US PB Network and US Social Forum sessions

As a result of two sessions on participatory budgeting at the US Social Forum, a new United States PB Network is forming. To be involved in the discussions, please join the network’s listserv at http://groups.google.com/group/participatory-budgeting-us or by emailing  participatory-budgeting-us-subscribe@googlegroups.com

See below for a reportback on the workshops at the US Social Forum. Stay tuned for more news and updates on the US network.

Participatory Budgeting at the US Social Forum
Atlanta, Georgia
June 27-July 1, 2007

Interest in Participatory Budgeting has been growing here in the United States, as communities and organizations face budget shortfalls and wake up to the fact that the politicians they elect are not spending tax dollars according to community priorities.  The US Social Forum in Atlanta in June was an ideal place to educate about Participatory Budgeting (PB), identify people in organizations and community groups across the country interested in working on PB, and discuss what is needed to support the work of those groups. Among the 900 workshops and sessions over the course of the week, two focused exclusively on PB.   

The first session, "Participatory Budgeting: Community Control over Public Money", took place in the early afternoon, during the same time slot as 200 other workshops.  Despite this competition, the session drew over 70 people.  The participants started with a round of introductions, and got the sense of the incredibly wide variety of experience with PB, ranging from former residents of Porto Alegre, Brazil (PB’s shining example) to those who had heard of PB to people who had just read the session description and been intrigued by the idea of community control over resources.

The session started with a half-hour panel, aimed at presenting basic information on PB and highlighting some examples.  Mike Menser, a CUNY (City University of New York) professor and PB organizer, presented the history of PB and its nuts and bolts.  Maureen Turnbull, recently finished with graduate work about PB in Brazil, talked about the experience and empowerment of women in PB.  Jennifer Flynn, director of the NYC AIDS Housing Network, talked about how her organization interacts with the city around budget issues and tries to integrate aspects of PB.  Karen Dolan, from the Institute for Policy Studies’ Cities for Progress network spoke about how this network coordinates with elected officials to pass progressive local legislation.  Joe Moore, a city council member from Chicago, Illinois, and member of Cities for Progress, talked about his impressions of PB from his perspective as an elected official, and offered some tips on practicalities and obstacles that would have to be overcome in order to implement PB. 

The conversation then opened up to the larger group, and what followed was a lively discussion following several threads.  Several people expressed enthusiasm for PB in concept, but also doubt that such a system could ever work in the US, primarily because of low and unrepresentative public participation.  Participants stressed that people need to see results from a PB system in order to continue participation (and to build participation).  The group discussed the needs and methods for keeping participation and outreach diverse. Flynn warned that PB could potentially discriminate against small and vulnerable groups of people (e.g. AIDS survivors), unless inclusive measures were taken.  This prompted discussion about what, if anything, is fundamentally different between Brazil and the US, what cultural differences might have to be taken into account, and how elements of PB might have to be adjusted to be more effective in the US. 

The group also discussed how PB might look in the US.  Although PB has usually been limited to capital rather than operating budgets, participants discussed other areas that might be fertile for experimentation. The session wrapped up with talk about how most PB programs depend on elected officials voluntarily giving up some budgetary power, and strategies for convincing officials to do so.  A speaker concluded that PB in Brazil did not succeed overnight, and that no one model will work for every community.

The next day was the second session, "Participatory Budgeting: Making It Work in the US". Menser, Flynn, Dolan and Moore gave short presentations, and the group (around 50 participants) quickly got into a detailed discussion of how to move PB in the US forward. 

The first part of the discussion focused on organizing strategies and how an individual or organization would actually get PB started.  The group concurred that in order for a PB project to succeed, just like any organizing, the group of initial organizers has to include the wider community stakeholders and those whose buy-in will eventually be needed.  Organizers need to do their homework and figure out how and where PB would best fit into the budgetary process and address community needs.  One person suggested that putting together a local social forum would be an excellent place to begin such a community discussion.  There was general debate about whether PB would most likely be successful starting with a smaller or medium scale project.  The group did agree, however, that as part of any PB project, public civic education about the budgetary process, interaction with government, and basic organizing is essential.  There was also agreement that public participation cannot be limited to attendance at hearings, that it must be much deeper and more authentically participatory. 

The group moved on to discuss what infrastructure they would need to do PB organizing.  They came up with the idea of a national network assisted by national organizations, providing administrative support, public relations help (for example, coordination of op-eds), education of elected officials about PB, spreading success stories, and providing information and education to organizers about PB.  At the conclusion, participants reminded the group that while PB is the project, the discussion is ultimately about using PB as a vehicle for building community power and deepening democratic participation.

Organizers of the sessions were Josh Lerner (Planners Network), Mike Menser (CUNY), Karen Dolan (Cities for Progress) and Juscha Robinson (Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution). 

Written by Juscha Robinson.  Please submit additions and corrections to Robinson@LibertyTreeFDR.org