Is Participatory Budgeting Good for Democracy?

My Elementary School, P.S. 24 (Class of 2002 represent), wants two new laptop carts consisting of 72 brand new laptop computers. When I went there we had a computer lab consisting of two or three dozen pre-iMac Apples. In that lab Mavis Beacon taught me how to type, Zoombinis taught me how to do math, and The Oregon Trail taught me that life is so fickle there is a decent chance I’ll die of dysentery well before I reach Chimney Rock. While I genuinely loved that lab, I don’t recall those computers having the capabilities to reach the World Wide Web, and after talking to several of my friends working in STEM industries I understand that the World Wide Web is integral in modern technological education. But I’m not writing this to convince you that up-to-date technology is good for schools, I’m writing this because P.S. 24 is seeking the funding for these laptops through New York City’s Participatory Budgeting program.

New York’s Participatory Budgeting is a week long process (this year’s voting process is from April 11th through April 19th) where local residents can vote for the government to fund up to 5 projects in their City Council District that would improve parks, transportation, education or libraries. The funding comes from each participating City Council member’s capital discretionary funds.

[caption id="attachment_28722" align="alignnone" width="300"]My District 11 Sample Ballot My District 11 Sample Ballot[/caption]

In 2015, New Yorkers will be determining over $25 Million in local spending.  It’s a novel way to put decision-making power back in the hands of the taxpayers, essentially treating taxpayers like shareholders of the corporation that is our government.

This is the fourth year of New York City’s Participatory Budgeting, the first year it started only 4 City Council members participated but now exists in 24 of the city’s 51 districts. So obviously this program is very popular, but is it good? In my opinion it doesn’t add much value. This is money that already would be spent by the government, many of these projects are things that ought to be funded already, like basic bathroom improvements in public schools and not subject to a vote. But most importantly I fear that having the balloting occur outside of the traditional election day will lead to very low turnout. So instead of truly democratizing the budgeting process, Participatory Budgeting would concentrate more power in the hands of a politically active few while starving less active demographics of funds.

Honestly a massive problem I have with Participatory Budgeting is the name Participatory Budgeting. Could they have picked a more off-putting title for the process? The first dozen times I heard someone mention it my eyes glazed over and I stopped paying attention purely because of the moniker. “Participatory” sounds like it’ll include a lot of work and “Budgeting” sounds slightly more exciting than a new TLC show about watching paint dry. Was “Bureaucratic Accounting” not available? Personally, I’d have named it “Neighborhood Improvement All-Stars” because a ballot where you can vote for 5 different things reminds me of the NBA All-Star ballot. Regardless of how silly my suggestion is, at least it’s not boring, and I’m sure there are dozens of other exciting names that would capture the concept more than Participatory Budgeting.

As much as I want my elementary school to get several dozen new laptops, there also is another elementary school that needs to fully renovate it’s auditorium, but that school is in a far off corner of the district, a neighborhood that holds almost no local political sway. I can already guess which school has a shot to get their desired projects paid for and which school doesn’t. If budgeting occurred behind closed doors the funds might be more likely to be allocated by need, not popularity.