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How should Paris spend its budget? Locals now get to choose.

In September, Parisians will get to vote directly on how to spend 75 million euros of the city budget, in a bid to tap citizens' knowledge of what their city needs.

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    Padlocks attached by lovers are seen on the fence of the Passerelle Leopold-Sedar-Sengho­r over the River Seine in Paris.
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France might be the model of a centralized state, with its capital’s grip on administrative power near absolute.

But the city of Paris is undertaking one of the biggest experiments of its kind in putting financial power in the hands of the people.

Parisians have been given control of 5 percent of the city’s investment budget, in what leaders tout as the largest “participatory budgeting” experiment in the world – and one they hope will bolster faith in the democratic process.

The concept of “participatory budgeting,” at its most basic, is to give community members the power to directly decide how to spend part of a public budget, in order to tap into citizens' knowledge as the users of the space they inhabit.

“One of the things you find over and over again is that policymakers and politicians overestimate what they think is their knowledge about citizens’ needs,” says Tiago Peixoto, a global expert in participatory budgeting at the World Bank.

The idea dates back as far as 1989 in Brazil, where it is still thriving. In the '90s, after international bodies such as the World Bank and United Nations promoted its emphasis on direct democracy and citizen empowerment, it spread around the globe, moving from the realm of alternative policymaking to mainstream tool.

It has taken off only recently in Europe, however, growing from 300 such budgets in 2010 to more than 1,300 three years later, says Mr. Peixoto.

Paris's foray into participatory budgeting could be key to the idea's fortunes in Europe, both because of the project's size – nearly 500 million euros during the next six years – and Paris’s global visibility.

In all, Parisians have submitted 5,115 projects, and the ones that were technically and legally feasible were unveiled this month. The projects range from grand to granular.

One calls for Paris’s famed Champs-Elysees to be revitalized, making it more attractive to pedestrians, at a cost of 14.5 million euros. Another conceives of an “afterlife” for the discarded “love locks” removed from Paris’s iconic bridges this summer. Other ideas include better facilities for state-run daycare, at a cost of 500,000 euros, and new collaborative spaces where the unemployed can go to look for jobs, in part to break the isolation of jobseekers, at a cost of 1 million euros.

Ideally, participatory budgets act as a way to educate the public about what projects are possible , and help poorer neighborhoods secure more civic investment. Paris has held numerous consultations to help residents propose workable solutions for the city. And now, in September, they will vote to decide which projects will be funded from the 75 million euros earmarked for the 2015 budget.

The money is not divided according to need. The budget is divided among citywide projects and each of the 20 arrondissements that comprise Paris. The arrondissement budgets are calculated as matching funds for how much money each local mayor decides to put into the proposed project.

Fostering faith in government

In the grand Hotel de Ville, which has been the seat of municipal governance since the 14th century, the organizing team says it hopes the budget will help create a collaborative city, and act as a tool to bolster trust in elected officials.  

“In a context of citizen distrust … the mechanisms for participation devices are probably one of the solutions to rebuild confidence,” says Pauline Véron, the deputy mayor of Paris who is spearheading the project, in comments sent via e-mail.

It is hard to measure that trust-building directly, says Peixoto, who has studied the impacts of participatory budgeting around the world. Some of the most positive outcomes, seen in various African cities as well as in Russia and Brazil, have shown an increase in city or town coffers.

“Citizens start to see where the money goes,” says Peixoto, “and they are more likely to pay taxes.”

Other studies, comparing municipalities in Brazil with and without participatory budgeting, showed that it led to a reduction in infant mortality, because mothers participating in the budget demanded better health services.

Paris began its own experiment in 2014, though last year, citizens did not generate the ideas but instead voted on ones  the city conceived. Still, Paris saw it as a success: 40,000 residents participated, and the projects, ranging from urban vegetation to the renovation of city kiosks, have gotten under way. This year, some 560,000 have participated so far.

Julien Talpin, an expert in participatory democracy at the University of Lille 2, says other such projects have failed amid resistance in France to the general idea of decentralization. “The political culture is such that there is a reluctance among politicians to share the power, at every level,” he says.

Yet, the scope of Paris’s plan is notable, he says, because the bigger a participatory budget is, the more power it gives the people. “It is ambitious,” he says. “It’s the most ambitious project in Europe. We’ll have to see what comes of it.”

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