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Participatory budgeting: A laboratory for democratic learning

Participatory budgeting, democratic deliberation and decision-making by citizens (or residents, though usually of local neighbourhoods), is a fast-growing practice of participatory democracy that began in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil and is now being applied in hundreds, perhaps thousands of municipalities around the world (it can also be applied in organizations, such as  non-profits, or within schools as well as many other sites where budgeting can benefit from democratic participation). It usually involves hundreds to thousands of citizens who, through many meetings and a tremendous amount of voluntary work, debate and decide how to spend a portion of a municipal (or city ward/district) budget. When first developed in Porto Alegre, 20 per cent of the municipal capital budget was devoted to this process.

There are now hundreds of examples of participatory budgeting being successfully applied in municipalities and organizations around the world. Right here in Toronto, Canada (from where I write) there has been a PB process developed and applied within Toronto Community Housing. Here's a 2009 report on the process from TCH and here's a page that describes TCH's process.

The most recent success is that of the northern California port city of Vallejo which just concluded its voting (May 18) on $3 million to be spent city-wide. I learned of this the Vallejo PB process a few weeks ago at the second international conference on PB in Chicago. Very impressed with the representation from Vallejo, I was also deeply moved by the presence of a Vallejo youth delegation -- all teens -- and a model of youth involvement that deserves praise. The Vallejo process decided on 12 projects (with almost 4000 people voting) which you can read about here.

I also learned of over 50 municipalities in Germany that are applying PB and, closer to home, I was delightfully surprised to learn of a project in Hamilton, Ontario. The Catalyst Centre assembled a coalition in 2000 to push for PB in Toronto -- two years of work resulted in little when the David Miller government, for whom we had high hopes, failed to see the opportunity that PB presented.

Now, PB is hardly a panacea and it has many flaws and weaknesses though, on balance, the scholarship seems to point to overall positive results (greater citizen participation, increased equity, lessening of marginalization of poorer communities). But regardless of the success (or qualified success) of various processes, one thing that PB does not fail to do is to create new spaces for citizen learning about democracy, economics, politics and more. These are spaces for powerful learning to take place and this could well be the most important success that PB has had so far.

The conference I attended was put on by the New York-based Participatory Budgeting Project whose website has a tremendous amount of data on it (full disclosure: I'm on the advisory board).

So, will we see this grow in Canada? In Toronto? Here's hoping.

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