ON THE AGENDA | NOVEMBER 8TH, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

Get Ready for Messy Democracy: Public Officials on Participatory Budgeting

What motivated public officials to try participatory budgeting? Did it help improve their relationship with constituents? What were the other benefits and challenges they encountered?

Whatever the outcome of today, it's been clear for a while that the public is seeking a greater voice in the decisions that affect them, both locally and nationally. And it's not just the public. Elected officials are frustrated with the state of public engagement as well, as we saw firsthand in a 2012 project with California officials.

As such, many public officials are experimenting with new ways to connect with their constituents and involve them in decision making. One of the most promising new processes is participatory budgeting, or PB, which enables residents to directly decide how to spend public money.

PB started in Brazil and came to the United States in 2009, when one ward in Chicago used the process. In 2015-2016, 47 cities or city council districts in the U.S. and Canada used PB. Recent numbers show that in 2014-15 alone, over 70,000 people voted on how to spend $43 million through PB.

We were curious to see what elected officials had to say about PB, so we asked, in a series of 43 confidential interviews with elected officials across the country, 28 of whom had used PB and 15 who had not.

We wanted to know: What motivated them to try it? Did it help improve their relationship with constituents? What were the other benefits and challenges they encountered? Last week, we released the results of these in the report, "Let the People Decide: Elected Officials on Participatory Budgeting."

While PB is all about budgeting, the officials we spoke to were not typically motivated to adopt PB out of a desire to make budgeting more responsive to community needs. Rather, they were worried about constituents’ political apathy and lack of knowledge of how government works. As one official said, "The number one goal is to bring people back into the governmental process. If you look at our election returns, they’re embarrassing. PB brings in a wide cross-section of people for a lot of different reasons. And in doing that they become re-energized and re-believing in the governmental process."

Most officials said when they first heard about PB, they saw an opportunity to educate constituents, energize them to get more involved in local political affairs and build better relationships with them.

The process seems to have worked in that regard. Most officials we interviewed said their PB processes generated excitement and engaged residents who previously were less politically involved. One official said, “There are constituents who are deeply cynical about elected officials. When they see you actively seeking participation in a process of budgeting, it reinforces their confidence in their elected officials and in political institutions.” Some officials discussed examples of participants’ learning how to advocate for their interests and building leadership skills through PB.

At the same time, many officials said PB sometimes frustrated residents by revealing government inefficiencies, though some saw this as a learning opportunity for both residents and government.

Talking about their own work, interviewees reflected that their PB processes had helped them understand and respond better to their residents’ concerns. Generally, interviewees felt PB improved their political prospects, even in instances when officials encountered criticism from those residents who felt the process was not serving them.

PB is not without its challenges. In particular, officials we spoke to cited the need for adequate time, money and staff to implement PB, with one official calling the process "cumbersome." While PB is a heavy lift, officials felt the process was nevertheless worth continuing. As one official said, "I kept on hearing from other officials that every ounce of energy, and money, and whatever staff time was put into it, you get three- or fourfold back."

There's no easy fix for the frustrations with our democratic process. Many argue that, for PB to have a real impact on the relationship between elected officials and the public, we ought to consider allocating larger budgets to the practice.

There are also concerns that PB will still benefit mainly the affluent and well-connected, and alienate more disadvantaged residents. Several officials discussed the challenges of ensuring their processes were not dominated by the most advantaged groups in their jurisdictions. Some of the officials we spoke to who had not decided to use PB in their communities also said current forms of PB in the U.S. give residents a false sense of empowerment.

Regardless, most officials with PB experience were looking forward to improving their processes in years to come. One official said, “As we evolve on this process it becomes a more refined product which I'm sure over the years will become very, very effective.”

As we advise elected officials in the report, when considering PB or any other more deliberative form of public engagement, get ready for messy democracy. Public engagement efforts can bring out the best in community residents and create public spirit. They can also reveal conflicts and upset existing power brokers. Be prepared.


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