- Could Participatory Budgeting Work in the United States?
The town of Lawrence, original home of the Bread and Roses strike of 1912, sits on the Merrimack River, about thirty miles North of Boston. Once a relatively well-to-do center of textile manufacturing, today Lawrence presents a typical scenario of urban blight.1 De-industrialization, white flight and declining tax revenues have left the town with sparse resources and a more marginalized population. By 2005, Lawrence had become the 23rd poorest community in the United States. Roughly 3/4 of residents are Latino or Black and 1/3 live below the poverty line.2 Like other poor towns in otherwise wealthy New England states, Lawrence's fortunes were tied to earlier economic modes. Today, the town finds itself divided between a dwindling white minority and a growing immigrant population that is neither adequately served by local services nor represented in city council.
In 1999, an emerging community development corporation, Lawrence Community Works (LCW) began a campaign around the city's revitalization. Out of citizen discussion groups in 2003, the campaign took on garbage pile-ups in the town's numerous vacant lots and alleys. The city did not take responsibility for the issue and residents wound up buying their own dumpsters and literally cleaning up the garbage themselves. In 2004, this led to a standoff between activists and city administration over garbage collection and the city's sanitation budget. Community members began to ask new questions about the city budget: who decides it, and how do their priorities reflect community demands? As two activists from LCW recall, "The group realized that the issue here wasn't just trash; it was the way that the city was making decisions about how to spend its money. The issue was the budget."3
LCW has since made budgeting more and more central to its organizing. Its PODER leadership institute, which graduates 25 community activists a year, emphasizes the city budget. Its 2005 graduates created a bilingual "People's Guide" to the city budget,4 which examines and explains the components of Lawrence's budget, pointing out moments in the yearly cycle where participation is possible but seldom occurs, and contrasting it with more participatory processes elsewhere. LCW has increasingly pressured a recalcitrant city hall into ensuring more citizen participation in the budget. LCW activists now monitor the yearly budget cycle, and with a few allies in city government, they have started a campaign for participatory budgeting.
Participatory budgeting is a process in which citizens directly and democratically decide how to allocate part of a budget. Although its most famous case is the municipality of Porto Alegre in Brazil, participatory budgeting is also practiced in hundreds of other cities around the world. Though these experiences vary in design and functioning, they have all opened up a portion of public spending (normally from the capital budget) to the citizen mandate. Participants at local meetings decide on specific projects and investment priorities, which are then implemented by local governments and monitored by the same participants.
For community activists and allies, participatory budgeting represents a chance for real citizen decision-making and oversight over issues that matter. As Jaqueline Leavy, director of Chicago's Neighborhood Capital Budget Group writes, "Public budgets are […]the government's most important tool for the reallocation of wealth and resources."5 City officials and bureaucrats find participatory budgeting attractive because it can generate citizen involvement and government legitimacy. In contrast to traditional modes of civic engagement, like zoning boards and consultations, participatory budgeting consistently draws large and diverse sets of participants because it connects participation to tangible outcomes. Enhanced citizen monitoring and oversight can also make for better and more legitimate governance. For progressive administrators in particular, participatory budgeting opens new doors for legitimating redistributive politics.
Yet, despite the advantages and growing world-wide interest, no American cities have adopted participatory budgeting in the US. This, despite the fact that some of the usual road-blocks to participatory budgeting in the developing world are absent.6 In the US, city governments are relatively wealthy and well-staffed; service needs are not overwhelming; and despite...