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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Given the recent headlines from Washington and Wisconsin, this may seem like a utopian vision. But PB has worked in countries across the globe for over 20 years. It can work here, too.

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.

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