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Participatory Budgeting Lets New Yorkers Experiment With Economic Democracy

Unlike the shady fiscal roulette that lawmakers often play with your tax dollars, PB gives ordinary people leverage to direct spending according to their idea of the greater good.

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The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive  In These Times weekly updates. 

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.

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