"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson


We as Americans all remember being taught when we were young about our nation's founders, the patriots who stood up to the tyranny of the crown of England, the drafters of the declaration of independence, the constitution, and the bill of rights, the documents that became the framework for a system of governance that they believed would maintain a balance of power within a truly representative government, that would preserve the basic rights and liberties of the people, let their voice be heard, and provide to them a government, as Lincoln later put it, "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

What we may not be so quick to recall, however, is that there was much debate between the founding fathers as to what model our system of government should follow. Those such as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Patrick Henry on one side favored a pure and direct democracy with the legislative power vested in the very hands of the people, while others such as James Madison, John Adams and George Washington held that a representative democracy would better serve the people than a true democracy because they believed it would protect the individual liberties of the minority from the will of the majority. Alexander Hamilton even went so far as to support the creation of a monarchy. In the end, those favoring representative democracy won the day and that is the system they put in place in the hopes of creating a "more perfect union."

Now we must ask ourselves, what would the founding fathers think if they were resurrected today to see what has become of their vision? One can only assume that they would begin to search for modern day patriots to meet them once again at the liberty tree in order to plan a new struggle for freedom and self governance. Although we continue to praise and honor those who founded our nation and sought to create a truly just form of government for it, do we really stop to reflect on whether we as a nation have in fact succeeded in preserving what they fought so hard to create?

Today, in contrast to our revolutionary ancestors, we as citizens of the United States generally observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. Over the decades and centuries we have allowed the erosion of the ideals of the founding fathers and the corruption of the principles which they enshrined in those so carefully conceived documents. We have been left with essentially no real power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. We may write an occasional letter to our senator or representative that generates a form letter in response and a statistical data entry that may or may not be weighed against the influence of some powerful corporate lobby. We may be permitted to participate in a march or demonstration of thousands or even millions, something our patriots of old would have marvelled at, only to be dismissed as a 'focus group' with no bearing on policy decisions.

How then is the government held accountable to the voice of the people? Are the people meant to speak only at the polls when given a choice between a select few candidates that may be equally corrupt? No, as Jefferson and his allies rightly believed, the people should be heard much more than that.

In spite of their good intentions, the system of representative democracy that the founding fathers opted for has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

We have become so accustomed to this failed system of representative democracy that it may not occur to us that there are other alternative forms of democracy. In various places around the world participatory or direct democracy has been instituted both in concert with representative democracy, and as a replacement for it. It is a form of democracy that is designed to take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and to politically empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the concept of participatory democracy and how this grass-roots based form of governance could help bring us back in line with the principles this country was founded upon if it were allowed to take root here. In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…



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Thursday, March 6, 2008


The following article provides a good overview of participatory budgeting efforts around the world. In many cases, participatory budgeting has arisen from popular initiatives at the local level. this should be considered as a means to achieve better appropriation of public funds according to the will of the people here in the U.S.A. as well. It's success in other western countries indicates that it could be as effective here, and we should push our local governments to adopt such a budgeting system as another building block in the in the struggle for a more direct and participatory democracy in the U.S. - Editor

Participatory Budget: People’s Decision at the ‘Core’ of Power

By Giovanni Allegretti

At its most basic, Participatory Budgets refer to turning over budgetary decisions to the citizens impacted by the budget, creating public arenas in which citizens can discuss and hierarchise the overall priorities of the city (rare) or choose some new investments affecting a (more or less) huge percentage of municipal budget. Participatory budgets, however, can only have a future if they move beyond a ‘minimalist’ formal definition and are able to face mid-long term challenges, says Giovanni Allegretti.

The so-called ‘Participatory Budget’ (PB), now experimented in over 80 cities in Europe (and recently in Canada) is one of the possible answers to the growing sense of political discontent that struck western democracies since the early 1990s, and whose symptoms include falling electoral turnouts, declining party membership numbers and increased estrangement between politicians and citizens.

While the prevalence of a neo-liberal ideology has seen increased emphasis on privatisation, deregulation and market forces, some local governments (considering their duty that of being the privileged space for ‘experimenting’ new paths) have tried to respond to citizens’ demands, the pressures of competition and the need to bureaucratic reform, by increasing citizen participation in government.

An attempt of definition

Defining PB is not a simple task, due to the existence of different families of experiments that are complicating and enriching the most famous source of inspiration: the experience of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, which in 1989 improved and extended to a metropolis scale some ‘attempts’ done in other small brazilian cities along the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

At its most basic, Participatory Budgets refer to turning over budgetary decisions to the citizens impacted by the budget, creating public arenas in which citizens can discuss and hierarchise the overall priorities of the city (rare) or choose some new investments affecting a (more or less) huge percentage of municipal budget. So, PB consists of a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in which ordinary city residents (not necessarily pre-organised in associations) decide how to allocate part of a public budget through a series of face-to-face meetings, as local assemblies, workshops, planning tables and a broad-range of other events. In some experiences, ‘cold’ decision making tools (using IT, or referenda) are also provided, in order to amplify the impact on the population not regularly participating: but they have failed when they’ve been given to much ‘centrality’. In fact, the first meaning of PB is the chance to ‘fuel’ debate and deliberation procedures among citizens, stimulating them to exchange their opinions throughout open confrontations, where they could listen to and adopt different points of view from their original ones.

Participatory Budgets are generally characterized by several common features: along an annual pre-defined ‘cycle’ of events, community members identify spending priorities and elect budget delegates to represent their neighbourhoods (especially in big cities, where a direct relationship between assemblies and politicians is not enough to deepen discussed issues, due to the high numbers of participants), then budget delegates transform community priorities into concrete project proposals, public employees facilitate and provide technical assistance (evaluating the feasibility of proposed projects), community members vote on which projects to fund, and the public authority formally approves and implements the projects (so transforming a consultation tool into a deliberating one).

It is according to this ‘inclusive’ definition that participatory budgets have spread to hundreds of Latin American cities, and are being conceived in some ‘experiments’ in Asia and Africa. In the western context, the first examples in the beginning of the XXI century showed the need to broaden the definition itself, as they ‘shrank’ those principles’ implementation to ‘limited test-examples’ involving district or thematic budgets (like school or housing project budgets), but also merging them with other participatory processes dealing with strategic and mid-term planning or the budgets of cooperatives and non-profit organizations.

Regional differences in European PBs

These difficulties in defining PB’s features clearly reveal its ‘incremental’ and ‘adaptive’ nature, which till now granted the success of local experiences in very different places, often leading (as various studies have suggested) to more equitable public spending, higher quality of life, increased satisfaction of basic needs, greater government transparency and accountability, increased levels of public participation (especially by marginalized residents), and democratic and citizenship learning.

Now that the idea of popular participation in running local budgets has spread rapidly across Europe, with a fast mushrooming of new experiences every year that sum to the almost 1000 around the world , is it already possible to identify common features and trends in European PB that differentiate them from the Southern world ones?

Undoubtedly, anyone observing participatory budgets in Europe is confronted with a complex picture, with significant differences between political contexts and participatory models. Can one really speak of a single phenomenon, or do the various participatory budgets reflect different processes, despite the common name? Is this a process that can transform political and administrative practices, or are the effects in fact marginal? Can participative democracy lead to a re-legitimising of political systems and to improvements in the structures of local administrations? Can it bring a ‘re-democratisation of democracy’ and more social justice, as in Porto Alegre or in some other southern-american cases? Is this an alternative tendency to the neo-liberal mainstream or, on the contrary, does it only represent a compensatory dimension of an increasing neoliberal globalisation?

No common answers are possible to these ‘core’ questions. First of all because the European PBs are still young: the oldest among them are the ones of the ‘first German generation’ (1999-2000), and some Spanish cases (like Cordoba, in 2001), but the overall majority started between 2003 and 2004, so that is still not possible to ‘evaluate’ mid-term effects and structural impact on cities. But there is also a reason linked to the lack of evaluational studies. Universities seem to have discovered PBs only in the last year, and local authorities had a limited strength and preferred concentrating their energies in ‘experimenting’ than in funding researches that could monitor or analyse PB effects. Maybe there was also a ‘fear’ that paralysed politicians from committing themselves in cost-benefit analysis of their PB attempt: in fact, Latin American experiences show that costs are clear and visible (in terms of organisation, informational materials’ production, energy and time demanded to citizens and the public machine structure) while benefits can only be appreciated in a long term perspective. In fact, how can the effects of having more redistributive policies on the city, of educating citizens to a more active behaviour, centred in solidarity and civic engagement be ‘quantified’?

The case of Seville, the biggest European city that has adopted PB (700.000 inhabitants), is indicative. Seville has funded local universities to continuously monitor the experience, and that’s why they organised the most interesting children-PB aiming at educating new generations to a critical approach to urban politics. Since its beginning in 2004, Seville’s PB was based on an incremental and experimental approach, that – starting from the strong commitment of the Izquierda Unida party members in the Municipal Council - has ‘demonstrated’ positive effects on the city and on the citizenry. These positive effects have been so convincing that other sceptical coalition parties have agreed to gradually amplify the ‘pot’ of public funds devolved to citizens decisions, that now represents around 25% of the not-rigid expenses for investments. But such an approach (that we can call research_action) is still not common. In the majority of EU cities, in fact, PB is still conceived as a tool to revise small public expenses and neighbourhood priorities.

With this point of view, it is quite ‘natural’ that PBs discuss only small amounts of resources or marginal subjects, like street paving, neighbourhood gardens, traffic-light and similar issues, and that they doesn’t go any further. If citizens are treated as ‘subjects incapable of strategic thinking’, they usually continue to conceive themselves like narrow-minded actors, and they find ‘natural’ that the elected politicians keep the ‘structural core’ of budget in their hands, once they are the ones named for granting solidarity, equitable distribution of resources and mid/long term planning…

In some ways, in order to have more efficacious PBs, a radical shift is needed in the western world. It consists in rescuing the “faith in social intelligence”, believing that people can go beyond local egoism and self-centred need. The recent comparative research (the first and most serious in Europe) coordinated by the Marc Bloch Centre from Berlin, clearly points on that.

What next?

If a clear and common output could be taken from Latin American experiences is that: despite the different practical results of PBs, politicians had to admit that the scepticism and mistrust they have in citizens when they started the process, was completely wrong.

As Rebecca Abers wrote , a “negotiated solidarity” can be reached and induced, if PB is conceived primarily as a mean of endogenous education, rather than a mere tool for urban management or governance.

As the Marc Bloch study shows, something in Europe is slightly changing in that direction. For example, some Spanish cities have created “social criteria” to reward with higher scores the citizens-chosen priorities that benefit weakest social groups, others concentrate investments in ‘travel caravans’, bringing people around the city territory to discuss on-spot about priorities, so that they could acquire new perspectives and a concrete approach to city planning. Others, like Grottammare in Italy, have started to involve citizens also in decisions about public-private partnerships. Believing that ‘common goods’ and ‘public interests’ are not limited to public-funded investments, and that the risk of limiting PB discussion to the increasingly reducing ‘public pot’ of resources is to discuss nothing more than public-debt or very stiff-minimal investments in a few years time.

PB can only have a future if it moves beyond a ‘minimalist’ formal definition and is able to face mid-long term challenges.

In the end, PB is not a model or a simple tool for management. Its Latin American multifaced version shows that it is rather a ‘set of principles’ that could and has to be applied (with different and contextualised methods) to ambitious aims.

We need to revert the typical marxist-leninist or maoist condemnations of PB as a ‘bourgeois tool’. Yes, PB can endorse a ‘reformist’ approach (in the meaning of being gradual and incremental) but it needs to encompass a ‘revolutionary’ horizon in order not to ‘shrink’ to a simple bureaucratic and paternalistic new instrument of the ‘mainstream’.

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