Commitment Analysis: Public Participation in Community Spending Decisions

The following was written by Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium

The commitment to “Promote Public Participation in Community Spending Decisions” is the most promising democracy-building element in the National Action Plan. It highlights the use of Participatory Budgeting (PB), one of the most significant, successful, and fastest-growing forms of public participation.

A well-run PB process engages large, diverse numbers of people in deliberative, informed discussions about how to spend public money. Through neighborhood assemblies and other online and face-to-face meetings, participants research, propose, and vote on project ideas. In the U.S., local officials in Chicago, New York, Vallejo, and other cities have led these efforts and committed the resources necessary to implement the winning ideas.

PB is an example of the kind of democratic innovation that has been going on in the Global South for some time. It was first developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1989, and has since become a regular feature of local democracy in hundreds of cities around the world.

There are also examples of participation processes that allow citizens to have a say in state and federal decisions, such as the federal policy conferences in Brazil that have engaged tens of thousands of people. This brings up an important point: if the Administration wants to help local governments conduct substantive, meaningful public participation on local issues, why not also conduct substantive, meaningful participation on federal issues?  This is an area where the Obama Administration has fallen well short of the promises made by the Obama Campaign. 

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