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.
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In the coming months, organizations in these and other cities are holding public forums on PB. They hope to inspire local officials to share meaningful decision-making power with their constituents, while encouraging community groups to demand a place at the budgeting table. Examples in Latin America have already shown that both factors – committed officials and motivated community groups – are essential to effective participatory budgeting.Skip to next paragraph
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PB can work at national, state levels
And PB is not just for municipal governments. In other countries, states, counties, housing authorities, and schools have also used it to allocate public budgets. American officials should follow suit.
Governors, for instance, could create pilot programs to ensure citizen participation in state infrastructure spending decisions. At the federal level, the Obama administration could use PB to disburse funds in departments with a history of promoting citizen involvement, such as Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). HUD, for instance, could encourage housing authorities to conduct PB with residents. Toronto’s housing authority has been doing this since 2001.
PB has bipartisan appeal
At its heart, PB exemplifies two bipartisan ideals: transparent, effective service delivery and civic engagement. Both Democrats and Republicans are striving to get the most out of depleted resources and serve citizens’ needs as efficiently as possible. PB has a proven track record of rising to this challenge, by injecting public scrutiny, knowledge, and creativity into budgeting.
PB’s other starting point – maximizing civic participation – also has bipartisan appeal. Republicans have long advocated voluntarism and service, while President Obama has emphasized civic engagement – that democracy is about “we” rather than “I”, and that government is “us” not “them.”
At a time when our country seems as divided as ever, PB offers a concrete policy idea to spur citizen involvement and constructive public debate. If we heed the lessons from previous experiments, this model could bring citizens and officials together, to discuss real issues and make difficult decisions.
Daniel Altschuler is a Copeland Fellow at Amherst College and a doctoral candidate in politics at the University of Oxford. He is currently organizing a public forum on PB in Springfield, Mass. Josh Lerner is co-director of The Participatory Budgeting Project and a PhD candidate in politics at the New School for Social Research.