Thursday, July 18, 2024

Participatory budgeting is the city’s program that lets community members decide directly how to allocate a portion of a public budget. Each participatory budgeting cycle increases the amount of city funds to be disbursed; the current cycle allocates $2 million; $7.5 million has been allocated to date.

Each time I’ve received the city’s participatory budgeting mailer, I’m struck that some are essential projects that unquestionably should be undertaken, some are feel-good projects and a few are superfluous. Some are ridiculously overpriced (a tree-garden coordinator at $410,000, or 250 rat traps at $1,440 each). Others are safety issues the city should implement without question, such as last cycle’s installation of high-visibility poles for fire hydrants. Upon reflection, I realize that participatory budgeting is a poor substitute for careful policy decisions.

Participatory budgeting programs have gained traction in cities around the world. Proponents argue that they enhance democratic engagement, empower marginalized communities and foster transparency in government spending. A closer examination reveals significant flaws in this approach, particularly in its implementation and impact on equitable distribution of resources.

Participatory budgeting essentially transforms budget allocation into an Internet popularity contest in which projects with the most votes get funding. While this may seem superficially democratic, it inherently favors segments of the population that are more Internet-responsive and enabled. In instances where access to digital technology and Internet proficiency are distributed unevenly, participatory budgeting can amplify existing disparities, diminishing the effect of marginalized groups in the decision-making process. This creates a skewed representation of community needs and preferences, undermining the principle of equal representation in democratic governance.

Moreover, the prioritization of projects based on online popularity overlooks the expertise and nuanced understanding that elected leaders bring to budgetary decisions. Unlike the general public, elected officials have the responsibility and experience to assess the broader implications of budget allocations, considering factors such as public safety, long-term sustainability, alignment with strategic priorities and impact on vulnerable populations. By relinquishing this responsibility to a popularity contest, participatory budgeting risks prioritizing short-term, attractive projects over those that address underlying systemic issues and serve the greater good.

Projects that enhance public safety, bring the city into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act or provide essential services should not be subject to a popularity contest.

Further undermining the supposedly democratic nature of participatory budgeting, city agencies have been using municipal email and resources to lobby the public on behalf of certain proposals. This widen the digital divide and has the appearance of violating state conflict-of-interest laws. This unequal access to mailing lists and citizen attention highlights the problems with a popularity contest to determine budgets.

Participatory budgeting fails to account for the complexity of the municipal process and the trade-offs involved in resource allocation. We elect leaders to balance competing demands and make difficult decisions that prioritize the common good over individual preferences. When more than $2 million dollars is taken out of the budget and redirected to participatory budgeting instead of being allocated through a more thoughtful and deliberative process, democracy is actually undermined.

The City Council should instead pursue public input aggressively and engage citizens for our municipal budget. Participatory budgeting is just one way to build knowledge and participation. Perhaps an allocation of $100,000 per year would be more than adequate to generate ideas that citizens could consider, many of which should be integrated into the general budget because they are essential to public health and deal with climate change. It is the responsibility of our elected leaders to intelligently review and determine which projects and improvements would benefit those in greater need, rather than outsourcing this crucial task of spending $2 million to a popularity contest than can be swayed by those with more resources.

Phillip Sego lives on Norfolk Street.