This week, the White House issued its second-ever Open Government National Plan of Action, coming a couple of years after its first iteration, issued in September 2011. The plan features nearly two dozen commitments, some new, some expanded upon since the first go-round.
One of the completely new commitments will be of particular interest to those working on the ground, locally, on open government efforts. In the document, the White House signals support for participatory budgeting, an approach to the assignment of government funds that asks citizens to first come up with good ideas for potential spending projects and then — in a rare demonstration of direct democracy — vote to decide which contenders are worthy of funding.
Participatory budgeting, or PB, first popped up in Brazil in the late 1980s, but in more recent years it has taken hold in a handful of U.S. cities. Today it gets a fair amount of attention in Chicago, New York and Vallejo, Calif., as well as some degree of support from both the public and the politicians who often give up control over their discretionary funds to make PB possible.
The White House’s mention of PB is brief, but it’s dense enough to suggest what the feds are thinking. Here’s the bulk of the relevant passage:
One way participatory budgeting can be utilized by cities is through eligible Department of Housing and Urban Development Housing and Community Development funds, which can be used to promote affordable housing, provide services to the most vulnerable citizens, and create jobs through the expansion and retention of businesses. In 2014, the Administration will work in collaboration with the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative (SC2), the National League of Cities, non-profit organizations, philanthropies, and interested cities to: create tools and best practices that communities can use to implement projects; raise awareness among other American communities that participatory budgeting can be used to help determine local investment priorities; and help educate communities on participatory budgeting and its benefits.
As with the first National Plan of Action, the goal is to help turn the high-level memorandum on transparency and open government that President Obama issued on his very first full day in office back in 2009 into an operationalized guidebook for running an open government.
That said, a White House spokesperson suggested that the Obama administration’s thinking on PB’s implementation is still in its early days, and that its plans for engaging in the arena are a work in progress. That said, she pointed out that the inclusion of the model in the White House’s plan implies that the administration sees participatory budgeting as a plank in a fully fledged open government approach. More than that, she noted that the White House highlighted the availability of federal funds — community block grants, specifically — to fill the pool of monies that PB could potentially divvy up. That suggests an intriguing model: Actual voters managing robust federal funds on an ultra-local level.
Josh Lerner, executive director of the New York-based Participatory Budgeting Project, is pleased. “This plan offers great potential to deepen and expand participatory budgeting, as an innovative model of democratic governance,” he wrote in an email. “The Participatory Budgeting Project has had great discussions with the White House over the past few weeks leading up to this announcement, and we’re excited about continued collaboration.”
Post script: Our White House spokesperson passes along a comment for the record: “Participatory budgeting gives citizens a greater voice in how taxpayer dollars are spent in their communities. As part of our work to increase citizen participation, collaboration, and transparency in government, we have committed to help raise awareness among American communities about participatory budgeting and its benefits and that this process can be used for certain eligible community development grants.”
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.