I Followed the Money and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt (pt. 4)

From Brazil to Boroughs

New York City likes to proclaim itself the “crossroads of the world.”  The center of global economic and cultural development.  If New York City is going to stand on such a platform, how can we get something so obvious so wrong?  How can 51 people decide how to spend the people’s money, and how can 1 person decide how much those 51 people are allowed to spend?  Trusting the City Council to allocate 66 billion dollars of the city’s budget is tough enough of a job.  But the money intended to funnel directly to the citizens being hidden behind process and inaccessible seems downright Stalinesque.  Let, not just let, but give the people insight, give the people a voice, give the people power, and trust will surely foster.  Some parts of the world outside of the crossroad understand this.  The first to understand and implement these concepts into tangible action is Brazil.

After years of militaristic and oppressive rule, Brazil finally achieved independence and established democracy in 1988.  Their newly founded constitution brought in several dramatic democratic ideals, including a strong focus on citizen participation.  “Article 26 requires participation of civil society organizations in the elaboration of public policy and articles 204 and 207 require popular participation in the formulation and control of health and social security.”  Their goals in requiring participation of its people in their government were focused around four principles:  “1) direct citizen participation in the decision making process 2) transparency to prevent corruption 3) improvement of infrastructure and services focusing on the poor and 4) eradicating clientelistic practices and transforming residents into empowered citizens capable of pursuing their rights.”  The results have been astonishing.  Beginning in Porto Alegre, just under 1000 people participated in 1989.  In 1992 that number jumped to 26,000, and the principles began to spread throughout the country.  In Rio Grande, between 1999 and 2002 participation rose from 188,000 to 333,000.

The process is rooted in a grassroots style, empowering the citizens to educate one another, to debate with one another, to identify and resolve issues amongst one another.  It is not to say that government has been removed from the process either.  A report put out by the Inter-American Development Bank commented that “participants in the [participatory budgeting process] include the leadership that shapes popular opinion, drives the social agenda and mobilizes communities.  Hence the important practical dimensions of the [PB] as a partnership building process rather than an expedient electoral strategy.” A process used to bridge government to its people, creating an open culture of education, participation, and trust.  The process found such success that it has spread all throughout Brazil, through numerous Latin American countries, skipped over the southern chunk of America, made its way through the Lincoln tunnel and spread uptown, over the Queensborough Bridge, and down the Brooklyn bridge.

Last year, four progressive Councilmembers – Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, Jumaane Williams, and Brad Lander – launched what they called an experiment dubbed “Participatory Budgeting.”  Each Councilmember set aside one million dollars of their discretionary funding for projects to be proposed by, debated by, and instituted by their constituents.  The project tapped into the nostalgia of true democracy.  People gathered in libraries, school gyms, community centers, carrying their tri-fold poster boards of ideas, pitched their ideas, voiced their concerns to one another, and did so periodically over the course of several months.  The project culminated in a vote by the constituents, open to all who wanted to participate, voting for the top ideas to receive funding.  The results were tallied on site and written in on a giant neon posterboard.  While the numbers might not seem astronomical, some districts seeing around 100 participants, the concept has begun to seep into other communities, spreading from the ground up, and already has been promised in numerous other districts come the next fiscal year.  The ‘experiment’ is moving further away from a concept and more to a ‘process.’

It is difficult to measure the results of a non-tangible concept.  Can we measure trust in government?  Can we quantify the honesty of politicians?  Measuring the success of the participatory budgeting project in New York City may seem impossible, but the fact that it happened and the groundwork laid for expansion is success enough.  New York City doesn’t need to institute total reform as Brazil has.  Let the Council do its mandated duty of balancing the City budget.  But if we’re going to have a portion of the budget set aside for local programs, increased public participation will only strengthen the bonds between constituents and their representatives.  Increased participation will keep potential thieves on their toes.  If Larry Seabrook had to pitch his shell company ideas in front of his constituents and asked them to fund the pockets of his family and friends’ bank accounts, I would imagine those not in his immediate family would have dealt with him long before the US Attorney General would have to.  Full disclosure, clear transparency, open dialogue, active engagement.  None of these popular buzz phrases spawn from secrecy and corruption.

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