We live in a time when the question of how representative and democratic organizations are can no longer remain a peripheral consideration. With trust in public institutions at an all-time low, political leaders have discovered the need to make communication with constituents more open and deliberative. Similarly, transcending industrial education models that no longer fit our complex world, educators are finding that fully-involved, experiential forms of learning promote superior outcomes. And CEOs are being forced to consider all the ways that their organizations have potentially excluded diverse voices, building to a reckoning: Attention to who is heard and how forms the basis for forwarding the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Among these efforts, Participatory Budgeting (PB) has rightly begun to put decisions about taxpayer and other funding into citizens’ hands. Compared to traditional budgeting models, where only the elites decide how funds are spent, PB offers the promise of a process where everyone is valued and better, collectively-formed conclusions about budget allocations can be made. Including PB as a regular feature of school programming promotes opportunities for service, growth, and student interest in the public good — at ages when it is most likely to begin making a difference.
Challenges to Participatory Budgeting
Yet, as much as there is to celebrate about PB, it’s critical to make sure it is carried out well. Like any endeavor where money is involved, opportunities for gaming the system abound. Decades of corporate scandals and government misappropriations more than prove the point. According to the World Economic Forum, corruption has flourished in the context of a global pandemic. In educational settings, introducing all the ways that financial matters and budgeting decisions can go awry can actually be an important lesson in itself.
Of relevance, my colleague Daniel Williams and I just published a new book following a year-long research study that we conducted on NYC’s PB process, entitled, Real Money, Real Power? The Challenges with Participatory Budgeting in New York City. On the bright side, NYC has made major investments in creating the largest PB rollout of any city in the world. On the other hand, through a variety of methods we used to replicate citizens’ experiences with the project, on-the-ground and mediated, we found PB in NYC lacks transparency (especially with project costs). It is often subject to manipulation by powerful actors and city agencies, particularly through favoring insider-proposed projects and processes carried out in many different ways across council members’ districts. NYC has made an important assurance to its citizens: that “real money” and “real power” will be within their reach. But if, as we found, parts of the process bar citizen input or convey confusing messaging, trust can easily be lost and PB can get folded into the practices it was designed to offset.
Participatory Budgeting Solutions in Schools
What are the implications for running PB in places like schools? One place to start is to make the potential challenges with any PB project part of an explanation of the practice. In the spirit of PB, first, open up a discussion among students and stakeholders about ways that the process might be gamed, both in explicit and less obvious ways. Second, to assist that discussion, talk about who and how people might be excluded, and how any numbers (such as project cost estimation practices) could be made the most transparent. Itemized cost estimates (much like a bid), or planning for audits to hold expenditures and estimates accountable, could be built into the process from the start.
Last, standardizing and centralizing PB processes (i.e., administering the program in the same way, with the same expectations across schools) will prevent PB from turning into a hodgepodge of confusing events, or worse, being defined by whichever local champion is administering the process. Outcomes follow from structure, and even slight changes in proven ways of carrying out PB well can predetermine the results to favor a particular individual or group.
None of this is meant to downplay the importance of PB. It offers ways to put into practice what too often can be lofty formulations about representation and democracy-building. It promises not only a means of achieving good budgeting decisions, but also a model of seeing the world and acting politically with the interests of others in mind. For these reasons, it’s critical to try to carry out PB with a realistic sense of its potential problems, all in the service of offering people the best opportunity to make their voices count.