Should Governments Let the People Decide How Public Money is Spent?

  1. What is Participatory Budgeting?
  2. The Benefits and Challenges
  3. Joe Moore, 49th Ward, Chicago
  4. Thurston County, Washington, USA
  5. Participatory Budgeting for Environmental Justice?

Participatory budgeting is a process that gives the public the power to decide over how to spend a portion of public money. How does it work and what are the results?

Image by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

This article focuses on the process of participatory budgeting and whether it successfully creates better societies and increases trust in political participation processes.

What is Participatory Budgeting?

Participatory budgeting is a technique which originated in Brazil with a pilot project in Porto Alegre in 1989. This helped improve the city’s infrastructure and equalise access to it after years of unequal developments; infrastructure improvements also had a knock-on effect of improving enrollment numbers in schooling.

Participatory budgeting has now spread globally and has proved especially effective at involving citizens in local level government budgeting.

It begins with the government allocating some of their budget to be spent using participatory budgeting. This may be a lump sum or a percentage of the overall budget.

The government provides information on current issues and budget needs which citizens discuss and allocate funds to. Although the ultimate adoption of the budget requires the government’s approval, this is often signed over during the original budget allocation.

The budget plan is then implemented and its progress is fed back to the citizens. This process may occur as a one off or cyclically (e.g. once per year).

The Benefits and Challenges

One of the most attractive reasons to implement a participatory budgeting process is the fact that it involves members of the community it is supposed to aid. This can involve special outreach towards under-represented or under-resourced demographics within a community to make sure their voices are heard.

However, this is also a key challenge. It is important to ensure that the process is not dominated by one demographic or by those the existing system already serves. Participatory budgeting is an opportunity to do things differently.

Through involving the public, participatory budgeting helps to increase the sense of ownership over a local area and a feeling of beng heard and taken seriously by those in power. This can help to increase public trust in political institutions which may contribute to greater participation in other political processes including voting. During a time of decreasing trust in politics and falling voter turnout, this is a key lesson.

Another challenge to the participatory budgeting process is that the government must give people the skills and tools they need to make informed decisions on budgeting. This does not mean that the government influences the public into making the decisions they want them to, it means they ensure that they have the knowledge they need to most effectively participate in the process.

This is a challenge as some people may be less enthusiastic about participating if they knew they had to do background reading or budgeting courses. Therefore, messaging is key in the participatory budgeting process. People must know the value of sharing their opinions and that this isn’t just another box-ticking exercise so a local government can say they have listened to people. There also potentially needs to be practical support and pay for the time people give to participate in the process.

Image by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

Here are some case studies highlighting how participatory budgeting is being used and whether it is effective.

Joe Moore, 49th Ward, Chicago

The first known use of participatory budgeting in the US was in 2009 by Joe Moore, the Chicago City Council alderman representing the 49th Ward in Chicago.

A leading NGO, the ‘Participatory Budgeting Project’ helped Moore to embrace participatory budgeting and allow the public to decide how to spend his annual discretionary funding of $1.3 million. Moore believed this would hep him to connect with and empower his constituents after he nearly lost re-election.

The public responded in an overwhelmingly positive manner and Moore continued to use participatory budgeting. In 2011 and 2015, Moore was re-elected, showing that participatory budgeting increases the public’s faith in decision makers who listen.

In 2019, Moore lost an election but this wasn’t a loss for participatory budgeting. The election winner was Maria Haddan, a founding board member of the Participatory Budgeting Project.

This is a good example of how participatory budgeting can work on a relatively large scale and with a relatively large budget. Targeting the use of discretionary funds is a good idea for participatory budgeting activists as the use of these funds would seem relatively low risk to decision makers and they may really respond to the idea that it will increase public trust in politics and support for their leadership.

Thurston County, Washington, USA

Thurston County in Washington, USA decided to begin a participatory budgeting exercise when they knew thier projected revenues wouldn’t cover existing services.

They used an online platform to ask residents how they would spend $500 of the county’s budget as a representation of how the public would like the total budget allocated.

This helped them gain an understanding of spending priorities from residents’ point of view and this was used to change funding priorities.

However, this is a good case highlighting some of the pitfalls of the participatory budgeting process. Firstly, citizens were not given actual authority over a budget, their hypothetical answers merely advised decision makers. This has limited effect and does not give people the same sense of agency and being heard, potentially then missing out on the positive effects of greater participation in other areas.

Additionally, their online process only gained 350 responses. Even if these people were somehow demographically proportional to the county’s population, they cannot be truly representative as people within demographics can have very different views.

Although the process did influence the county’s budget, this shows that participatory budgeting requires more focus to be most effective.

Participatory Budgeting for Environmental Justice?

Urban environments contain ingrained injustices. This often involves the amenities and resources available to certain demographics being neglected repeatedly over time. In the UK, this is typically more related to class and income but in the US, this is often linked to systemic racism.

Nikki Canning of the University of Washington’s College of the Environment highlights Seattle’s attempts to rectify long-term segregation through participatory budgeting. Since 2018, Seattle has designated specific funding to participatory budgeting but Canning and others argue that the scale is limited and therefore it will not significantly address inequalities.

For example, it has often focused on improving specific parks which has a significant but limited effect. Activist organisations even claim that the city government is unable to address inequalities as it is a product of entrenched racist dynamics.

Canning highlights an early example of participatory budgeting in New York in which a dog park was prioritised over housing improvements. The next year, activists adapted their strategy and campaign, resulting in successfully funding the housing improvements.

This demonstrates that participatory budgeting involves many of the elements of traditional political election campaigns. Issues must be communicated in the right way if they are to capture the public’s attention.

Overall, participatory budgeting offers an interesting way of doing things differently. There are now many case studies of success from all over the world and it has the potential to help to address the public’s falling trust in politics and government. It has the ability to make people heard and directly show them their views can lead to action.

The main question remaining for participatory budgeting is how to ingrain it in budget management in the long term, and whether it works on a larger scale. Some examples have used relatively large budgets and geographical areas but scale should continue to be explored.

About the author: Lilybell Evergreen is an International Studies student who influences European political policy through work with the Council of the Baltic Sea States and the OSCE. She is also an Editor at Youth Politician and has won an international policy paper prize. See her LinkedIn here.