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Disillusioned With Congress? Participatory Budgeting Is for You

(Photo: Will Marlow / Flickr)

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Washinton DC.(Photo: Will Marlow / Flickr)Americans are getting fed up with government. It’s time to get them directly involved.

It has been nearly a month since the sequester went into effect, yet little is being done to reverse the deep cuts. It is a sad fact that our new normal is the inability to come to a compromise in Washington.

Washington has failed the American people over and over again, and yet at each manufactured crisis we cross our fingers and hope that things will be different the next time. With such intense gridlock, it’s no wonder that Americans have thrown up their hands. According to a 2011 CBS News poll, 80 percent of those surveyed believe that Congress is more interested in serving the needs of special interest groups than the constituents they purport to represent.

So why do Americans simply hope for the best? Why do we not stand up and demand a change? Perhaps it is because the idea of changing the culture of Washington is too daunting, too impossible. But Americans can start building a new system from the ground up that incorporates their voices into the political process.

New York City is entering its second year of a new democratic experiment called participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is exactly what it sounds like: the community is given a chunk of public money and gets to vote and decide how this money will be spent to better the community. The project began in four city council districts in 2011 and is expanding to four more in the upcoming cycle. The process engaged participants who had not previously participated in the political process, and many who were disillusioned with politics–two out of three participants felt that our political system needed a major overhaul, compared with one out of three in the general population. People of color also participated at higher rates than in general elections. The process is founded in the belief that community members know best how to help their community and their voices should be valued above all else in the political process.

The result? Over 7,000 citizens selected 27 projects, totaling $5.6 million. These projects included everything from playground improvements in neighborhood housing projects, vehicles for the local “Meals-on-Wheels” program, and new computers for the local public library. These were projects chosen by and developed by district residents. The number of participants and the amount spent might pale in comparison to New York City as a whole, a city of 8.2 million people with an operating budget of over $65 billion, but we still must value the process of citizen engagement and the lessons we can learn from it.

Participatory budgeting echoes the core values identified in the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network’s new blueprint, Government By and For Millennial America. To create the document, conversations were conducted with over 1,000 students across the country. From those conversations, the three chief values that Millennials identified as most important for government are transparency, equality, and fairness. All of these values are embodied in the participatory budgeting process and hopefully can serve as a model for how this country can continue to improve and engage its citizens.

It is naive to think that a such a small scale project will fundamentally change the way we approach democracy overnight. But projects like these sow the seeds of civic participation and greater engagement in the democratic process across the country. Thousands of projects like these can shift the way we approach democracy and maybe make our senators and representatives take notice. Civic engagement won’t completely solve the seemingingly impossible problem of congressional gridlock, but maybe it can be a much needed antidote. In order to improve the state of our democracy, we must invest in new mechanisms, like participatory budgeting, to engage citizens in the democratic process. It is only then that we can truly be a government by the people and for the people.

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