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Participatory Budgeting Lets New Yorkers Experiment With Economic Democracy

Michelle Chen

A steering committee workshop of the Participatory Budgeting Project.

For many American cities, the budget process is basically fiscal hell, and the politics of plugging potholes and funding schools akin to legislative purgatory. But a tiny miracle just arrived in New York City. Communities are experimenting with Participatory Budgeting, a system for giving local people a say in planning their budget priorities. While it’s no magic bullet, the program marks a small step toward economic democracy in Gotham.

The Participatory Budgeting in New York City (PBNYC) project is just a pilot so far, starting with a pot of a few million dollars. But the main goal is to empower community members, in partnership with participating City Council Members, to decide for themselves what investments their community needs,” according to Community Voices Heard, the project’s leading grassroots coordinating group.

After weeks of intense discussions among thousands of residents, PBNYC announced a number of winners, including playground improvements, a library vending machine, transportation services for seniors. Other proposals ranged from tech equipment for local schools to an ultrasound system for a community hospital. These projects may seem mundane, but the real win in this process is the process itself: people assembling for a meaningful dialogue about how to use their resources. When working-class folks in diverse communities have an inclusive forum to invest public money according to their priorities, they have a mechanism for translating their daily contributions as workers and taxpayers into political efficacy. Who’d have thought that voting to add trash cans on the street or renovate public housing could be a democratic milestone?

Still, what seems like an unprecedented step forward for notoriously mismanaged and politically stagnant U.S. cities is pretty routine in other parts of the world.

Participatory Budgeting was launched more than 20 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil and has spread globally as a model that offers both monetary and spiritual rewards, as Maria Hadden and Josh Lerner explain at Shareable:

PB generally involves a year-long cycle of public meetings. Community members discuss local needs and develop project proposals to meet these needs, then invite the public to vote on which projects get funded.

This innovative model has become popular across Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, and the United Nations has named PB a best practice of democratic governance. Cities, counties, states, schools, and housing authorities have used it to give local people control over public spending.

As with all forms of participatory politics, not every proposal is a winner, and there will always be disagreement. But unlike the shady fiscal roulette that lawmakers often play with your tax dollars, PB gives ordinary people real leverage to direct spending according to their idea of the greater good. Ideally, after all the arguing and negotiations run their course, participants will feel that they’re part of an open process and that all stakeholders, be they officials or ordinary citizens, are committed to a relatively democratic process.

Could it happen in a bureaucratic, highly stratified city like New York? Advocates note that some community members may be reluctant to complicate fiscal sausage-making even further. Some may fear that powerful groups could manipulate or co-opt the process, or just prefer to leave such matters in the hands of professional politicians (perhaps wanting to avoid the kind of chaos associated with state referendum controversies). But for bread-and-butter fiscal matters, PB’s unique benefit is giving communities concrete control over resources that are supposed to belong to them.

Hadden and Lerner point out that this participatory paradigm helps level the playing field” because traditionally underrepresented groups often participate more than usual in PB, which helps direct resources to communities with the greatest needs.” In addition, people grow more invested in the system: Through regular meetings and assemblies, people get to know their neighbors and feel more connected to their city…. Budget assemblies connect community groups and help them recruit members.”

For Community Voices Heard, PB fits into a broader mission of making government more responsive to poor and disenfranchised groups. The organization has also helped lead innovations in publicly sponsored jobs programs for people receiving public assistance. The group is pushing an initiative known as Transitional Jobs, designed to improve upon the traditional dead-end workfare” programs of many state welfare bureaucracies by connecting people to decent-paying, meaningful work and educational programs. According to a recent CVH report, though Transitional Jobs pilots have faced some funding and operational challenges, they have brought an infusion of government resources into progressive workforce programs and generated about 3,000 jobs over two years.

Both PB and Transitional Jobs remain a work in progress. Vincent Villano, Participatory Budgeting and Policy Research Coordinator at CVH, told In These Times:

there is a connection between investing in job creation for low-income communities and the participatory budgeting process. For example, there is a chance that in the future the capital projects that are funded through PB could be built by those who are unemployed or underemployed members of a Council District – like a sweat equity program or something like that. The beauty of the PB process is that the possibilities are endless. … The PB process is still in its infancy here in NYC, but it is completely feasible to imagine a stronger connection between this process and alternative job programs for welfare workers like Transitional Jobs.

But PBNYC is currently constrained by limited funding, Villano said, and programatically, the process in its embryonic form only used capital discretionary funds for bricks and mortar’ projects as opposed to expense discretionary funds which could be used for people, services and programs.’” In other words, it might be a good while before citizen-led budgeting can apply to deeper, long-range economic initiatives to strengthen working-class communities.

But even as an experiment, Participatory Budgeting in New York City demonstrates that, given the resources and power to help shape their economic future, people can change how their communities work – and take credit for making it happen.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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