As a student of global politics and civically engaged individual, I have always been interested in how public engagement can strengthen democracy. A few years ago, I came across a policy that I see as the ideal blend of my academic work and political activism: participatory budgeting (PB). PB is a local-level initiative that allows residents to decide how part of the budget is spent. Pioneered by Brazilians in Porto Alegre, PB is now present in every corner of the world. Luckily, I live in Chicago’s 49th Ward, the first place in the United States to adopt PB, which gives me the chance to be actively involved with the process. By reflecting on my academic work and my volunteer activity in the Ward, I hope to highlight why this process can become the norm for local level budgeting and how the current implementation of PB does not yet meet the standards initially set by practitioners.
The PB process allows any resident over the age of 14 to submit ideas for improvement, ranging from adding more benches and trees throughout the neighborhood to creating new bike paths or art installations. Residents then serve on committees that deal with specific issues and review which submitted ideas are feasible. In the end, each committee proposes one idea at an organized town hall, presenting the cost, timeline, and an argument in favor of the project. Lastly, residents submit one final vote to pick 5–6 of the proposed projects, which should fit the $1 million usually dedicated to PB. In the United States, the process has been adopted as a platform of social justice, equity, and inclusion. Allowing residents, including refugees, immigrants, and young people to directly decide how public money is spent can be a great way to engage community members and strengthen the social fabric.
Even though PB has great potential for success, I raise several issues with its current implementation and explain why it fails to meet the standards of inclusion and equity. First, committee members have too much influence over which ideas even get considered. Often, the individuals who serve on these committees are long-term residents who are already active in the community; hence they turn into community “elites” who tend to take over the deliberation process. Second, committees should offer 2–3 proposals to be submitted for a vote. By doing so, residents have more options to choose from, thus creating a higher level of communication and deliberation. Lastly, residents need variation in platforms of deliberation. Town halls often do not satisfy the need for information sharing because most residents might not have the ability to attend. An ongoing discussion needs to occur during the PB process to create a more equitable and transparent system. A higher number of residents can more equitably decide which proposals take priority instead of allowing the neighborhood activists who serve on committees to pick only one suggested proposal out of tens or hundreds of ideas submitted. Offering in-person and online platforms for deliberation throughout the PB process can potentially fix some of these issues.
The design of PB can vary significantly by city or region. However, these recommended changes apply to any location where PB implementation follows a similar format and motivation: social equity and inclusion. I believe in PB as the future of local politics and a staple project for democratic communities to advance governmental and budgetary transparency. But to achieve the initial goals of PB implementation in the US, we need to improve the design process. I appreciate the chance to participate in PB as an immigrant. However, marginalized communities are still not adequately involved in the process. The small changes I propose are preliminary steps that I believe can turn PB into a more effective policy and a platform of direct democracy in which everyone has a say. The question remains whether PB can lure in individuals who are less likely to participate in politics in general, such as the low-income, working families who do not always have the time and ability to remain civically engaged. This essay serves as a call to action for researchers, elected officials, and activists to work on finding new ways in which PB can bridge the gap and engage our underrepresented neighbors.