This week, residents across New York City will be headed to the polls in various city council districts to vote in "participatory budgeting" -- a democratic process by which residents decide how a slice of their council members' discretionary budget should be spent.
Here's how it works: Last October, residents in each district proposed various projects. Since then, they've added research and run them by city agencies. This week, voters will finish choosing which of the proposals will move forward. (Think of it like a big grant competition.) Here's an example of one of the proposals -- renovations to a community garden in City Council District 8 (Manhattan/Bronx):
This New York "experiment" is part of a growing progressive movement aimed at "empowering" citizens to combat government corruption.
The concept of "participatory budgeting" started in Brazil in 1989 and has since reportedly spread to more than 1,500 participatory budgets around the world, most at the municipal level. It's a process so-called millennials are excited for and occupiers are cheering about.
There's something about this which confuses me, however. This is how the process is described on the PBNYC Facebook page:
In 2011, four New York City Council Members - Brad Lander, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Eric Ulrich, and Jumaane D. Williams - launched a PB process to let residents allocate part of their capital discretionary funds. In 2012, Council Members David Greenfield, Dan Halloran, Stephen Levin, and Mark Weprin are joining PBNYC, giving the community real decision-making power over at least $10 million in taxpayer money.
Discretionary funds are resources that the Council Members can allocate as they desire. Capital funds can only be used for physical infrastructure projects that benefit the public, cost at least $35,000 and have a lifespan of at least 5 years. Through PB, residents in each participating district will decide how to spend at least $1 million capital dollars.
I thought such a practice was called an "election," but apparently I was wrong. Instead of electing someone whose budget you support, voters are now "allocated" funds to control. And instead of having a popular election, such "participatory budgeting" exercises are special elections where only a fraction of voters participate. Metropolitan New York has more than 20 million residents, yet in their first participatory budget go around, just 8,000 people cast a vote.