Participatory budgeting in Howard County?

If you could vote on exactly how Howard County spends $10M (just over 1% of its operating budget), would you take advantage of the opportunity? What if you could vote on how the county spends $100M?

This thought was prompted by a blog post touching on “participatory budgeting“, a movement that started in Brazil and has since spread to other jurisdictions in Latin America and elsewhere. To quote from the PB home site, “Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget. Most examples involve city governments that have opened up decisions around municipal budgets, such as overall priorities and choice of new investments, to citizen assemblies.” See the blog post “How to Start Participatory Budgeting in Your City” for a good explanation of how it works in practice.

Some thoughts I had after reading these posts:

  • It’s no accident that this movement started in a developing country, and in particular in Brazil, one of the key rising nations in the world (along with China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, and perhaps a couple others). We worry in the U.S. that we have too much government. However the problem in most countries is not too much government, rather it’s corrupt and/or ineffective government. One of the selling points of PB is that it makes governments more responsive to citizens while at the same time increasing citizens’ sense of ownership in and trust of governments. It’s also no accident that this started as a local government initiative. Local governments touch citizens most directly, and also provide the most opportunities for citizens to make a real difference.
  • Note the discussion of PB as a driver of increased tax compliance: citizens see where their tax money is going and have some influence over how it’s spent, so they’re more willing to pay taxes in the first place. Even if you don’t like taxes as a matter of principle, this is an unmitigated good thing: Widespread tax evasion forces governments to raise nominal tax rates in order to fund a given amount of government services, and also induces them to impose harsh measures to force compliance. Higher rates discourage entrepreneurial activity and fall most severely on those who are honest, while encouraging the less honest to participate in a culture of corruption around tax evasion: bribing tax officers, hiding assets or moving them out of the country, selling on the black market, and so on.
  • Doing PB right requires making a major investment in encouraging citizen participation, including moving beyond the traditional “let’s have a hearing somewhere and announce it in the newspaper” approach, in which special interests and dedicated activists often dominate the agenda. Contrary to what many might think, local governments in developing countries may well be better positioned to do that than local governments in the U.S., since many developing countries are much more innovative than the U.S. in terms of exploiting mobile devices and applications, a key driver in reaching people where they are. But at the same time even low-tech measures can do the job: In Brazil they painted budget numbers on the walls of buildings to educate passers-by. (As a local analogy, think of Howard County putting budget visualizations and questions for citizens on the advertising signs in the Mall at Columbia.)

I’ll close with a final thought, prompted by this quote from one of the posts I referenced above:

“This all goes to show that innovations in open government go both ways, from developing to developed countries… The fact that people are not blogging about it in English does not mean that it does not exist. Sometimes people are just too busy making it happen.”

There’s a lot of talk about “American exceptionalism” that often obscures the fact that many Americans (and American politicians) are fairly clueless about what goes on in the rest of the world, and believe the U.S. must inevitably be “number 1″ in anything that matters. It’s not unpatriotic to point out that the reality is often quite different. If participatory budgeting ever comes to Howard County, the affluent home of “good government”, it will be because struggling jurisdictions in the “third world” showed the way.