New Yorkers Shrug at the Chance to Spend a Million Dollars

A participatory budgeting system in which neighborhood residents vote on projects is getting a trial run in America's largest city.

Ever feel like you have no say in what your local government does? Do you wish your city council would sometimes open up decision-making to the community? Sebastien Malo of Reuters reported this week on a unique opportunity that's arisen for New York citizens interested in local budgeting:

"Thousands of New Yorkers found an enticing pitch in their inboxes this month: 'Decide How to Spend $1 Million.'

The email was an invitation to voters to get involved in the latest example of 'participatory budgeting,' an exercise in grass-roots democracy that seems to be catching on in some big American cities.

In New York City, some members of the city council have invited constituents in their districts to vote this month on which local projects they want to be funded with a total of more than $25 million in public money."

Voting stations will be set up from April 11 to 19 so local residents can vote on which projects they'd like funded for their neighborhoods. A participatory budgeting system such as this allows local politicians to gauge the interests and values of their constituents. As Malo writes, participatory budgeting was pioneered by Brazilian leaders in the late 1980s. It's since been adopted by 1,500 cities across five continents. 

It's a great idea on the surface. Local governments should strive for their democratic processes to be as direct as possible. That said, turnout has been predictably low — these are American voters we're talking about after all — and the goals of the initiative can hardly be deemed fulfilled if hardly any votes are cast. The participatory system may need time to grow. It could be the sort of thing that thrives in some cities and not others. But then again, Americans are the sort of inertia-loving people who prefer to complain about where their tax dollars go than actually do something about it.

Read more at CSM.

Below, former Prime Minister of Greece George Papandreou discusses participatory citizenship, democracy, and experiments in Wikilaw:

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