participatory budgeting
Credit: Costa Constantinides/Flickr

Doug Jones’s surprise victory in the special Senate election in Alabama wouldn’t have been possible without turnout that greatly exceeded the norm, especially among African Americans. Yet that “high” turnout still only represented about 40 percent of registered voters. When 40 percent counts as cause for celebration, there’s a major democratic participation problem.

In the United States, that problem is particularly concentrated among the young, minorities, and lower-income people. The crisis of democratic participation is arguably both a product of rising inequality and a contributor to it—when certain groups feel ignored by political institutions, they may become less likely to vote, which only guarantees that lawmakers ignore their interests even more, and on and on.

In 2017, we did research with Sabeel Rahman, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, which included conversations with nearly 50 community organizers working in civil society and public bureaucrats working within government, to understand how to build more civic participation in an era of inequality. These organizers and leaders are developing ways to give power to people who often feel that they are invisible to government.

Despite major, headline-making successes this year, traditional tactics like voting and marching are not enough to bring these voices into government. Solving our national democratic crisis has to begin at the local level, where the connection between participation and impact is most immediate—and where it’s easiest to experiment with new models of civic participation.  Here are two such examples.

Participatory Budgeting

“This is what it’s about: It’s about giving people the power. It’s the community’s needs. It’s what people are saying they want. You can’t say no to that, right?” –Speaker of the New York City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito

Participatory budgeting allows citizens to make binding recommendations on spending public money. In Brazil, according to research by Brian Wampler and Mike Trouchton, from Boise State University, it has reduced infant mortality and re-directed spending to public services that benefit the poor, such as sanitation and education.

Participatoy budgeting was first introduced to the United States in 2009 in Chicago. Since then, the process has continued to expand with the support of the civil society group the Participatory Budgeting Project. In 2017, more than $250 million was allocated through the process across North America. More than half of New York City’s City Council members are putting a portion of their budgets into the process.

What does participatory budgeting look like in action? Locals gather in community centers, libraries, and neighborhood schools, perhaps over late-night pizza, to debate ideas for how to use public money for infrastructure projects in their own community. Projects are specific and implementable: things like park benches, streetlights, or new computers in schools. During meetings, community members sign up to serve as budget delegates and work directly with public officials to craft budget proposals. The delegates meet regularly over the course of several months to learn how to design proposals to fit government requirements. Finally, the projects go to the entire community for a public vote.

In the process, people get to know one another and their public officials. Two ways to see a fuller picture of community are to remove traditional barriers to entry: The vote is typically open to non-citizens, including people as young as 14, and the there are numerous voting days and locations. Several cities use text message-based and online voting tools.

There is evidence that participatory budgeting leads to more broad-based democratic involvement. For example, 2015 data from the Urban Justice Center demonstrates that in New York City, 57 percent of participatory budgeting voters identified as people of color compared to 47 percent of voters in the 2013 local elections. Nearly a quarter of the budget voters were barred from voting in other elections because they didn’t fit citizenship or age requirements. And about half were not part of any other community group, like Girl Scouts or the Rotary Club, which suggests that participatory budgeting offered a new channel for their civic engagement.

Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building (OCWB)

“Our goal is to make sure that families/heads of households in poverty have a seat at the table” – Risha Berry, Office of Community Wealth Building

In 2015, the Richmond, Virginia mayor’s office established an initiative to reduce local poverty and economic inequality. Leaders quickly learned that a family’s journey to economic stability was complex, and required more than just getting a job.

A focus group exploring access gaps to quality early childcare in high poverty communities was a case study. Their research identified three barriers to accessing high quality early childhood supports: accessibility, affordability, and trust.  Early childhood services needed to be within a two-mile radius, and they needed to be affordable. They were neither. As a result, Richmond residents in high poverty communities felt they could not trust the government to deliver on its promises.

The new Office of Community Wealth Building, currently run by Reginald Gordon, set out to rebuild that trust. Unlike most city offices, this office actively engages the constituents its policies are meant to help. The office hosts listening sessions on Fridays and has established an open door policy, asking residents to call ahead and stop by to talk about their strategies for reducing poverty. Most importantly, a citizen advisory board, composed primarily of people living or working in high-poverty neighborhoods, vets any recommendations from the OCWB.

With this model, civic engagement improves on multiple fronts. First, the citizen’s time is more efficiently spent because she can speak directly to those shaping policy, rather than using that time to write letters to some representative who may or may not read them. Second, she has the chance to make a community-wide impact beyond just her family or immediate neighbors.

Finally, opening doors to government shows citizens more about the process, and can inspire more engagement in the long run. When funding for the OCWB was threatened, the community responded with an #IamCWB campaign galvanizing supporters. One community member said the experience testifying at the city council meeting inspired him to consider running for office himself.

What these examples have in common is the importance giving people a genuine say in decision-making. While American’s trust in the federal government is near an all time low, with only 18 percent trusting Washington, 71 percent of Americans trust local government. Local government has an opportunity to engage community members in a meaningful, hands-on way.

Opening local government doors for participation may seem small compared to bigger questions of political change. But by changing the timeline of engagement and including more people at the table, these “laboratories of democracy” can experiment with better policy models and amplify new voices. Over the long run, this has the potential to shape national democratic politics.

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Hollie Russon Gilman and Elena Souris

Hollie Russon Gilman is a fellow at New America and lecturer at Columbia University. She is the former White House Open Government and Innovation Advisor in the Obama Administration and author of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America. Elena Souris is an intern with New America’s Political Reform program.