Power To The People! (And Settings for Using It Wisely?)

December 12, 2016

Home Reports & Resources Public Engagement/Democracy Reform Power To The People! (And Settings for Using It Wisely?)

From its inception in Brazil in 1989, participatory budgeting (PB) has incorporated, to varying degrees, both direct and deliberative democracy.

In deliberative democracy, citizens become informed about an issue, talk about their concerns and goals, weigh different policy options and find common ground. They may give policy input to public officials, develop action ideas for implementation by other people and organizations or work to implement ideas themselves, or they may engage in some combination of the three. Advocates of deliberative democracy believe in the potential of citizens to be effective learners, advisors and volunteers.

In direct democracy, people have the opportunity to vote on policy questions through initiatives and referenda. Advocates of direct democracy believe in the potential of citizens to be effective public decision makers.

This white paper examines the extent to which North American PB processes are applying deliberative principles and practices, explore the tensions and challenges in making PB more deliberative, suggest questions for further research and offer recommendations for public officials and practitioners for improving their PB processes.

Boosting deliberative engagement in PB processes could have a variety of benefits for communities. First, higher levels of deliberation might produce greater empathy among citizens who hold different opinions or value different things about their communities—and greater understanding between residents and city staff. Second, more deliberative discussions would be more likely to bring to the surface issues of race, religion, class, immigration status and other differences that are always influential but seldom addressed in public life. Finally, the budget ideas produced might be more likely to represent compromises between different groups or opinions, and they might inspire greater efforts by participants to help implement them, beyond the decision to allocate public money.

PB organizers might improve the level and quality of deliberation in their processes in a number of ways:

1. Be more explicit about the importance of deliberation in the process.

In PB rulebooks, in promotional language about the process and in other ways, PB organizers could highlight their intention to foster meaningful deliberation among residents, officials and staff, not just about specific budget ideas but about the broader goals, values and priorities those budget ideas represent. This might change the expectations people (including facilitators) bring to the process and raise the level of deliberation. And while it makes sense that the promotional language about PB emphasizes the right of citizens to choose projects through a vote, the offer of more opportunities to meet with neighbors also seems to bring people to the table. In the 2014–15 cycle, the tactic of holding more neighborhood assemblies was correlated with higher participation in the initial phase of the process.

2. Ensure participants have the chance to share their stories.

A meaningful step in many deliberative processes is that first opportunity for people to talk about who they are and why they care. Describing the assumptions and experiences that underlie their opinions helps people understand each other. This seems to be happening in some neighborhood assemblies and during the early phase of some of the budget committee discussions, especially when process-oriented facilitators are involved; including the expectation that this should be part of the process, allowing the time for it and training facilitators accordingly would make this aspect of deliberation more common in PB.

3. Connect the PB process to a broader discussion of city and/or district goals and priorities.

The allocation of public money ought to reflect, at least in part, the broader choices people are making about their community and how they want to improve it. This discussion seems to be taking place as part of some PB processes but not in others. Ways to accommodate it are several, and they range in scale and ambition:

  • Include a deliberative discussion about needs, goals or choices facing the city/district as part of the neighborhood assemblies.
  • Create a “meeting in a box” kit, including information on how to contribute to the process, for deliberations that can take place as part of the regular meetings of PTAs, neighborhood associations, clubs and other groups.
  • Capitalize on the presence of hyperlocal online forums, such as NextDoor, by encouraging online discussions of goals and priorities.
  • Hold an online crowdsourcing process for residents to brainstorm goals and rank them, using a platform like MindMixer, IdeaScale, OpenTownHall, Peak Democracy, Granicus or Codigital.
  • Connect PB to a city- or district-wide strategic planning process that generates goals and recommendations, which are then shared in neighborhood assemblies and budget committee meetings.
  • Organize a parallel cycle of “thematic PB,” following the lead of many Brazilian cities, that engages citizens in setting priorities for the city budget.

Researchers might also further probe the level and quality of deliberation in PB processes in two main ways:

  • Use surveys to find out from participants the extent to which they learned, shared experiences and considered different ideas and options as part of the PB process. (This research should be done selectively, and in coordination with the local evaluation team, so it does not impede the process, create unnecessary duplication of researchers’ efforts or make participants feel like they are “being studied to death.”)
  • Conduct live observations and transcript analyses of neighborhood assemblies and budget committee meetings.

This report is the companion to “Brazil Has Reduced Inequality, Incrementally—Can We Do the Same?,” which focuses on the intersection of PB and economic inequality. Both draw on the data gathered by local PB researchers and by Public Agenda; on local evaluations of PB processes; and on interviews with public officials, also conducted by Public Agenda.

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