time.

Participatory budgeting is now used in more than seven thousand municipalities around the world. Its rise has been a bright spot in an otherwise dismal decade for democracy; amid the rise of authoritarianism, it represents a return to democracy’s roots.

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