Let's make every budget 'participatory'
Apr 03, 2012 | 2211 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
There's a new experiment in hyper-local democracy taking place in New York City.

Four City Council members, for the first time ever, let their constituents decide how a portion of their discretionary funds would be allocated, instead of using their own discretion.

Council members Brad Lander and Jumanne Williams of Brooklyn, Eric Ulrich of Queens, and Melissa Mark-Viverito of Manhattan all took part in participatory budgeting, whereby through a series of workshops and assemblies they gathered ideas and suggestions on what projects should be funded in their districts, and then let their constituents vote on what items were most important.

In the case of Lander, over 2,200 people voted at various locations throughout his district. As a result, P.S. 124 will be getting two bathrooms fixed, a community composting pile near the Gowanus Canal will be created to convert one ton of food waste into soil each day, and hundreds of new trees will be planted, among many other projects.

Obviously, participatory budgeting isn't a perfect process. Groups and civic associations that can mobilize membership to get out and vote will have a definite advantage in getting pet projects funded.

Meanwhile, worthwhile projects that may have a huge impact in underserved and less vocal communities could go unaddressed.

But in reality, that is already the case. It is generally the most vocal and politically active communities that get discretionary funds, not because they vote in participatory budgeting, but because they vote at the polls each election.

Discretionary funds are often used to placate - even reward - loyal constituents, and this alienates people and communities that are not comfortable with the political process or holding press conferences or even interacting with their local elected officials.

And there is still the issue of managing expectations. Many large-scale projects must go through a rigorous city process that involves bidding for various contracts and approvals from city agencies, but again, that is already the case.

In the end, participatory budgeting takes the decision of how city funds will be spent out of the hands of one person and puts it in the hands of many. It is their money, after all.

Let's hope that all 51 City Council members agree and take part in the process next year.

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