Participatory budgeting got its start in Porto Alegre, Brazil decades ago, but only in the last few years has injecting citizens directly into the oft-closed process of deciding how to spend public funds gained meaningful traction in the United States. Then, last December, the White House added participatory budgeting as one of the initiatives promoted in its second-ever Open Government National Plan of Action, under the heading of “Open Government to Manage Resources More Effectively.”
In that plank, the White House pledged to work with partners to “raise awareness among other American communities that participatory budgeting can be used to help determine local investment priorities.” To that end, on Tuesday, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy held a discussion in the Eisenhower Building focused on the nuts-and-bolts of PB, as its known, a full-day session split between studying research methods necessary to understand how participatory budgeting works now and how technology can broaden PB’s impact.
At the session, around 50 or so attendees — PB practitioners, government staffers, foundation funders and academics — got to share notes, and the White House got to introduce those interested in pursuing PB with helpful resources.
Christine Ingrassia is a St. Louis alderman who has piloted PB projects in that Missouri city as a “really interesting way to sort out if we can sort out distrust in government, which is unrivaled, at least in my short experience.” Participatory budgeting is, as Ingrassia sees it, gaining considerable momentum in the U.S., especially among “younger and more flexible” elected officials. But the community is still a small one.
And so one benefit of the White House event, said Ingrassia, was that “in day-to-day operations, there are so many more folks now that I can reach out to and talk to” about the challenges and potential of participatory budgeting. That goes beyond fellow politicians to the researchers and funders in the room. “It’s key to have all the pieces of the puzzle in the same place, and that’s been really hard to get” before the White House intervened.
The first half of the day was devoted to roundtable discussions on research methods and plans. Maria Elaine Hadden is the project coordinator for the Participatory Budgeting Project, which works with PB projects around the country. “The basic model’s the same from Brazil to Kenya,” says Hadden, “but it’s so uniquely created by communities and the people involved in it.” That dynamic can make assessment a challenge, which makes more conversation about, as Hadden put it, “what we’re measuring now” and “moving forward, what do we want to measure and how” vital.
That focus is driven by the notion that, not only does the PB field need to figure out best practices to thrive, it may well need to provide potential supporters with concrete demonstrations, rather than just feel-good stories, of how it is working and why.
“Research is happening independently in the different participatory budgeting projects around the country,” says Will Friedman, the president of the New York-based nonprofit Public Agenda, “and while people are sharing research instruments to some extent, at this point it’s still a fairly loose process.”
This being the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the second half of Tuesday’s event was focused on the sort of technology that might help spread participatory budgeting more broadly, such as voting apps or databases through which communities could share information.
However, attendees also talked about how technology can run counter to PB’s potential to open up the democratic process to a more diverse set of decision-makers. It’s a tension that Natasha Soto, of Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, framed as “making the process a little more efficient but not having efficiency or technology take over.” PB, she added, can be streamlined across communities, but there’s a risk of going too far. “It’s nice to have templates but you can’t just take something off-the-shelf,” says Soto, “because it depends where you are, which is the beauty of the participatory part.”
Hadden said the day was “part of a trend we’ve been seeing over the last few years of people getting more engaged and invigorated about looking for ways to participate in their democracy. It’s fantastic the White House did it. It’s good to get a spotlight on a process that’s doing good things, so that we can continue to innovate and bring in partners that have new perspectives.”
Ingrassia says that getting the Obama White House’s imprimatur on PB was validating. “There are a lot of people who think that this is just a fringe movement of people who don’t really understand the way government works,” she says. “Having the White House come out and say that this is a best practice based on their set of criteria, research and contacts with people who are on the ground implementing it, makes it make a lot more sense to some people.”
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.