Participatory Budgeting

Here’s an example that demonstrates that citizens can effectively grapple with the difficult issue of budgeting. The only piece missing, as far as true ‘government by the people’ is concerned, is that the groups convened to make these decisions should be randomly selected. Otherwise, it is only those who have the time and personal interest who ‘solve’ the community’s issues.

Government can’t solve budget battles? Let citizens do it.

To resolve the budget battles tearing apart Congress and state and local governments, politicians should look to a new model of citizen involvement: participatory budgeting.

13 Responses

  1. The idea sounds more of a plebiscite-based government system than a sortition-based system. All the standard problems of mass politics would be present.

    The tone of the of the opinion piece, BTW, does not confidence. The notion that the problem with government is too much partisan polarization is diametrically opposed to the truth.


  2. Yoram, I think you’re reading more into this than is intended. The authors are pro-PB and have managed to get an article promoting the deliberative approach into the conservative media. That’s a very good thing. PB isn’t government by the people, but rather an adjunct to representative and administrative governance in the selection of projects under a capital budget. That selection should not rest in the hands of lobbyists and elites. I agree that random selection of participants from a community would enhance the process. I think it’s been tried in a few cases.


  3. “PB isn’t government by the people, but rather an adjunct to representative and administrative governance in the selection of projects under a capital budget.”

    Agreed that this is a positive development. Fishkin’s Chinese DP had a similar agenda but had the merit of being randomly selected. Perhaps it should be brought to the attention of PB advocates that the Chinese implementation is more democratic than their own! Regarding the partisan polarisation aspect, there is good research showing that partisan motives interfere with good quality legislation: “For Parliament to spend over a third of its time on partisan point scoring [as recorded by Hansard column inches], in the full knowledge that it would have no effect on the shape of the policy before it, in an over indulgence” (Ingle and Tether, 1981, p.143).


  4. sorry, anonymous was me.


  5. I am certain that the PB advocates are well aware of the possibility of random selection (RS).

    When you talk of partisanship, you are talking about a different context. We’re not talking about parliaments here.

    Community forums tend to attract the perpetually angry and victimised who feel they have to claim a stake in everything. In Brasil, the PB process sets out specifically to attract those kinds of people! So PB sometimes serves a political end that only at the macro level results in equity.

    Agenda aside, administrative governance in China presents a different political and cultural context altogether (I’ve worked with Prof Baogang He who helped organise the project to which you refer–he certainly is a big fan of RS).

    But for PB and Citizens Jury initiated in Europe, N America or Australia where I am, there is no doubt that RS is a necessary feature of those processes.


  6. Direct Allocation Governance

    Grass roots governance is a Jeffersonian ideal. Voting allows grass roots input to leadership choice. Direct factional allocation governance allows grass roots governance of federal spending.

    Every citizen receives an equal amount of “allocation funds”. These “funds” are not real dollars. They are theoretical expenditure dollars for determining government expenditures. The total of all citizen assigned “allocation dollars” determines proportional federal spending.

    For example, each citizen receives 2400 units “allocation funds”. Citizens choose or define categories where funds may be committed. A citizen divides the 2400 allocation units between these categories in an effective vote for government expenditure. (Federal budget categories)

    For example, the 2008 presidential budget commits 2400 allocation units as follows: social security (608), department of defense (481), medicare (386), unemployment/welfare (324), interest on the debt (261), medicade and child health (209), global war on terror (145). A citizen “votes” the president budget, a party (red/blue) budget, or a citizen’s own custom budget.

    Direct factional allocation governance allows the citizen to “vote” budget expenditures and obligates the federal government to holding these expenditures. This permits direct citizen Jeffersonian democratic governance of federal budget decisions.

    When service in a restaurant suffers, more waiters are needed. When fire breaks out everywhere, more fire fighters are needed. When crime becomes rampant, more police are needed. When democracy morphs to elected oligarchy and America lacks governance, send help to the few surviving democratic representatives. More representatives are needed. More presidents are needed. The antidote to corruption of power is disbursement of power. Democracy disburses power. Step it up, America. Be proactive. Check out plan-b.

    Citizen is coach to team democracy. Coach is responsible for success. It’s your call, coach.
    Seeking presidential candidate (for one of 9 elected executive branch presidents) 2016


  7. I’d suggest that participatory budgeting is well worth a closer look.

    Here’s some overview information from the Participatory Budgeting Project in New York (

    “Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. Most examples involve city governments that have opened up decisions around municipal budgets, such as overall priorities and choice of new investments, to citizen assemblies. In other cases, states, counties, schools, universities, housing authorities, and coalitions of community groups have used participatory budgeting to open up spending decisions to democratic participation.

    How does it work?
    Community members make budget decisions through an annual series of local assemblies and meetings. Although there are many models of participatory budgeting, most follow a basic process: diagnosis, discussion, decision-making, implementation, and monitoring.

    Residents identify local priority needs, generate ideas to respond to these needs, and choose budget representatives for each community.
    These representatives discuss the local priorities and develop concrete projects that address them, together with experts.
    Residents vote for which of these projects to fund.
    The government implements the chosen projects.
    Residents monitor the implementation of budget projects.

    For example, if residents identify recreation spaces as a priority, their budget representatives might develop a proposal for a new basketball court. The residents would then vote on this and other proposals, and if they approve the basketball court, the city pays to build it.”

    Where has it worked?
    The Brazilian city of Porto Alegre started the first full PB process in 1989, for the municipal budget. In Porto Alegre, as many as 50,000 people have participated each year, to decide as much as 20% of the city budget. Since 1989, PB has spread to over 1,200 cities in Latin America, North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. In the US and Canada, this includes PB processes in Toronto, Montreal, Guelph, and Chicago.

    What are the benefits?
    Elected officials, community organizations, academics, and international institutions such as the United Nations and World Bank have declared PB a model for democratic government. Why?

    Gives community members a say
    Ordinary people have more voice – and they get to make real decisions.

    Makes for better and more equitable decisions
    Local residents know best what they need, and budget dollars are redistributed to communities with the greatest needs.

    Develops active and democratic citizens
    Community members, staff, and officials learn democracy by doing it. They gain more understanding of complex political issues and community needs.

    Builds communities and strengthens community organizations
    People get to know their neighbors and feel more connected to their city. Local organizations get to spend less time lobbying, and more time deciding policies themselves. Budget assemblies connect groups and attract new members.

    Connects politicians and constituents
    Politicians build closer relationships with their constituents. Community members get to know their elected officials and local governments.

    Makes government more accountable and efficient
    When community members decide spending in public assemblies, there are fewer opportunities for corruption, waste, or costly public backlash.


  8. David,

    Your use of terms like “residents” and “community members” masks an important issue… WHICH residents? While participatory budgeting may (or may not) be better than leaving decisions to elected elites, self-selection is a serious flaw. It is exactly this self-selection distortion (whether in a participatory system, or an electoral system) that sortition is intended to remedy.


  9. It’s not my use of the terms – it’s from the web site (I made a mistake and put the close quote in the middle instead of at the end).

    I agree that the question of “which residents” (“who constitutes the demos?”) is an important one. The PB experiments I know of are open to all citizens/residents in a jurisdiction, and make special efforts to reach out to the most marginalized folks.

    From what I’ve read so far, my impression is that participatory budgeting is generally a LOT better than leaving decisions to elected elites, both in terms of democracy and distributive justice.

    If I remember right, you included some self-selection in your proposed agenda setting process. What role do you think self-selection should play, in general? When is it a dangerous distortion of descriptive representation, and when is it an empowering opportunity for ordinary people to play a meaningful role in government?


  10. David,

    There is a tension between these principles…
    1. “If a decision will affect your life, you should have a say in that decision, and the greater the impact, the greater your input.”
    2. “If we leave decisions to those most affected, (and thus most motivated) there will always be a bias that favors special interests at the expense of society generally.”

    The way I propose to reconcile these is to allow (and even assist) those most affected (self-selection) to participate in crafting proposals, while leaving the ultimate decision to fully representative bodies of the general population.

    This formulation assumes that disadvantaged minorities have a fair chance to appeal to the decision makers and persuade them of the justice of their cause. I think this is truer in a deliberative democracy than in an electoral one.

    Thus I think I would favor participatory budgeting (and other participatory procedures), that provide input, but where ultimate decision-making authority resides with an allotted body.


  11. I’m doubtful that those most affected will necessary correlate with self-selection — I think other factors come into play whenever self-selection is used. Very often those most affected will not have the background and resources to self-select, so you end up privileging those with the biggest mouth. At least with elections those most affected can choose the big-mouth that appeals to them most.


  12. When it comes to budgeting, I am all for the taxpayer deciding which agencies will get their money. On the tax form there would be the agencies and the taxpayer would state what percentage goes to the agencies they want to support.


  13. Terry, you wrote, “There is a tension between these principles…
    1. “If a decision will affect your life, you should have a say in that decision, and the greater the impact, the greater your input.”
    2. “If we leave decisions to those most affected, (and thus most motivated) there will always be a bias that favors special interests at the expense of society generally.”

    That’s an interesting and important point. Here are two more thoughts.

    There’s a close relationship between “people affected” and “people interested,” but they’re not necessarily the same. As Keith points out, some people greatly affected by a proposed law may not be interested in participating in decisions about it, for a variety of reasons. Conversely, there are people who are passionately interested in issues that don’t affect them personally very much. So, I’d suggest that both factors (degree affected, and degree of interest) should be taken into account.

    Also, “degree affected” hides some important distinctions about the nature of the “effect.” Suppose that someone proposes a change to the tax rate on the highest brackets of income and wealth. You could argue that the people most affected, by far, are the very wealthiest people. Should they have the majority of the decision making power?


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