This primer was written by the Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) team in advance of their Forum @ Civic Hall, “Democracy Beyond Elections: A New Deal for Democracy.” Also check out the video discussion of their new report with PBP’s Jennifer Godzeno and research consultant Alexa Kasdan here.
Our democracy is in crisis.
Our system of governance is failing the people it’s supposed to represent by privileging the interests of the elite over the majority. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, 80% of Americans don’t trust the government, and just 19% say that government is run for the benefit of all.
And yet, most responses to this systemic crisis—efforts to boost voter turnout and elect new people—are confined within our dysfunctional political process. Most of how we experience our democracy is indirect participation: we vote for representatives or donate money to a campaign. Indirect participation can be alienating—decisions are made about you, perhaps for you, but not with you.
We need to expand public power over government decisions, increase civic engagement, bring new voices into government, and generate more equitable decisions.
Governance is better—more equitable and efficient—when the people closest to the problem work to develop the solutions. Research shows that meaningful participation increases understanding and trust in government, inspires transformative learning and civic leadership, and directs resources to communities with greater needs.
These ideas are the foundation of Democracy Beyond Elections, a collaborative campaign to win structural democracy reforms that deepen participatory democracy and civic engagement, beyond and between elections. Participatory Budgeting Project is convening dozens of organizations for initial campaign planning meetings in June, in collaboration with the Center for Popular Democracy, People’s Action, Everyday Democracy, Generation Citizen, and Civic Hall. It’s supported with funding from the Ford Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Bright spots in Participatory Democracy: Ireland, Scotland, Madrid, and NYC
A growing movement of political leaders and reformers around the world are already turning to participatory democracy to make government more responsive and equitable. Participatory Budgeting Project (PBP) developed case studies of participatory democracy that have been successful at a large scale, plus best practices for implementing them. These case studies will provide a framework for the forum at Civic Hall on June 24th, where the audience will hear directly from leaders of and participants in these exciting initiatives.
- Watch PBP’s Jennifer Godzeno and research consultant Alexa Kasdan discuss report findings here.
In 2016, the Irish government instituted a deliberative “Citizen’s Assembly,” made up of 99 randomly selected citizens. Participants attended ten weekend-long sessions to learn from experts, deliberate, and make recommendations on a set of issues selected by the Irish Parliament. The Assembly’s recommendation on abortion led to a referendum with historically high turn-out. (You can read a full report of the Assembly’s recommendations here.) Through the referendum, the Irish people voted to legalize abortion, an issue that has divided Ireland and been caught in political gridlock for decades.
Forum panelist Louise Caldwell was a participant in Ireland’s Citizen’s Assembly. Read her account in The Guardian of the power of participation, a process that led her to observe: “I think most people want to find things to agree on and to discover common ground—through this we can always learn new ways to go forward.”
In 2016, the Scottish Parliament passed the Community Empowerment Act as a part of a decade-long strategy to improve governance and strengthen local democracy. This 11-part national legislation aims to give communities more say in the decisions that affect them. Participatory Budgeting—a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget—has also been at the heart of Scotland’s community empowerment agenda. In 2017, local and national governments agreed to allocate 1% of each local budget for Participatory Budgeting.
Forum panelist Fiona Garven is the Director of the Scottish Community Development Center (SCDC), Scotland’s lead civil society organization working on community development. The SCDC played a critical role in advocating for and shaping the Community Empowerment Act.
Decide Madrid is a comprehensive civic participation program and online platform created in 2015 and implemented by Madrid’s Mayor and City Council. Several major infrastructure projects have been designed using Decide Madrid—and two proposals initiated by citizens have been voted on and transformed into public policy. (Check out Bernardo Gutiérrez’s article in Open Democracy for more information on the platform.) Madrid has also allocated 100 million Euros per year through Participatory Budgeting, including 70 million for local projects and 30 million for citywide projects.
Forum panelist Miguel Arana Catania is Madrid’s Director of Citizen Participation, one of the engines behind Decide Madrid. Hear from Miguel on how increasing meaningful civic participation has helped residents “no longer feel like they are just guests in the city that somebody else designed” (see this SmartCitiesWorld profile).
New York City
Participatory Budgeting has been happening in NYC since 2011, when four City Council members agreed to share decision-making power over their budgets with residents. In 2019, over half of NYC’s City Council Members ran Participatory Budgeting in their district—and the success of the program has helped build momentum for other reforms. In 2018, NYC voters passed an amendment to the City Charter that created a Civic Engagement Commission, which is charged with supporting all New Yorkers to meaningfully participate in civic life. The Commission is also charged with setting up a citywide Participatory Budgeting process by 2020.
Forum panelist Dr. Sarah Sayeed is the Chair and Executive Director of New York City’s brand-new Civic Engagement Commission, through which she believes New York can “lead by example and become a national model of civic revival.”