Despite worries that the Occupy movement would not survive the winter, activists continue to highlight ordinary Americans’ frustration with the dysfunction of “the world’s largest democracy.” In January, “Occupy Congress” descended upon Capitol Hill, and in early March students across California organized to “Occupy the Capitol” in Sacramento. But Occupy has done more than just highlight the inadequacies of American-style representative democracy. It is giving direct, participatory forms of democracy, like the General Assembly model, a new lease on life. So far, Occupy’s participatory democratic decision-making has been confined to public spaces outside the halls of government power. The question for Occupy is, can the movement bring participatory democracy inside?
Participatory budgeting, a relatively novel form of participatory governance that is not dissimilar from the vaunted New England “Town Hall” meetings, represents one promising model. The best-known “modern” example of participatory budgeting, also known as PB, was initiated by the Workers’ Party in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in the late 1980s. Since that time, PB has spread to hundreds of cities and a number of state governments around the world. Although the specific details vary, PB (almost) always involves grassroots public assemblies that give ordinary citizens the chance to deliberate about and exert some degree of control over public spending.
On the ground, PB is demanding. It is no surprise that participatory democracy requires extensive participation by ordinary people. But the impact is impressive. In Porto Alegre, PB has led to civic empowerment, more transparency over government spending and a redistribution of public resources. In Chicago and New York, anecdotal evidence suggests similar benefits.
Before the raids that spelled the end of physical occupation, a number of Occupy groups began discussing the potential for PB to become part of the movement’s strategic repertoire. Excited by the advent of PB in four city council districts in New York City, Occupy Wall Street held a PB teach-in last October. Since then, Occupy groups up and down the East Coast from Boston to Greensboro have followed suit and are exploring ways to bring PB to their cities. The Participatory Budgeting Project, a New York based non-profit, has organized a conference on PB to be held at the end of March in New York, and Occupy activists from a number of cities, including Boston, Chicago, New York and Oakland, are expected to attend. Conference goers will have the opportunity to observe assemblies in the four city council districts where PB was introduced last fall. These assemblies will decide how to spend nearly $6 million (a bit over $1 million per district), surpassing the $1.3 million that was distributed in Chicago’s 49th ward by alderman Joe Moore, who became the first US politician to introduce PB in November 2009.
Not all Occupy activists have embraced PB. In October, a proposal to support PB was voted down at Occupy Oakland, in part due to a general resistance to engage formal political spaces. However, supporters of that proposal came together as a group called the Community Democracy Project (CDP) to continue to work to bring PB to Oakland. (We both joined CDP in November and have been active members of the group since that time.) Through a voter initiative, CDP’s goal is to revamp the Oakland City Charter to make way for the creation of neighborhood assemblies that would be given decision-making power over the city’s entire discretionary budget. Despite Occupy Oakland’s initial reluctance to support PB, CDP members (including the authors of this piece) have continued to engage the movement. At Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly this past Sunday, many activists appeared ready to embrace PB when approached by CDP. But not all were convinced. One woman commented that she was not interested in PB because, “I think the system needs a total overhaul."