Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in the Digital Age

In the latest edition of The GovLab’s Ideas Lunch series, Dr. Hollie Russon Gilman, the author of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America, explained the concept of Participatory Budgeting (PB), its advantages and various different examples of its implementation in the United States and around the world. She also discussed the rising trend of civic experiments occurring across the country. Gilman’s book is the first comprehensive academic treatment of PB in the United States.

PB refers to the process through which citizens and local officials come together to strategize how to direct government funding toward public priorities. A common implementation of PB involves a group of citizens working with local officials to develop a list of priorities and the larger community voting to decide how to allocate funds based on proposed projects.  The results of this process are fully transparent and then implemented into policy.

While still considered a governance innovation that has yet to achieve wide-scale adoption, PB is not new. In 1989, after nearly 20 years of military rule, the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre sought to encourage popular participation in governance and redirect greater government resources towards the poor. It was the first implementation of what came to be known later as Participatory Budgeting. Since then, there have been over 1,500 instances of PB across 5 continents, including several examples in the US, starting with one Alderman’s district in Chicago in 2009.

Hollie Gilman at The GovLab Ideas Lunch

During her talk, Gilman documented a number of different types of civic innovation  experiments . For example, civic crowdfunding in Central Falls, Rhode Island  (when the city worked with Citizenvstor and citizens to raise $10,000 and install trash bins in a picturesque public park in the city). And some can happen on a large scale, such as the city of Paris moving to let Parisians decide how to spend €500 million on the city over the next 6 years.

However  irrespective of the scale, the intention behind PB is to create a new path for citizens to be involved in governance. It is, as Gilman explained, “additive and not a replacement for government”.

Key Takeaways

During her talk, Gilman discussed five key takeaways regarding the expanding use and understanding of PB.

  1. Elected Officials’ Apprehensions About Cost and Participation

Gilman argued that not all government officials who have not yet adopted it are against the concept PB. Rather, they are often afraid that the costs may be prohibitive, and that people will not get involved. But cities, including New York City, have shown that not only do people choose to get involved, but they also keep coming back.

  1. Experimentation and Scaling

There needs to be room for experimenting with small pilots to test the effectiveness of PB in various contexts. These pilots should be built with an eye toward the specific needs of the region in which it is being implemented meaning that approaches cannot be blindly copied from other contexts. Simply scaling up small, ultra-localized efforts – what Gilman calls  “toilets and trees” projects – may not work  on a larger scale simply because the participation may not be as robust.

  1. Incentives

Gilman discussed strategies for motivating people to embrace PB both within government and among the citizenry.
For governments, a correlation between the willingness among citizens to pay taxes and PB can be a key incentive for government and local officials to implement the strategy. Additionally, there is potential for more straight-forward electoral benefits (i.e., reelection) for government officials who implement PB as a result of citizen goodwill catalyzed through PB-enabled financial transparency and citizen engagement.

For citizens, Gilman believes that there is significant motivation arising from a) the ability to control where a subset of their tax money is spent; and b) the ability to see for themselves if that money actually gets spent there. This motivation has been evidenced by multiple instances in which people have not only devoted the time to take part in the voting process, but have also played an active role in working on the ground to fix problems in their localities that were targeted during PB initiatives.

  1. Additional Advantages

Participatory Budgeting makes people more aware of the functioning of their local governments and the critical areas of interest in the region. At the same time people also learn some basic technological skills if the process of budgeting and voting is made online. Participatory budgeting, therefore, can be a vehicle of civic and tech education for citizens.

  1. Policy Recommendations

In the United States in particular, there is already traction in the open government space especially after President Obama’s Open Government initiative. Gilman argued that we must engage and harness diverse expertise that already exists in society, but  there is also a need to expand our notion of what it means to be an expert by including people with hyper-local context specific knowledge. One potential method  to do this according to Gilman, is to set up a centralized federal office devoted to engaging more citizens in governance.

About Hollie Gilman

Hollie Russon Gilman is a Postdoctoral Research Scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs where she is co-teaching a new course on Technology and the Future of Governance and Public Policy. She is a fellow at New America and Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Innovation and Governance.  Hollie most recently served as Open Government and Innovation Advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and holds a PhD in Government from Harvard University..

About Democracy Reinvented

Democracy Reinvented places participatory budgeting within the larger discussion of the health of U.S. democracy and focuses on the enabling political and institutional conditions. Gilman presents theoretical insights, in-depth case studies, and interviews to offer a compelling alternative to the current citizen disaffection and mistrust of government. She offers policy recommendations on how to tap online tools and other technological and civic innovations to promote more inclusive governance. Gilman suggests practical ways to empower citizens to become change agents. Democracy Reinvented also includes a discussion on the challenges and opportunities that come with using digital tools to re-engage citizens in governance.”

Cover of Democracy Reinvented

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