Participatory Budgeting Comes to (parts of) NYC

Lee Hachadoorian on Sep 15th 2011

The New York Times reports that four City Council members will let their constituents decide how to spend $1 million, in a process known as participatory budgeting. Open meetings will be used to generate ideas, after which constituent volunteers will develop proposals for how to use the money. The four were inspired by similar processes in Chicago and in other countries. In one council district in Chicago where the alderman had instituted participatory budgeting, the constituents not only determined that some of the money should be used for sidewalk repair, they walked the sidewalks to determine where their money should be directed.

The program is limited in that it comes out of the council members’ discretionary funds, money that the council members pretty much get to spend how they see fit. The transparency of the process is a response to criticisms of this broad latitude. This transparency, open discussion, and constituent decision-making, are part and parcel of the free and open source philosophy. We might envision a future where, beyond this $4 million dollars or the total $36 million in Council member discretionary funds, participatory budgeting claims a serious share of the New York City’s $66 billion budget. We might also imagine a future in which this kind of process moves from local government budgeting to state or even national government budgeting. One thing that would help at the local level and would be crucial to implementing this at the state or national level would be to make use information technology and social networking to bring in the widest possible audience of participants. Another would be the use of statistical sampling, so that a small number of participant constituents could make decisions designed to represent the will of the district, state, or nation.

Representative democracy has usually been justified as a necessary compromise due to the impossibility of direct democracy. Participatory budgeting is a way of delegating some decision-making power back to the people within a representative system of government. Could it be a a first step towards true direct democracy?

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