Friday, November 26, 2010

sharing power over public resources - participatory budgeting

Shareable | With city governments now declaring bankruptcy and cutting vital services, local officials may be wise to take the lead from Brazil and get their constituents directly involved in tough budgetary decisions. Politicians can be pressured to fund bank bailouts over health care by their campaign contributors, but their constituents won’t.

Long before the global finance crisis, residents of Porto Alegre, Brazil were having trouble getting essential services from their government. The city was bankrupt and residents were lacking proper sewage, clean water, and other necessary infrastructure due to rampant corruption. In order to more equitably and efficiently distribute scarce public funds, Porto Alegre became the first town to formally adopt a process called participatory budgeting. This process allows its residents to directly decide how public funds will be spent though open deliberation in budget assemblies and voting. Since 1989, when the program started, city-wide participation in budgetary decision-making increased from 1,000 to over 50,000, while doubling the town’s access to many essential services.

Now over 1200 local governments across the world use participatory budgeting, including most municipalities in Brazil, several other Latin American countries, Europe, and a smattering of towns in Canada, Africa, and Asia. Peru, the U.K. and the Dominican Republic have national participatory budgeting laws that apply to all their local governments, and the UN acknowledges participatory budgeting as a core component of good democratic governance.

Yet this process remained largely unheard of in the U.S. until last year when it sprouted up in an unlikely place, Chicago’s 49th Ward, a community which speaks over 80 different languages within two square miles. Last year, residents of the ward, invited by their city representative Joe Moore, made proposals and voted on its $1.3 million discretionary budget for capital infrastructure. At a series of neighborhood assemblies, residents brainstormed project ideas and selected representatives who would transform those ideas into concrete proposals. Representatives split into six thematic issue committees to spend four months meeting with experts, conducting research, and developing budget proposals before the big vote. As Moore wrote in a letter to his constituents, it "exceeded even my wildest dreams. It was more than an election. It was a community celebration and an affirmation that people will participate in the civic affairs of their community if given real power to make real decisions." Now some candidates in Chicago’s other wards are running on a participatory budgeting platform.

Participatory budgeting as a model usually allows residents to propose, discuss, and vote on public spending projects. It is frequently initiated to address resource inequalities, as well as corruption in the budget allocation process and lack of transparency and accountability. It can also have the potent side effect of creating a more engaged and empowered citizenry through a taste of direct democracy. Fist tap Dale.

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