Many cities around the world practice some form of participatory budgeting, but even among those that do, Cascais [Portugal] is an outlier. It spends prodigiously through the system: in Paris, five per cent of the city’s annual investment budget has been allocated to participatory projects in recent years, but in Cascais, more than fifteen per cent of the budget flows through the program, and the percentage can float higher if voter turnout rises. Cascais is surprising in another way: its mayor, Carlos Carreiras, is both a champion of participatory budgeting and a member of a center-right political party. Participatory budgeting is often considered a tool of the left, but its role in Cascais suggests that it could have a broader appeal; part of the theory behind it is that citizens can be better than officials at knowing how money should be spent.
Of course, it won’t solve all of our problems:
Even in the best of circumstances, participatory budgeting faces some structural limitations. Citizens can’t use it to raise the minimum wage, for instance, or to reconfigure affordable-housing policy, or to ban single-use plastics. As it stands, the approach “will never change the destiny of a poor neighborhood,” Giovanni Allegretti, a senior researcher at the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra, told me. Allegretti noted that participatory budgeting is mainly a competitive process involving limited resources with no long-term strategy; it doesn’t eliminate the need for other policy interventions. But when it functions effectively, participatory budgeting can give direct political power to those who might otherwise have very little of it.
There is something very compelling about empowering people to come up with new ideas, compete with others for the best ones, and then participate in public decisions. It also strikes me as a possibly efficient way to force: “We only have this much money to spend. What should we spend it on? Spending on this means not spending on that. Time to make a decision.”
And now it has me wondering: If we asked Toronto whether it wanted to spend over $1 billion to rebuild the Gardiner Expressway east or spend it on other things, what do you think it would say?
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