participatory budgeting

03/01/2010 § 4 Comments

in the big picture of transitioning from corporate capitalism to a new democratist economy, relatively low hanging fruit is the institution of participatory budgeting (PB).

participatory budgeting is just what it sounds like.  the people democratically budget their tax dollars.

PB has been pioneered in porte alegre since the late ’80s (also the location of the first world social forum), one of brazil’s largest cities w 1.5 million people.  the participatory budgeting process currently controls about 20% of the total municipal budget, including $200 million in funds for construction and services.

today, over 1,200 municipalities across the world have some form of participatory budgeting.  last fall, alderman joe moore of chicago’s 49th ward broke the US barrier by democratizing the allocation of his district’s $1.4 million discretionary budget.

so, how does it work?  im going to lift straight from participatory budgeting project site:

PB generally follow a basic process: diagnosis, discussion, decision-making, implementation, and monitoring. First, residents identify local priority needs, generate ideas to respond to these needs, and elect budget representatives for each community. These representatives then discuss the local priorities and develop concrete projects that address them, together with experts. Next, residents vote for which of these projects to fund. Finally, the government implements the chosen projects, and residents monitor implementation.

For example, if residents identify recreation spaces as a priority, their budget representatives might develop a proposal for a new basketball court. The residents would then vote on this and other proposals, and if they approve the basketball court, the city pays to build it.

in 1988, only 75% of porto alegre households had water and sewage connections.  in the first decade of PB, residents invested in core infrastructure, bringing water to 97% of homes.  even more telling, the health and education budget grew from 13% of city budget in ’85 to almost 40% in 1996.

the only other scenario where u see such a dramatic budgetary shift is with the win of a left wing chavez type who nationalizes oil and puts it into education or something wacky like that.  but without depending on the will of a charismatic authority, participatory budgeting naturally represents the needs of communities.

in chicago’s 49th ward, the scope of budgeting is limited to basic municipal projects like street lights, speed bumps, green space, security cameras (boo), bus shelters etc.  so its not the sexiest power.  but i bet that the 49th ward is going to have the most utilitarian speed bumps and light posts in chicago.

imagine if we had control over the entire boston city budget.  the maddening, pereptual fight over youth jobs funding could be resolved.  and maybe we could hold off on new police cruisers and try to keep community libraries open instead.

talk about the national budget.  while we spend $1.4 trillion on defense and defense-debt (54% of our total discretionary budget), our schools are crumbling, core public services are being cut or privatized, and the economic sky is falling around us.  i saw this bumper sticker: “it will be a great day when the military has to hold a bake sale to buy another bomber.”

anyway, in addition to more equitable, humane budgetary outcomes anticipated from PB, even more critical is the reconfiguration of citizens’ relation to the state.  better than electing politicians and sending them off to make life or death determinations with our money, participatory budgeting could bring power to the people in an act of actual democracy.

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