One Simple Way to Revolutionize Policymaking in America


Let residents decide how their city allocates money. After all, everyday citizens know what a neighborhood needs better than City Hall bureaucrats. What could go wrong?

That’s the idea behind participatory budgeting, a policy common in South America and becoming popular with American political pundits. Details vary in each city, but it’s basically a three-step process: Several public meetings gather input from citizens, experts turn that input into detailed policy proposals, and then another public meeting is held to vote on the most popular proposals, which become law. Right now, participatory budgeting allocates a small percentage of a city’s budget, usually called discretionary money.

Participatory budgeting seems like something liberals and conservatives alike could learn to love, since it gives poorer Americans more control over city budgets while limiting the role of government workers. Unfortunately, the program is actually another gimmick thought up by politicians looking for headlines. Rather than ushering in a new era of public engagement, participatory budgeting just gives organized interests another avenue to lobby governments.

It’s no coincidence that most of the elected officials supporting participatory budgeting are city councilors. Even by the low standards of politics, city councilors are notorious publicity whores.

This isn’t their fault. Since most cities have given the mayor almost complete control over governance, city councilors have little purpose besides giving speeches nobody hears on topics nobody cares about. For these poor, unfortunate souls to win a more prestigious office, they need to find inventive ways to remind their constituents they exist.

Albert “Dapper” O’Neill was a Boston city councilor best known for always carrying a handgun and meeting constituents by attending five wakes every night. In the 1970s, he drove around Boston Common railing against “long haired hippies” from the back of a pickup truck. O’Neill was a buffoon, but for decades he won the most votes of any citywide councilor.

Participatory budgeting simply puts a veneer of respectability around a shameless publicity stunt. Public meetings allow little-known politicos to be seen by voters. Journalists will give favorable headlines to politicians pushing seemingly innovative ideas.

This would be harmless if the process actually made budgeting better. Instead, the likelihood of wasting money means that it will harm the communities it’s supposed to help.

Despite what supporters claim, participatory budgeting doesn’t mean that everyday citizens get to decide. In theory that could happen, since the money is allocated in meetings that are open to the public. Unfortunately, civic engagement isn’t like Field of Dreams — even if you build it, they won’t come. Long meetings are guaranteed to cause low voter engagement. That’s why caucuses, which take hours and force voters to sit through several speeches about each candidate, have a lower turnout than primary elections.

Participatory budgeting meetings follow the same rule. In Chicago’s 49th ward, less than a third of the people who voted in a local election voted on the budget.

Because turnout will be low, participatory budgeting meetings will be easily dominated by established interests. In a city, that will likely be organized labor or religious organizations operating out of local churches. These groups will show up and get to decide how the money gets spent. At best, these groups will have a skewed perception about what their community needs. At worst, they’ll steer the money towards projects that enrich themselves at the expense of their community.

Conservative columnist George Will is fond of reminding readers that “reforms become the disease they intend to cure.” Participatory budgeting will likely shift resources away from, rather than towards, the local communities it is supposed to help. City bureaucrats have plenty of faults, but replacing their role in appropriations with an easily manipulated plebiscite is a recipe for disaster.