With the presidential campaign front and center and money flowing like manna from heaven the, question of democracy – what it is and whether we can still claim to live in a democratic country – is coming to the fore again.
In these discussions about democracy, descriptions of alternative mechanisms for ordinary citizens to express their thoughts and desires allows considerable interest.
One of the favorite examples of alternative institutions that have made a genuine political difference is the participatory budgeting process in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Here neighborhoods – especially poor neighborhoods-- come together to discuss their needs, to decide what everyone would like to have financed in the coming year. These groups then choose representatives who will meet with representatives from other neighborhoods to determine portions of the coming year's city budget. Once the neighborhood representatives have agreed on a plan, they need to persuade city administrators to adopt the budget as they have formulated it.
Serious issues are decided by the neighborhoods and significant amounts of investment funds are involved. For instance, in one year some people wanted to establish a neighborhood health clinic because at the present time healthcare was only available at a fair distance and not easily accessible to pregnant women, or women with several small children. But there was an alternative project to build a pedestrian overpass at a very busy intersection where four people have been killed in traffic during the previous year. After a good deal of discussion, the representative groups decided that the health clinic was more important and apportionment investment funds to establish it.
Instead of the bureaucrats and technicians in City Hall deciding what the neighborhood needed, citizens of the neighborhood itself determine what fourth most important to them.
It is easy to see that this participatory budgeting project does add a new dimension to the previously existing electoral democracy. The question of what people need in a particular part of town is not decided by representatives chosen to represent citizens with respect to all topics, but is decided by people chosen specifically to advocate for a definite, clearly specified project. The decision of what to build in the next year is made by the people who live in the area not in some centralized city government office.
Participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre has become well-known and is widely regarded as an important model for democratic procedures, at least among liberals and progressives. There are also a number of cities in the United States that practice something they call "participatory budgeting."
One example is participatory budgeting in New York City. The city has a budget of $77 billion. Of those, $30 million are assigned to community decision-making about the budget. That comes to roughly 1/3 of 1% of the total budget "'New York City's participatory budgeting process is a model for empowered, community-based decision-making across the country and around the world, and the City Council is proud to do its part to strengthen and innovate democracy' said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito."
Is that an accurate assessment of New York City's participatory budgeting, or is it propaganda?
In Porto Alegre, citizens in a specific neighborhood choose a favorite project. They then elect a representative whose job it is to consult with representatives from other neighborhoods to select what seems to all the best project. Together these representatives decide what the chief projects should be for that year and go to City Hall to persuade the City Council to adopt their priority. The extent to which neighborhoods have a real voice in budgeting depends on the Mayor and the City Council. Participatory budgeting exists due to a group of voters deliberating together and the officials in the city government respecting those decisions.
In New York City, the process is firmly controlled by the City Counselors. They solicit suggestions and once a list of proposal has been established, citizens vote on the list and choose the proposal to be funded. What is called "participatory budgeting" is more like soliciting suggestions from citizens about very specific and narrowly circumscribed questions that always rather peripheral, limited to schools, libraries, parks.
The project involves such items as carts on which to store computers in schools, or and upgrading of the security system in the public library.
There are two ways of considering these North American projects. One can applaud them because they add another mechanism for democratic control of government by ordinary citizens. But one might also take a more negative view according to which this is a deceptive undertaking which does not, as claimed, "empower" citizens because the traditional distribution of power is unchanged except for one third of 1% of the total budget of the City of New York. Compared to the problems New York City faces in its schools and neighborhoods with poverty, addiction, crimes committed by citizens and by police, the decision to buy computer carts for the local school does not seem to me to empower citizens to participate in running their city.
The language of "participatory budgeting" and "citizen empowerment" is being misused to deceive citizens about the poverty of their democracy.