When Citizens Sharpen Pencils to Set Budget Priorities

Cure or More Headaches
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In Porto Alegre (a city of about 1.5 million at the southern edge of the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul), upwards of 50,000 residents have participated each year since 1989 in neighborhood and community meetings that determine how their city will spend about 15 to 18 percent of Porto Alegre's discretionary budget.

The process is called participatory budgeting, and Porto Alegre was the first to apply this model, one of several innovations in municipal government advocated by the center-left Workers Party that controlled city hall until recently.

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The model has been enthusiastically followed in many South American cities and in Toronto and Montreal. In the UK, participatory budgeting is now mandated for all cities. An alderman in Chicago has applied the model to allocating funds for neighborhood projects in his own ward. In New York, four city council districts are experimenting with participatory budgeting to allocate a total of about $6 million from the city's General Fund.

(The Atlantic offers a highly optimistic look at the model here.)

Vallejo -- in bankruptcy between 2008 and 2011 -- is the first city in California to try to write a budget using the Porto Alegre model. Residents will determine how 30 percent of the revenue generated by Vallejo's recent sales tax increase will be spent.

The city council adopted its version of participatory budgeting in mid-April. Council members were divided -- 4 to 3 -- on the merits of the participatory process, giving it an unfortunately weak start.

If New York and Chicago are representative of the outcome, some skepticism is warranted.

Only small fractions of the affected neighborhoods participated in the sometimes clunky deliberative process. Agendas were worked, and the advantages of education and experience gave white, upper-middle-class speakers the edge. Many of the projects ultimately chosen -- murals, neighborhood signage, funding a composting collective, pedestrian paths in a park -- were worthy but seem slight compared to sheltering the homeless, after-school programs for youth, or home care for the elderly. (Most city managers would direct what little discretionary funding they have to their city's decaying infrastructure, to property maintenance enforcement, and the next generation of information technology.)

Participatory budgeting also creates false expectations. Putting walkways in a park isn't like ordering from Amazon, leaving some residents thinking that their participation didn't amount to much if work on a project lags. And some participants are there only to get their pet project approved. They won't be back next year.

In Porto Alegre, where participatory budgeting began, there are signs of fatigue and organizational resistance. The Workers' Party was voted out in the last election, and the new administration has backed away from the process. Fewer projects proposed by the residents are being funded now. Community issues that can't be resolved by infrastructure improvements have begun to dominate budget meetings.

Vallejo's experiment in Participatory Budgeting -- as brave as it is -- will probably look much the same.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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