What is the common strand that runs through a group of pre-teens, university college students and the urban poor in more than 100 South American cities? All these categories, as diverse as they are, have benefitted from the concept of ‘Participatory Budgeting’ (PB), an idea through which ordinary citizens get the power to decide how local governments must spend its money, especially in their neighbourhoods.
The idea’s success has meant that across continents, governments and institutes have tried to adopt the concept.
New York, for instance, has an interactive process through which citizens can review the proposals that have come up for deliberation online. In fact, the city council has created a map where all the proposals that will be voted upon are plotted in a user-friendly way.
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Behind the map, however, lies a multi-tiered process that goes on for a year. Of this, six months are reserved only for deliberations among citizens and finalising the ideas to be voted upon. An idea has to move through multiple levels — from the neighbourhood assembly to selecting delegates who will flesh the proposal out in greater detail, culminating in local citizens voting on the proposal. The process, however, does not end there. Citizens also monitor the implementation of the project continuously till its completion.
New York’s processes have largely been borrowed from Brazilian cities, where the concept of PB was first introduced. Since 1989, when the concept took off first in the South Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Local communities, elect representatives from each area. These representatives consult officials and experts to work out the feasibility of the locals’ demands. Once fine-tuned, these representatives then conduct voting with citizens and then, finally, take the plans ahead to local civic bodies. Brooklyn University conducts PB exercises with its students to try and understand their needs before spending the budget.
Similarly, Newcastle in the UK saw an interesting experiment in 2008 of participation in budget-making exercise when it asked children between the age of 8 and 13 to vote on the way money must be used to develop better facilities.
These children were given a say in discussing their priorities for infrastructure to be built for them — from gardens to play areas.
Srikanth Viswanathan, coordinator, Janaagraha, said such instances show sky is the limit for a concept like PB. “Neighbourhoods need PB much more because they require smaller interventions. Even if we can improve a park through the exercise, for the locality, that is a big achievement.”