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Local Government Participatory Budgeting

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carl Gabrini
December 19, 2017

Sometimes I am reminded there is always something new to learn. I found myself having to teach a senior level finance course this semester with only a weeks’ notice to prepare. Not being in my discipline and not sure what to do, I reached out to a group of accomplished professionals asking if they would volunteer to serve as guest speakers. We were fortunate to have our City’s Chief Financial Officer and our County’s Director of Finance agree to participate as part of the lineup of accomplished finance professionals to address our class. During their presentation, they commented on the low level of citizen participation in the budgeting process. Of course, this is consistent with research I read and my own experiences in government. However, after their presentation I revisited the literature on citizen participation and came across something I had not previously read about; participatory budgeting. I decided for my own edification to make this the topic of my quarterly column for PA Times. I hope others may find it interesting as well.

Difficulty cultivating citizen participation is nothing new. I do not believe lack of participation reflects a lack of interest by citizens. Instead, I believe it is a function of people’s lack of available time. Everyone’s priorities are different. Because of my interest in civics and my career in government and higher education, I choose to engage more. Besides voting regularly, I served as a volunteer firefighter and on a municipal audit committee. Many of my friends struggle to even find time to vote. What I have learned in talking with people is if one feels the effort produces little or no perceived effect, then why do it? That leaves public administrators in a tough position when trying to engage the public. During my first few years teaching, I was approached about serving as a moderator over budget workshops involving city leaders, management and citizens. The city manager explained to me that attendance was typically low, and interest in the budget varied depending on the programs involved.

Our finance guest speakers mentioned something very similar. They indicated general budgetary issues did not stimulate much interest from citizens. However, if the discussion revolved around spending for recreation programs or animal control efforts, higher levels of interest and discussion often ensued. So, I began to search for articles and news stories focusing on specific topics that generated citizen interest and participation in the municipal budgeting process. That lead to me finding an article on participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting is a process whereby the local government sets aside a specific amount of funding and defines a procedure allowing citizens to submit proposals for how that funding should be allocated and spent on different projects. Participatory budgeting is believed to have started in a Brazilian city during the late 1980’s. From there it is believed to have spread around the globe to thousands of local governments including some here in the United States.

Two cities I am currently examining include Clarkston, GA and Greensboro, NC. Both cities experimented with participatory budgeting. Clarkston appears to have discontinued its use after an attempt in 2014-2015, while Greensboro’s web site indicates it is entering its second cycle of participatory budgeting in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. There has been some research done on participatory budgeting, but not that much, which probably explains why it did not show up on my earlier literature searches. I do not recall coming across any relevant literature when I worked through my doctoral program back in the 2000’s or more recently when I prepared to teach courses on governmental budgeting and finance and accounting and reporting. One early article I found during my most recent search by Baiocchi and Lerner (2007) focused on whether participatory budgeting could work in the United States. They focused on a city in Canada which employed the practice and explained the advantages and disadvantages of it. Their conclusion indicated it would be challenging to employ in the U.S. because participatory budgeting is closely linked with social justice and equity issues. The political environment within the U.S. would present a very steep slope for anyone wishing to implement participatory budgeting in a U.S. city. In addition, they mentioned the diversity of municipal governance arrangements that exists across U.S. states as another challenge.

The stated goals of participatory budgeting include encouraging citizen engagement and promoting transparency in the budgeting process. How this occurs is through adoption of a process allowing citizens to participate in a systematic way, leading to actual results and feeding into the main municipal budgetary process. This way citizens learn about the budgeting process while at the same time expressing their own policy preferences and participating in a process leading to selection of actual projects that will be funded for implementation in the next fiscal year. I think the practice is worth examining more closely from an academic and a practitioner perspective because it could help identify solutions for the low level of citizen participation in the budgeting process used by U.S. local governments.

Author: Dr. Gabrini teaches accounting at Dalton State College. He earned a post-doctoral bridge certificate in accounting from the University of Florida, a Ph.D. in public administration from Florida State University, a master’s degree in taxation from the University of Central Florida, and holds a C.P.A. license from the State of Florida. Contact email address [email protected].

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