Participatory Budgeting

At its core, the Occupy Movement looks to (re)democratize a political system whose democratic institutions have fallen prey to some very undemocratic tendencies. The solidification of corporate personhood as defined by two centuries of Supreme Court cases and the revolving door between business and government leadership have created a political environment in which the interests of big business regularly trump the interests of the average American.

Many, mainly on the right, will say that the United States is not a democracy; it’s a republic (i.e. representative democracy). The United States is indeed a representative democracy, but maybe the time has come for the American people to move beyond the constraints of representative democracy by becoming active participants in the decision-making that affects our daily lives. Reforming or reconstructing the system in a way that puts every person, whether an actual human or corporation, on equal footing in the democratic process is not going to be easy. Other proposals have already been forth such as a constitutional amendment to end corporate personhood. I would like to propose participatory budgeting as another incremental, but potentially very powerful step deepening our democratic processes and constructing a truly egalitarian democracy.

Proposal (taken from The Participatory Budgeting Project)

Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. Most examples involve city governments that have opened up decisions around municipal budgets, such as overall priorities and choice of new investments, to citizen assemblies. In other cases, states, counties, schools, universities, housing authorities, and coalitions of community groups have used participatory budgeting to open up spending decisions to democratic participation.

OccupyBoston should pressure city governments across the country to implement PB programs. Moreover, OccupyBoston should use PB style deliberation to allocate funds for the camp and larger campaign.

How It Works

Community members make budget decisions through an annual series of local assemblies and meetings. Although there are many models of participatory budgeting, most follow a basic process: diagnosis, discussion, decision-making, implementation, and monitoring.

  • Residents identify local priority needs, generate ideas to respond to these needs, and choose budget representatives for each community.
  • These representatives discuss the local priorities and develop concrete projects that address them, together with experts.
  • Residents vote for which of these projects to fund.
  • The government implements the chosen projects.
  • Residents monitor the implementation of budget projects.

Why should we have PB?

  • Gives community members a say: Ordinary people have more voice – and they get to make real decisions.

  • Makes for better and more equitable decisions: Local residents know best what they need, and budget dollars are redistributed to communities with the greatest needs.

  • Develops active and democratic citizens: Community members, staff, and officials learn democracy by doing it. They gain more understanding of complex political issues and community needs.

  • Builds communities and strengthens community organizations: Politicians build closer relationships with their constituents. Community members get to know their elected officials and local governments.

  • Makes government more accountable and efficient: When community members decide spending in public assemblies, there are fewer opportunities for corruption, waste, or costly public backlash.

History-PB in Porto Alegre, Brazil

In stark contrast to local, state, and federal government budgeting in the U.S., the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre uses a system of empowered participatory budgeting for allocating its $1.6 billion annual budget. At first glance the system seems to be quite onerous, but in practice has proven extraordinarily effective at providing funds where they are needed and broadening the very definition of democracy.

The budgeting deliberation begins in March with the sixteen administrative regions holding annual meetings during which ordinary residents from the region meet to review and discuss the implementation of the prior year’s budget and decide on regional objectives for the current budget. Delegates are also elected at this initial meeting with the task of holding regular meetings throughout the region over the following three months to hear resident testimony. At the end of the three months, the second annual regional meeting is held in order for the delegates to present a set of regional budget proposals formulated from resident desires and needs. The assembly ratifies proposals and elects two delegates to represent the region at the city-wide Participatory Budgeting Council, which deliberates during the following five months to construct a city-wide budget based on the regional proposals. The entire process is wholly democratic, relying heavily on active citizen participation, and operates within a framework of reasoned deliberation rather than confrontational partisanship.

Since its inception the process has attracted participation from over one hundred thousand citizens of Porto Alegre’s 1.3 million person population and has proven far more effective at providing necessary social provisions for its inhabitants. For example, in 1988, one year before implementation, only 75% of households had access to water and sewage while in 1997 that number had risen to 98%. Moreover, the number of schools increased four fold since 1986. Since 1989, PB has spread to over 1,200 cities in Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. In the US and Canada, this includes PB processes in Toronto, Montreal, Guelph, Chicago, and most recently New York.

PB and Occupy Movement

PB offers a concrete and proven method for democratizing our current system. It may appear to have little significance in a political system dominated by corporate powerhouses, but I believe that it offers a great potential in reversing a long history of political apathy. Letting the people directly allocate discretionary city spending will not by itself revolutionize our political system, but bringing to life a generation of active citizen participants will.