Below is an excerpt from Hollie Russon Gilman’s 2016 book, Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America. A postdoctoral scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Russon Gilman has long been affiliated with the Ash Center, most recently as senior adviser to our Technology and Democracy Fellowship program.
Democracy Reinvented assesses the opportunities and obstacles of participatory budgeting (PB) and civic engagement using hundreds of interviews, survey research, process tracing, and field observations. Based on Russon Gliman’s PhD dissertation, the book is one of the first academic works to extensively analyze participatory budgeting in the United States and its efforts to mend our democratic state.
In the concluding chapter of Democracy Reinvented, excerpted below, Russon Gilman entreats citizens to engage in participatory budgeting because of its potential to strengthen and deepen American democracy. Russon Gilman argues that the quantity and expansion of civic participation is important; however, civic participation’s real potential to improve the health of our democratic society lies in its nature and quality. Russon Gilman suggests that it is time for participatory budgeting to move beyond pilot periods and to become an institutionalized part of our policy-making process.
This post is part of an occasional series highlighting the first (in this case final) chapters of recent books by those affiliated with the Ash Center. Many thanks to the Brookings Institution for allowing us to re-print the final chapter of Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America. Brookings has also made the first chapter available online here. Readers who enjoy this excerpt should consider reading the whole book, which can be purchased online here.
Chapter 9: Why Engage Citizens?
Throughout this book, I have identified (1) substantive participation, (2) deliberation, and (3) opportunities for institutionalization as critical dimensions for assessing PB’s effectiveness and legitimacy. Components of this framework may be applicable to other civic experiments, depending on their nature and goals. Deliberation and participation are vital to deepening democracy. However, democratic innovations cannot meaningfully and enduringly enhance citizens’ political efficacy on a large scale unless they can move beyond pilot periods and become institutionalized.
I have zeroed in on PB in the United States as one compelling example within an ecosystem of civic tech and innovation, a study that may offer lessons for other attempts to deepen democracy. This book has focused on the specific processes of deliberation and participation found within the practice of participatory budgeting in the United States, looking at the pilot year in New York, Chicago, and Boston. Because the book focuses on pilots, some characteristics may have al- ready evolved in the natural life cycle of innovation. My framework privileges civic participation that is more substantive than transactional, prioritizing effective civic engagement over reducing transaction costs or simply maximizing the efficiency of service delivery. It values deep, sustained, and civically transformative participation.
My theory requires that participation be measured not simply by metrics common to the digital world, such as “total page views” or “number of contacts,” but rather in terms of the nature and quality of that participation, which must include genuine opportunities for deliberation and dialogue. Some scholars posit that deliberation stands in tension with participation because people are risk averse. I assert that democratic processes can, in fact, create meaningful opportunities for both participation and deliberation. However, this requires careful planning and, above all, recognition of the importance of the values inherent within civic engagement.
Institutionalizing innovation is the other critical dimension of my framework. As outlined in chapter 7, this is especially important for innovations that increase engagement in governance decision making. As these become embedded in political procedure, a snowball effect can emerge that promotes scale and broadens scope. Scalability can also lend political clout. Ad hoc processes will be less successful at creating sustainable channels for inclusive governance and maintaining the necessary political pressure for lasting change.
My hope is that these criteria will also prove useful to researchers and practitioners looking beyond participatory budgeting. Practitioners can use them to design participatory processes with intent. Researchers can look to them in order to move beyond only quantitative metrics toward more textured and nuanced indicators.
The framework illustrates varied opportunities for citizens to flex their civic muscles—the knowledge, experience, and motivation that arise from meaningful participation in governance—to contribute beyond simply voting in elections every other year. The goal is to identify and create opportunities for citizens to train themselves to seek deeper democratic involvement. I posit that citizens can strengthen their civic muscles through participation. PB’s ability to provide numerous opportunities for citizens to participate enables a variety of channels for people to flex and develop their civic muscles.
Listen to a podcast of Hollie Russon Gilman’s March 2016 book talk with HKS Academic Dean Archon Fung, HKS Assistant Professor of Public Policy Quinton Mayne, and City of Boston’s Nigel Jacob.
Why participate? Robust civic participation is a key indicator of democratic health. PB’s civic rewards can deepen democracy; by providing channels for meaningful citizen engagement, PB promotes civic learning. Strengthening these civic muscles fosters a healthy democratic society, which, in turn, engenders trust in decision making and grants more legitimacy to governance. PB serves as a civic training school for citizens, who, in turn, can strengthen the quality of governance in other venues as well.
Numerous scholars, from Robert Putnam to Michael J. Sandel, note the importance to civic virtue of being involved in associational relationships. Nancy L. Rosenblum discusses the multifaceted ways in which such associations benefit an individual’s character. PB connects people with one another at the local level and builds social capital for participants while also bridging their individual relationships via the larger project of civic engagement within a democracy.
Participatory budgeting enables people to think more creatively—to think on a bigger scale than that of their day-to-day tasks. In the process of PB, citizens are suddenly engaging with each other and their elected officials in nontraditional roles. PB opens up spaces for civic creativity. The civic rewards of the process motivate a diverse swath of people, granted the opportunity that PB affords, to experience for themselves what it means to think expansively about how they might channel the resources of government to better their communities.
Civic engagement can generate many positive returns for both the larger society and the individual character. Mark E. Warren has an enthusiastic list of civic virtues associated with democracy, including attentiveness to the common good and concerns for justice; tolerance of the views of others; trustworthiness; willingness to participate, deliberate, and listen; respect for the rule of law; and respect for the rights of others, to name but a few. While such civic benefits extend beyond the temporal limits of the PB process, there are also many material benefits to PB, including projects that more creatively address community needs than status quo budgeting efforts. Elected officials get to interact with a wider set of their constituents. PB places decisionmaking at the neighborhood level—engaging many who are not typically involved in civic life.
This book has shown that fulfilling the norms that PB aims to advance is a complex process. Some citizens ended up participating in the design of participatory institutions, despite the intent of initiators. While participation in the PBNYC pilot was generally meaningful for participants, some parts of the process, such as the vote, were more effective than others at achieving inclusive and diverse representation.
The budget delegate process was less diverse and inclusive. That setting, how- ever, allowed for deliberative discourse, which exhibited trade-offs between two norms of deliberation—efficiency and inclusiveness. These two norms emerged out of a broader context: in the United States, PB tries to accommodate dual goals of improving short-term service delivery while also deepening the democratic process.
Participants in PB can help to determine the criteria for its success. PB is not beholden to a simple understanding of governmental efficiency as the sole criterion of civic achievement. I have argued that PB is impactful because its participants are motivated by how the process creates civic rewards. My research points to ways that participants’ varying values and notions of success have the potential to be incorporated into process design, opportunities for engagement, and evaluation.
PB shows that ordinary citizens can be involved in decisionmaking. PB breaks down complex challenges into manageable projects that can be tackled neighborhood by neighborhood. As a result, it generates “new citizens”—members of the public who have not previously participated in elections or political discourse but who are able to exercise voice and power through this process. PB participants are diverse not only in terms of traditional demographic indicators but also in terms of civic experience levels, as the process attracts and engages many be- yond just the “usual suspects.” The opportunity to exercise direct agency over the spending of government funds draws new actors into the political process in all of its facets, awakening dormant interests and energies and reinvigorating local democracy. New citizens pave the way for more inclusive engagement with local government.
Next Steps: Participatory Budgeting in the United States
PB may not be the most efficient way to deliver public services, but its rapid expansion suggests the importance of citizen involvement for effective governance.
The demand signal for PB and other civic innovations like it suggests that perhaps contemporary democracies have mistakenly devalued citizens’ buy-in and input in decisionmaking. Democracy is not only about timely and reliable public service delivery or even about electing representatives. Engaging citizens directly as decisionmakers can lead to better policy. By tapping into the varying knowledge of individual people, and using that knowledge to formulate public projects decided upon via small-group deliberation, local policy can more accurately reflect the will of the people in common. This, in turn, can lead to better outcomes and help restore trust in governance.
Participatory budgeting can create more effective processes that make government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. I have argued that PB produces significant civic rewards, including enhanced civic knowledge, strengthened relationships with elected officials, and greater community inclusion. Participatory processes have the potential to be more creative than the status quo urban bureaucratic process. Overall, PB is a viable and impactful model for citizen engagement, one that leads to improved outputs and outcomes. It is an in- formative, democratic innovation for strengthening civic engagement within the United States that can be streamlined and adopted to scale.
As participatory budgeting expands to encompass different pots of monies, forms of influence, and stakeholders and participants, new challenges will inevitably arise. Bigger public budgets allocated through PB will mean greater attention will be paid to who participates. A tension exists between aiming for broad mobilization and focusing on populations of need, especially given the current constraints on funding the actual process itself. Champions of PB should anticipate further questions regarding how to measure and weigh who participates as well as how to prevent special interests from co-opting the process, if more money is decided through it. Supporters may need to find ways to mitigate political competition, which can occur in connection with it. The process should be safeguarded against co-option by special interests or its use as primarily a vehicle for electoral ambitions. Similarly, thus far, community representatives have not been elected in implementations of PB in the United States. Process expansion could include revisiting this question of elected representation.
There are challenges to sustained participation in the current model, including the high costs of engagement, frequent chances for frustration and disillusionment, and obstacles related to its scalability. Expansion of PB will necessitate change. The process could be more streamlined to make it less time and resource intensive. Through reforms and modifications to PB, barriers to entry can be lowered, exhaustion with the process can be minimized, and the potential for process co-option by determined political actors can be reduced.
Even if these necessary changes are made, formidable challenges will remain, especially in terms of providing sufficiently uniform process quality and scalable institutionalization. The high level of variance within the PBNYC pilot— presumably a self-contained process conducted across only four districts— demonstrates a potential obstacle to bringing PB to scale. Is variance a necessary by-product of PB? Bringing PB to its full potential in the United States will require navigating the tension between creative autonomy on the local level and practical institutionalization.
Empirical data on PB in the United States illustrate variance at all levels— from process governance to budget subcommittees. Even within districts there was variation in how individual facilitators and in-group dynamics have shaped discourse, decisionmaking, and mobilization. District demographics, political economies, and civil society capacity have shaped the experience of PB down to the subcommittee level.
Politics and political dynamics will continue to influence PB’s adoption in different places. For example, the process in Chicago and New York started with small pots of discretionary funds already at the disposal of individual municipal officials. In other places, such as Buffalo, New York, PB is being driven by a collective legislative process: the Buffalo Common Council Members allocated $150,000 in the 2015–16 budget for PB.8 The questions of which elected officials and mechanisms fund PB will continue to remain central to PB in the United States.
The policy recommendations in chapter 7 offer strategies for how to better pool process resources to enable continued growth. Currently, PB suffers from limited funds dedicated solely to process implementation. Increasing process funds could help streamline PB and make it less resource intensive. Yet the process will always require participant hours. Better communication between practitioners and improved process transparency, particularly regarding how and when specific projects are implemented, could help foster citizens’ trust and build momentum.
To safeguard PB against criticisms of co-option, the process should continue to find more opportunities for engaging people. If PB is seen either as simply a mobilization effort of a specific organization or as an elaborate electoral project of a politician, the process will lose support and legitimacy. Yet numerous opportunities for process participation also create liabilities—as each one is subject to critique. For example, are people at neighborhood assemblies representatives of specific organizations? Does a budget delegate have an agenda tied to an out- side group? How can the vote be protected from lobbyists and special interests? These kinds of questions will vary by context, but they are critical.
Over time, PB can increase the legitimacy and accountability of governance. If the process demonstrates that it enacts citizen input, it will begin to take root. This is why institutionalizing innovation is key. Advocates and practitioners of PB should work to communicate back to citizens how and where their money and time were spent. A centralized website would go a long way toward promoting process transparency. In addition, signs could illustrate which projects are funded as a result of PB—similar to standard funding signage often tied to infrastructure projects, such as that deployed in conjunction with federal “project[s] funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.” This could include signage at sites where PB projects have been funded but are not yet complete. PB is a reinvestment in democracy. Greater visibility can help connect the PB process to larger stakes. In New York, Melissa Mark-Viverito, the speaker of the city council, called for PB to be applied to New York Tenant Participation Activity (TPA) funds as part of City Housing Authority (NYCHA) grants. The coming years will make clear how these funds are ultimately allocated and whether this spurs other government agencies and offices to put funding into PB.
Only a few years into a PB experiment, the city of Vallejo, California, is already seeing pushback. Opponents of PB have emerged, arguing that the process should be constricted in favor of other city priorities. In 2014 the city council of Vallejo pushed back on many of the individual projects proposed via PB. The process has also started strong and faded in other places, such as in Buenos Aires. Marrying an implementation of PB in the context of a strong civil society with commitments to internal participatory governance can go a long way to ensure its continuing use. Where civil society is healthy—with numerous in- dependent and inclusive organizations that show a genuine commitment to engaging citizens—the process can enhance its resiliency in the face of electoral change.
PB faces a challenge shared by many democratic innovations: it must be viewed as more than a shiny new toy or a tool for electoral gain. Throughout this book I have argued that ideology has played a less critical role in PB in the United States than it has in global counterparts. Ideological commitment from government officials alone will not suffice. Instead, I view PB as one example within a more broadly based effort toward promoting inclusive governance throughout a democratic society.
A Broader Project to Reinvent Democracy
The commanding beliefs of the American people—that everything is possible, that vast problems can be solved if broken up into pieces and answered one by one, and that ordinary men and women contain within them- selves, individually and collectively, the constructive genius with which to craft such solutions—now find themselves without adequate political expression.
Participatory budgeting has never just been about effective and legitimate decisionmaking, though that is a worthy, important goal integral to the process. If efficiency is viewed as making a decision in the least amount of time, PB will not be a first choice. Rather, PB began in Brazil as a way to reimagine the relationship between citizens and the state. PB is about redistributing power to citizens. Part of this normative project works to recapture an ancient ideal of the power of civic engagement.
From the beginning of Western thought, Plato and Aristotle envisioned a polis that would enable man to perform a particularly human activity: speech. This activity in the political sphere was important for a variety of reasons, including its effect on the human soul. In the ancient ideal of the polis, citizens were freed from their material constraints and could work to achieve something larger than their individual lives. This promise of politics has helped keep the allure of democracy alive, despite its evident shortcomings.
Concerns about the feasibility of this democratic ideal are as old as the ideal itself. Hannah Arendt notes in her 1958 work The Human Condition:
Through many ages before us—but now not any more—men entered the public realm because they wanted something of their own or something they had in common with others to be more permanent than their earthly lives.
Many scholars, activists, and critics have been concerned about the declining quality of democratic engagement. In a sense, these concerns reflect a decline in opportunities to pursue the type of civic rewards I have contended exist in participatory budgeting. Yet my terminology is far removed from the common language used in contemporary American politics, which is much more comfortable with discussions of good governance than discourses on power and civic engagement, let alone politics as a way to achieve a type of Athenian immortality. As a result, we are left with a political discourse that cannot capture the full range of why people participate.
Throughout this book, I have argued that civic rewards drive people to both participate in and remain engaged in collaborative public efforts like participatory budgeting. It is these civic rewards that inspire people to believe that participatory budgeting is a viable process. Participation is difficult. It can be filled with frustrations and disappointments, and it can leave people exhausted and fatigued. My research has consistently affirmed that people remain involved nonetheless because of civic rewards. People make friends, form new networks, and enjoy being a part of something larger than their personal day-to-day concerns.
Not everyone espouses this view. Many fears surround participation, including concerns that it will lead to suboptimal outcomes, and that ordinary citizens are not equipped to make policy decisions. Yet there is another often overlooked fear of citizen engagement: What if participation actually undermines representative democracy?
None of our founding fathers thought direct democratic deliberation by the people was a good idea. The core theorists of the American Republic include those—Alexander Hamilton and James Madison—who were more skeptical about the value of the people’s involvement as well as those—Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson—who were less skeptical. Yet throughout its history direct deliberative democracy has been anathema to the traditional vision of the United States. James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 famously warns against the dangers of direct democracy and of factions:
It may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction.
In Hannah Arendt’s depiction, Thomas Jefferson comes closest to championing an ideal of participatory democracy, but this ideal is neither as robust nor as binding as participatory budgeting.18 In addition to the fear of factionalism espoused by the founding fathers, another political concept identified at the turn of the nineteenth century presents an obstacle to the normative value of participation. It is possible that citizens want the type of modern liberty outlined by Benjamin Constant, wherein they are freed from politics itself. What if people do not want to participate in their democracy?
In response to these challenges, I contend that the current political atmosphere does not give citizens the background knowledge needed to assess these value propositions. No functional system of supply and demand for civic engagement exists that would allow a fair assessment of citizens’ desires for political activity. Citizens do not even know the scope of the existing realm of possibilities for engaging with politics. Participatory budgeting is one attempt to provide more opportunities for citizens to begin a discussion.
Another counterargument may suggest that it does not go far enough. Participatory budgeting focuses the locus of power on budgets, perhaps too narrowly. If PB cannot scale beyond small discretionary funds in the United States, many will view it as a missed opportunity for innovations in participation to have an impact on political structures.
What if budgets are not a good locus of political involvement? What if civic efforts should aim instead to develop transformative leadership? Participatory budgeting offers several entry points for engagement, including leadership development. Ideally, to restore citizens’ faith in democratic governance, PB ought to be combined with a campaign for greater civic reform and with an expansion of citizens’ political power beyond budgets.
Participatory budgeting is not enough, but it is one tool for deepening democracy in both developing and developed countries. I have outlined further opportunities for reengaging citizens, both in self-governance and in coproduction, arguing that PB fits within a broader toolkit to improve inclusive governance. It will be a missed opportunity if PB is not incorporated into a wider discussion of how to build and strengthen democratic institutions that reinvents the roles of “beneficiaries” and the state.
The secret message is that politics should become little so that individuals can become big.
One of the greatest democratic contributions participatory budgeting can make is to create a new process for how citizens and institutions share information, interact, and make sustainable public decisions. Participatory budgeting reinvigorates a larger vision of democracy precisely by making the focal point of activity small.
Participatory budgeting, as per the discussion in this book, responds to the decline in citizen engagement in the United States. Among the culprits of that decline are the shortcomings of the hierarchical, bureaucratic model of government laid out by Max Weber. The realm of politics has become too “big” and complex for ordinary citizens to feel efficacious therein. The Weberian model lacks necessary mechanisms that would enable elected officials and citizens to respond to each other more directly and effectively.
Bureaucratic organizations have often alienated citizens and failed to serve as vehicles to form inclusive relationships with the people they serve. Yet popular unease with a government seen as having grown too “big” has itself created new opportunities, spaces, and tools for citizen engagement and participation. This frustration with bureaucratic growth has spurred the search for more participatory, democratic, and collective channels for citizens to communicate with their government. Localities and cities in particular are reemerging as critical engines to empower citizens and serve as laboratories for democratic experimentation.
Participatory budgeting also provides a way for citizens to be creative architects of public works, including in urban areas. This civic creativity enables a new understanding of civic participation. PB extends norms about participation, pro- viding a framework for citizen involvement in politics that is applicable to the real world. Participatory budgeting is about more than a utopian experiment divorced from the rest of politics. Rather, it provides a blueprint for directly engaging citizens in the process of governance.
Some citizens may find they would prefer not to be so deeply involved in the process of governance. PB offers a variety of options for citizens in allowing them to determine when and if and how they want to engage. These choices—from one-time voting to spending nearly every week planning projects—offer numerous opportunities for different levels of participation. Some citizens may prefer to allow their neighbors to take on certain responsibilities, only weighing in at the end of the process. Currently, PB offers these self-selecting options. As the process continues to expand, a push for greater formal representation may emerge due to concerns about co-option by specific groups.
Participatory budgeting may need to reconcile another tension: Is the goal to create a new structure or to improve current structures? If PB were to accelerate pressures to make other budget processes fully transparent and accountable, per- haps its success would contribute to its extinction. For the near-term and medium- term future, this is not a realistic concern. Ultimately, creating more citizen input throughout public institutions will require building civil society capacity beyond only PB, ideally leveraging PB’s organizing principles and expertise. Broadening capacities for greater civic engagement in governance requires interconnected systemic change. These are complex problems that need an “all hands on deck” approach, one that extends across actors, sectors, disciplines, and localities.
In addition, the future of participatory budgeting should be more than simply the domain of “toilets and trees.” The process could move beyond small-stakes politics—helping, in turn, to ensure its longevity and safeguard it from being simply a self-serving mobilization exercise that supports elected officials. If PB constitutes a place of genuine political contestation, it will garner further legitimacy and deepen its offerings of civic rewards. Advocates of PB also need to ensure that the process does not “die on its own weight.”
Early data show that the so-called millennial generation wants a results- oriented government. As millennials engage in civic life, their preferences will play a role in shaping political ecosystems. Although they tend to be critical of government—seeing it as insufficiently effective or representative—they still believe it has the potential to be a positive force in solving societal problems. For example, more than half of millennials are supportive of activist government— more than any other generation. As a study by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) succinctly sums up, millennials do not eschew politics altogether; rather, they do not see current politics as offering a viable option for achieving the outcomes they believe are important. While millennials did turn out in substantial numbers to vote for Barack Obama for president in 2008, in general they vote and contact public officials at lower rates than their parents.
Despite gravitating away from institutional forms of participation, this generation is finding other, more accessible avenues for contributing to their communities and engaging in the world. While forms and levels of engagement vary among different socioeconomic segments of the cohort, millennials volunteer at a higher rate than other generations, frequently engage in consumer activism, and are spearheading civic uses of social media. For example, 44 percent of millennials who use social networking sites use them to “like” or promote political material, 42 percent to post their own thoughts on issues, and 36 percent to encourage others to act.
Obstacles to political engagement are not unique to millennials; in fact, they apply more broadly to the body politic. Doubts about the functioning of the country’s democratic institutions are common throughout the populace. Gallup found in 2014 that 30 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the Supreme Court, 29 percent in the presidency, and only 7 percent in Congress. The perception that Washington is broken is a view shared by all generations.
While policymakers seek to engage a generation that is particularly disaffected, but powerful and persuadable, they should focus on policies to improve the accessibility, representativeness, and functioning of democratic institutions for all generations. Currently, government has not done enough to harness or capture civic energy across generations. Well-designed democratic innovations could provide opportunities for robust civic rewards that transcend traditional demo- graphic barriers.
Participatory budgeting can transform both individual citizens who partake in it as well as broader structures of representational democracy. Properly under- stood and supported, PB could revolutionize local democratic practice and transform current relationships between citizens and the state. But this requires grappling with tough questions: How much democracy is desirable? How best to work to achieve it? How to prevent digital divides that could further inequality? I argue that the norms of participation and deliberation are critical. ICTs cannot and should not replace human interaction. Properly deployed, however, they can enhance face-to-face engagements.
This book articulates a normative framework, guided by empirical questions. It is premised on the author’s hope that participatory budgeting might lead to more accountable governance. Despite shortcomings, PB is an important step forward toward creating a revitalized political sphere. Getting it “right” will take practice and patience—and may ultimately prove less consequential than getting it going.
Today’s civic innovations unfold against the backdrop of a troubling deficit of public faith in democracy. Democratic innovation can help restore that faith— but only if citizens suspend their cynicism long enough to give experiments in good governance the time, effort, and resources they need to demonstrate their potential. Democracy has never been monolithic in its practice. It should include trial and error. By being open to new structures, we can reinvest in the longstanding democratic norms that underpin our social contract: equality, justice, and fairness. Civic innovations that focus on participation and deliberation are uniquely effective in that endeavor. They unlock civic ingenuity and tap into the self-renewing power of democracy. They remind citizens that we are democracy.
Reprinted from Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America by Hollie Russon Gilman, published by The Brookings Institution, 2016.
Readers can purchase the book online here.