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Opinion

Government can't solve budget battles? Let citizens do it.

To resolve the budget battles tearing apart Congress and state and local governments, politicians should look to a new model of citizen involvement: participatory budgeting.

By Daniel Altschuler and Josh Lerner / April 5, 2011



Amherst, Mass. and New York

In recent weeks, Americans have watched budget battles tear apart Congress and state governments. This may be just the beginning.

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As states and cities across the country confront staggering budget shortfalls, they face a double whammy: Voters are already disillusioned with government, and now elected officials have fewer resources to address citizens’ concerns. Recent polls show that Americans are as disgruntled as ever with Congress and both major parties. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has left federal, state, and city legislators short of funds for public goods like education and health care.

Faced with such daunting budget dilemmas, what are politicians to do? Two words: Look south! “Participatory budgeting” (PB), a model popular throughout Latin America, may offer a way to do more with less, and to reconnect citizens with government.

PB gives taxpayers a voice and a vote in how government spends public money. Unlike consultations, PB enables ordinary people to directly decide budget spending. Citizens receive training, identify and prioritize local needs, develop spending proposals, and vote on the proposed projects. Then the government carries out the top proposals, participants monitor progress, and the cycle begins anew.

First developed in Brazil, PB has spread to over 1,200 municipalities around the world. Throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia, it has brought people into the political process, taught them civic skills, and encouraged them to work together. Where the state provides sufficient support – through training, facilitation, and expert guidance – PB can reverse dissatisfaction with government and increase transparency, accountability, and efficiency.

Taking root: Chicago to New York

PB has recently taken root in Canadian and American soils. Chicago’s 49th Ward, for example, uses this process to distribute $1.3 million of annual discretionary funds. The ward’s residents have praised the opportunity to make meaningful decisions, take ownership over the budget process, and win concrete improvements for their neighborhood – from community gardens and sidewalk repairs to street lights and public murals. The initiative proved so popular that the ward’s alderman, Joe Moore, credits PB with helping to reverse his political fortunes. After struggling to win a tight run-off in his last election, Mr. Moore enjoyed a commanding electoral victory in 2011.

Other elected officials are taking note. Following Moore’s successful pilot process, seven other aldermanic candidates who pledged to implement PB won office in Chicago’s February elections. And six more candidates who support the concept are on the ballot in today's run-off elections.

The wave is not stopping in Chicago, either. Elected officials and community leaders elsewhere – from New York City to San Francisco and from Greensboro, N.C. to Springfield, Mass. – are considering launching similar initiatives.

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